With the artist's literal descent over his own work, Lee Quiñones launches one of the great historical documents of hip-hop.
Here are the greats becoming great; Crazy Legs, the Rock Steady Crew, and many more are to breakdancing what Grandmaster Flash and Grandmaster Caz and many more are to turntablism what Double Trouble and many more are to MCing what Lee and Zephyr and many more are to graffiti.
The opening title animation is a celebration of graff writers and the subcultures they travel in, everyone riding the Wild Style train conducted by director Charlie Ahearn.
Based in New York City, ZEPHYR was one of the pioneers of graffiti beginning in the late 1970s. In the multidimensional world of Wild Style he is Zroc, essentially playing himself. He was also responsible for the key art on the opening titles.
Were you involved with animation previously?
Z: No. The Wild Style animation project was my introduction, although I used to make flip books.
How did you develop and mix the various artistic styles (the “Wild Style” morphing, “Rap,” "Break,” “Pop”)?
Charlie Ahearn was a great director. He had very specific ideas about everything in the film, and was closely involved in developing the aesthetic of the art in the opening sequence. The graffiti styles used for the words “Rap,” “Break,” and “Pop” were all variations of things I was doing on walls and trains at the time. There is a generic quality to my graffiti, but there is also something very distinct about it. Maybe that sounds like a contradiction, but graffiti writers will always recognize my stuff immediately. I would say that the different lettering forms were guided by Charlie, but they are definitely “Zephyr-style.” It’s weird to be talking about this now. It seems like a million years ago…
At what point was the sequence created?
The live footage already existed, so we modeled the animation to dissolve smoothly into that.
How did you mold the visuals to the music?
Joey Ahlbum created a beat chart according to the soundtrack, and we worked from that.
How were you able to represent the styles of your peers and friends so well?
I assume you’re referring to the train rolling by. That was easy. Copying other writers’ stuff comes pretty naturally to me, although writers will always execute their own signatures better than someone else will, of course. The train was cardboard, and it rolls by very quickly. If you saw it “frozen” you would see that I probably didn’t really do them justice. I think I did a “Bus” piece that was just plain lousy.
How did the idea of animating the graffiti come about? Are there other examples from the era that inspired you?
Charlie Ahearn had that vision. He wanted to bring “black book” drawings to life. He urged authenticity and rawness. He didn’t want it polished up. And no, this had never been done before.
What was it like collaborating with Director Charlie Ahearn?
It was fantastic. And I will forever be grateful to Charlie. I was a 19-year-old degenerate when he approached me to work on the art for the movie. His faith in me helped me take myself a lot more seriously – as an artist and as a person. I will always remember him as one of the people, early on, who recognized that I wanted to be accepted as an artist and not remain a perpetually stoned graffiti writer. Although being a perpetually stoned graffiti writer was definitely fun for a while!
How did this movie effect your life and graffiti writing career?
It felt good to be working somewhere without barbed wire and cops. But I kept writing graffiti. Charlie Ahearn even came to the train yard with me twice.
How have you dealt with personal versus commercial work, especially considering the roots and history of the medium?
In the 1980s I did a lot of commercial work. Now I refuse 99% of the offers I get, particularly the corporate ones. Graffiti has become so commercially co-opted that it’s sickening. If making it that way is partly my doing, I'm embarrassed. That’s not the legacy I wanted.
What do you think fueled young people to bridge graffiti with the other dominant youth cultures of MCing, turntablism, and breaking? Why do you think youths in particular were drawn to it?
Answering that properly would require about six pages. If you ever come to one of my college lectures, you may hear me discuss that subject since college kids get boners when you mention “hip-hop.” But let’s just say that the “organic/South Bronx” hip-hop “elements” theory is a good story, kind of like Santa Claus.
Graffiti existed for a decade before “hip-hop” as we know it emerged. This is not the first case of art forms sweeping up and creating associations with other, pre-existing art forms. Graffiti was “anointed” the visual counterpart for rapping, breaking, etc. Most people simply accept that association, but many do not. Some graffiti artists – Blade and Pink, for example – reject the idea that graffiti is part of the hip-hop movement.
Do you think the concept of graffiti-as-vandalism is dying?
If a real outlaw gets a paid gig, then you have an authentic thing, but the silverware will get stolen. If someone who can draw cute graffiti on paper (or via computer) gets the gig, you have a happy art director.
Do you think there’s an immortality inherent in graffiti?
I suppose so. When I die they’ll probably talk about me.
What or who inspires you these days?
Same as always: Rick Griffin, Albrecht Dürer, and Frank Zappa.
View the credits for this sequence