As graffiti began the shift from the single-hit era to more colorful abstractions that would later become known as the “masterpiece era,” New York City — and in particular Brooklyn — was a hotbed for gang activity.
Two of the most prominent gangs, the Jolly Stompers and the Tomahawks, regularly appeared in newsprint under sensational headlines like “4 Shot in a Rampage by Youth Gang.”
At the same time, dedicated graffiti crews like the LAST SURVIVORS, in Fort Greene, and the VANGUARDS — who were formed inside the Albany Projects of East Brooklyn — were also coming together. Since these crews existed in the same violent ecosystem as the gangs, they would often opt for fists over the spritz of a spray can. Thus, the first “graffiti only” crew didn’t exist in the United States in 1970.
“Basically, they were into fighting, and dealing with their territory,” WICKED GARY explained in Getting Up: Subway Graffiti in New York. “They were big on territory.”
In 1971, inside Eramus High School in Flatbush, a Gothic-style school reminiscent of the prestigious institutions at Oxford and Cambridge, students not only legitimized graffiti as a genuine artistic expression but also helped create an organizational structure that would lay the groundwork for future Hip-Hop organizations like the Zulu Nation.
EX-VANDALS / PHOTO: FLINT
The EX-VANDALS was the brainchild of two writers. The first, DINO NOD, was an imposing figure with a huge Afro and rippling biceps he got from football and playing the drums. Those who knew him best described him as a Jimi Hendrix-esque figure who had a love for psychedelia. The second, WICKED GARY, first wrote SUPER SOUL, before earning a new nickname after a chance encounter with his neighbor after she got out of the shower.
“I got all the world’s view that I could see at the time,” WICKED GARY stated in Wall Writers: Graffiti in Its Innocence. “For someone my age, that was the bomb! And in her moment of being caught, she was like, ‘You wicked boy!’”
DINO NOD was a year older than WICKED GARY. The latter was particularly drawn to DINO’s ability to get up in hard-to-reach places that seemed to require supernatural abilities — like the Brooklyn Bridge. Thus, when DINO NOD invited WICKED GARY to his home on a Friday to discuss something, there was no way he was going to miss out on what would be a simple yet grandiose plan.
“All of us were pretty well known in our neighborhoods for writing our names,” WICKED GARY explained in The History of American Graffiti. “But DINO NOD come up with the idea that while that was great that we all had our individual popularity, can you imagine how much greater it would be if we all wrote the same thing, and how much further around it would be?”
They decided that members of the yet-to-be-formed collective had to first publicize the whole before they wrote their own names. With this principle established, they began the process of finding the best New York City writers who were willing to put their personal agendas aside. Soon after, new members like FLIN, KING OF KOOLS, BIG TIME GLASS TOP, WICKED WESLEY, and CONRAD IS BAD joined the still-nameless crew.
EX-VANDALS / PHOTO: FLINT
“For a couple of hours, we tossed out names,” WICKED GARY stated in Wall Writers. “Someone came up with VANDALS, because that’s what we do. But it wasn’t enough, and that’s where the EX- came in, short for EXPERIENCED.”
By Monday morning, the EX-VANDALS’ tags were all over Brooklyn. By the end of the month, the crew formally came out of the shadows and proudly boasted their affiliation by painting EX-VANDALS on their dungaree jackets.
There was a sophistication to the crew’s structure. They held weekly meetings to discuss strategies and techniques at their de facto headquarters, Burger Master, near Prospect Park. Membership was limited to only the best of the best and could only be achieved through an invitation. After the first month, 20 writers between the ages of 14 and 17 were deemed worthy — peppering the city through the volume of their actions, while also adhering to DINO NOD’s doctrine to get up in hard-to-reach places.
“The EX-VANDALS went about graffiti unlike anything that had ever been done before,” recalled member LAZAR. “They changed the game.”
