The writing on the wall was meticulous, and the pigments vibrant. Atop a firebrick red layer sat crimson blues and metallic golds. I heard the colors before they made their marks, being shaken and stirred in the aerosols. The artists identified their palettes only by the excess paint that leaked down the sides of their cans. Their shirts were an accidental tie dye, and their hands held remnants of a painting. Fresh fumes filled the air on an urban rooftop in Washington Heights, New York City.
It was strange for me, up here on the roof with my dad. He basked in his youth for a moment, as he and his old friends gathered once again to relive graffiti’s heydays; To make their new marks on old buildings. I had never visited this part of the city. He put down his spray can and pointed to show me where he and his friends would tag up before running from the cops.
“We tagged everywhere. We bombed all the trains. The city was our canvas, and the cans our paintbrushes. We painted it red, literally and figuratively I guess.”
My father’s tag was “SJK 171.” This moniker represents his initials as well as the number of the street he grew up on in Washington Heights. It symbolized his roots, and let the community know that he was a part of it. The official description of his trademark from the United States Patent and Trademark Office reads, “The mark consists of the wording in a unique font with the letter “K” extending down into a hook shape. Underneath is the number “171” connected with an underline drawn through the bottom of the numbers.”
In grade school, he would do my art homework. He drew cover pages for my book reports, and the kids in my class evied me. They used generic clip art, while I had my own personal artist. For my birthday, he refused to buy Hallmark cards. But it was cool, because his designs were so much better. For awhile, I thought it was just a hobby. That is, until he started buying canvases again. And eventually, a documentarian was interviewing him in our living room. It was in that moment that I realized my father, Steve Kesoglides, was an originator, and a part of the artistic revolution known as graffiti. It was a movement that would eventually inspire artists around the world to shape and evolve this novelty into a global phenomenon.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, graffiti exploded in youth culture and became an art in its purest form. It was a medium for teens to have a voice against the establishment, a way to spend time and preach to their communities. Against a historic backdrop of the Vietnam War, these artists demanded peace. However, the authorities affiliated this newfound art with drug use and rising crime rates around the city. Shop owners, locals and subway commuters complained about the apparent vandalization that was destroying their properties and communities. ¹
My father promised me, “We just wanted our voices to be heard. We weren’t affiliated with gangs, and we weren’t violent. We were the opposite. It was sort of ironic.”
It wasn’t until 1971 that graffiti gained any public attention. One of the most renowned pioneers, TAKI 183, was mentioned in a New York Times article about the rise of graffiti and vandalism in Manhattan. The article reported that certain groups were being influenced by seeing Taki’s tag aro
und the city, ones that wanted desperately to see their name in lights. Taki was personally surprised when he learned of this, claiming he didn’t necessarily see himself as an artist. Many of his friends felt similarly, until about a year later.
In 1972, a student at City College, Hugo Martinez, became interested in the growing community of kids that deemed themselves “writers.” At this point, trains, residential buildings, storefronts, advertisements and in one case, an elephant in the Philadelphia Zoo, were all covered with graffiti. Martinez worked with his art professor to provide large canvases and a studio to a dozen of these writers. Most of them were about 14-16 years old, and one of them was my father. Martinez’s intention was to legitimize the art, curating the sophisticated and innovative elements in an attempt to cultivate a movement. It was the first time these writers worked off the streets. It was the first time they were acknowledged as artists, and the first time many of them had ever felt a canvas.²
The United Graffiti Artists lasted only about three years. But during that time, some of the works produced were sold, and some were shown in galleries around the city. It was the first step in validating the movement, and the artists involved gained some credibility.²
Fast forward to the summer of 2016: My father is in Los Angeles signing posters and books after a showing of Wall Writers: Graffiti In Its Innocence, a documentary that he is featured in, spanning the early years of the art. In line, there is a 14 year old kid, nervously fumbling his aerosol can and book, waiting to get them signed. My father looks up at me. In his attempt to explain how it has all come full circle some 40 odd years later, he chuckles and shakes his head. “I never thought I’d be sitting here.”
And I never thought I’d be standing there. Because in that moment, I realized I had one thing in common with everyone in the room: We were inspired by my father.