Prior to his connection to the birth of Hip-Hop, Kool Herc — like so many at the time — was also a graffiti writer. He partied with writers who would join the EX-VANDALS, like STAY HIGH 149 and PHASE 2, at Bronx discos like the Tunnel and the Puzzle, and regularly bombed with UNCLE RICH, and his friend Jerome Wallace, aka YOGI. “They used to call me ‘Clyde,’” Herc said in an interview with The Combat Jack Show. “My name is not ‘Clyde,’ it’s ‘Clive.’ And they couldn’t pronounce it. So who was big on the basketball court at the time: Clyde Walt Frazier. So I said, ‘My name is Clyde.’ So I started to write ‘CLYDE AS KOOL.’ After I dropped the ‘Clyde’ I started to write ‘KOOL.’”
Herc’s tag was visible throughout the Bronx —a notorious smoking cartoon character wearing an applejack hat. He was also supposedly one of the few writers of the era who was unafraid to write graffiti while aboard a crowded train. According to journalist Craig Castleman, he would politely ask passengers to lean forward and then remind them not to lean back until the paint was dry.
BAMA, another early New York City writer who counted both DINO NOD and WICKED GARY as close friends, recalled some of his earliest interactions with Herc, in 1970.
“As writers, we used to tag, and we would tag up the Third Avenue El,” BAMA said. That’s how I met him on the Third Avenue El. That doesn’t even exist anymore, but that’s how we met.” As BAMA recalled, the section of transport officially referred to by officials as the IRT Third Avenue Line was a particularly dangerous section of railway.
“That was an old beat-up train line that went from 149th Street to Gun Hill Road on the West Side, but it was dangerous,” BAMA said. “You walked those tracks — the wood was so old you could fall. I fell through the wood on the Third Avenue. Luckily, I landed on top of a truck, so I didn’t die or anything like that.
But it was nasty. Everything was falling apart.”
In addition to certain doctrines defined by DINO NOD as it related to putting crew before individual fame, the EX-VANDALS established their own methods for racking (stealing) paint that wouldn’t come at the detriment of mom-and-pop shops. Rather, they focused on “big box” stores like Woolworth’s and Martin’s Paints — who gladly put the cans of spray paint at the front of their stores — by using their clothing to hide the larceny. “I sewed pockets inside my Army jacket so I could steal paint,” BAMA said. “I had tight pockets so that I’m not jiggling, because the jiggle could give you away. I would shove like four on this side, four on this side and walk out. I wasn’t greedy. Eight cans and I’m good.”
The EX-VANDALS were also very progressive when it came to the inclusion of women. Denise was DARING DANNY, Robin was BAD BOBBY, Lynn was LONG LIGHTNIN’ LARRY, and Michelle was MIGHTY MIKE. “I myself used to go spraying with a girl names DIMPLES — she was my partner,” WICKED GARY recalled. “We’d carry a couple cans of paint and markers. And we’d ride the trains as a couple. If cops came in the back or anything, we’d be in the back like man and woman, with paint behind us in the corner, like, ‘Ain’t nothing happening with us ’cept what you see.’”
By 1972, the EX-VANDALS’ sophistication was unchallenged. They decided it was time to execute a grandiose plan that communicated their all-city mentality. On the opening day of Coney Island on Easter Sunday, they descended on the New York institution. Wearing their colors, dungaree jackets, and hand-painted jeans, they freely painted, tagged, and repped their crew despite the presence of a real gang, the Black Spades. It not only validated that the EX-VANDALS were unafraid to travel outside of Brooklyn, but that they had the real respect of actual criminal organizations.
“It was really something to be an EX-VANDAL,” WICKED GARY said. “It was like being a part of the royal court.” As a result, gangs of the era began adopting the tagging/graffiti principles that the EX-VANDALS created. The Hellcats in Bed-Stuy and the Tomahawks in Brownsville enhanced their reputations by adding mark-making to their violent acts.
WICKED GARY, who would become the second president of the group after DINO NOD, pushed the collective to new heights — both in terms of organizational power and reach — by arranging the city into grids, having meetings, examining subway maps, and painting in pairs. “That was the EX-VANDALS at its peak,” said WICKED GARY.
* BANNER PHOTO: HERC TAG NEW YORK CITY SUBWAY / PHOTO: