NOC167 @ Style Wars Reunion

NOC 167 (a.k.a. Melvin Samuels, Jr.). (b. New York , NY, 1961)

Short Bio by Andrew Castrucci

“You’re standing there in the station, everything gray and gloomy, and all of a sudden one of those graffiti trains slides in and brightens the place like a big bouquet from Latin America.” Claes Oldenburg 1975

I first ran into Melvin Samuels, a.k.a. NOC 167, in 1984 at Fun Gallery. It was a group show. He had a long narrow spray can painting. His name took up most of the canvas. This was the time when the art world was opening up to graffiti. A year before, Keith Haring had one of his first one person shows at Fun Gallery, inspired by writers like NOC 167 and Lee, another graffiti artist. At this time Melvin was a well – known writer, having painted over 200 subway cars. His famous car, entitled “Style Wars” – considered one of the best subway cars ever painted – was reproduced in 1991’s High and Low exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

Melvin was born in Manhattan in 1961 and grew up in the Bronx throughout the 60’s and 70’s. His mother was an administrator in the Lindsay Administration. Melvin went to John F. Kennedy High School on 225th Street in the North Bronx. While in high school, he participated in classes at the School of Visual Arts designed especially for talented young students. There, he learned basic animation. Inspired by his older brother’s tags, Melvin also started doing graffiti.

NOC’s intro to art was through comic books. In his early works, the electronic video age of Pac – Man influenced him, but it eventually wore off. Melvin also painted public murals, including one at the Bronx Graffiti Roller Disco. Before the hip – hop movement started, his style was also inspired by disco culture, mechanical beats combined with afrocentric and psychedelic designs. As a teenager, he spent a lot of time hanging out in the video halls of Times Square, where his friends from the outer boroughs would go with their Adidas, sweat pants and cardboard, and break – dance in the streets. His palette eventually became a combination of the primal colors of super heroes, the neon lights of Time Square, and the hypnotizing grooves of hip – hop music and dance.
After being discharged from school at 21, Melvin got his GED. In the early 80’s, he flirted with some classes at Parsons, the School of Visual Arts, and FIT. None of his teachers recognized graffiti as an art form, and quickly he dropped out. His real education came from his training as a graffiti artist. NOC started using subway trains as his canvases. Toward the end of the 1970’s, Melvin’s style shifted toward something particularly innovative. He participated in the second generation of graffiti writing – “wild style” – taking graf to new heights, elaborating on 3D – stlye drawing, creating more speed and movement with his letters and breaking the mold of the formal, straight – up bubble letter of the early 70’s. It was around this time that Charlie Ahearn started his film, ‘Wild Style,’ a classic cult film about the subculture of break dancing and graffiti. NOC, along with fellow graf writer Zeph, designed the animated intro to this film.

The codes and voodoo markings that graf writers worked with, like uncontrollable vines, were the common connection of their subculture. This language defined their identity in a city that gave them no name. The peak of the graffiti invasion was contrasted by the blank architecture of the 70’s, a style that valued cheap costs and the speed of construction. Some of the most dehumanizing buildings ever, in the history of urban architecture, were built during this era. Architects of this generation even admitted that their buildings were meant to be torn down in 50 years. It was said that gang violence had dissipated for this short time, when the blank city walls and skyscrapers were colored with spray paint, dancing electric flowers clinging to each wall like irrepressible weeds. As Lee said, “It was a generation of a colorful sweat that ceased to be unknown.”

[Melvin was one of those artists, similar to Phase, who would pass out his drawings to different writers in the school years to duplicate on subway cars.]

During this time, Melvin participated in group – shows at an alternative art space in the South Bronx called Fashion Moda, as well as the famous Times Square Show of 1980. Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Kiki Smith were part of this exhibition, as were several other spray paint artists from Harlem and the outer boroughs. The Times Square Show mixed graffiti art with feminist and political art. It literally forged the uptown – downtown union that has been responsible for many of the most interesting developments in art today. The Times Square Show symbolized the departure the art world was making from the minimalist artists of the 70’s that had dominated the SoHo art scene. In the early 1980’s, sub – cultural art movements started to move into the consciousness of the mainstream art world, and although NOC was partly responsible for that movement, he didn’t fully realize the effect he had until recently. As Lee said in 1989, “The greatest art movement in American history happened down here. Besides artists like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, who were both formally trained as artists, many graffiti writers looked up to Melvin (NOC 167).” NOC’s style was characterized by arrows, exploding letters, futuristic angles surrounded by dreamy, surreal clouds, similar to watching a sky filmed in fast motion (as done in the sky cinematography of ‘Dear Theo’ [Letters from Vincent Van Gogh]). Daze told me that NOC’s unique style of lettering, abstracted much like the cubist and futurist styles, inspired him. Daze tried to imitate NOC’s combination of layered color and figurative characters, yet he could never quite achieve the same effect. NOC’s surreal design and distorted perspective stood out from the other graf writers.

Melvin was the king of a style about which he philosophized in the film, ‘Style Wars,” named after his famous car. In the film, he discussed his theory of the arrow in graffiti, explaining, “Everybody’s got their own arrow. I like that though. Various some guys have on the letter arrow. That was like a connection. Some people had different arrows going right through their pieces.” NOC’s name was known all over New York City. He ran with different crews (Queens: fuzz – 1; Brooklyn: Dondi; Bronx: Stand 153, Maurice 167; Staten Island: Cel 1; Manhattan: Part and Cool) and his style crossed all the boroughs. The subway train was its link; the Grand Concourse its meeting ground.

Subway trains have always been a symbol. The Underground Railroad to the North represented freedom. The rhythm of the rails inspired great music like the blues, boogie – woogie, jazz and more recently, hip – hop. Its rhythm shined in Melvin’s time.

Lee once explained, “Going to the yards was like visiting silent whales. This was the feeling we got at night. It became our ritual. Just looking at that thing, a black silhouette just sitting there with blinking red lights sticking out. It’s alive. In actuality we brought life to these steel boxes that carried the sheep to work everyday.” Lee painted a train one Christmas Eve entitled, “Merry Christmas to New York.” It was a ritual to stay up all night and ride the train into the city in the morning and see people’s response. One Christmas morning, he watched the riders in Grand Central give him a standing ovation. The applause, of course, was not for him, but for the train he painted. And there he stood, a mysterious person on the platform.

“We were wizards underground. Think of those electric beams running down for miles underground, all that power in the city, the energy of the antibody in a subway. All that energy down underground was like a magnet, the six thousand volts every square inch. My mentality was shaped by that energy, the power, the transit, the gamble, the look, the entire situation. Most likely our ideas came from the energy that came from the third rail. It figured that low underground, with that much power in rail, and that much excitement, certain chemical structures started to evolve within the painters. We were feeling powerful, and feeling risky; we had drag strip energy. We were drawn to the magnetism; we were like monks to the tunnel.” (mysterious quote? 1989)

Wild Style infused the inspiration of the third rail, hip – hop, pop culture, comic books, Time Square’s neon lights and in – you – face billboards into a style that artists had tried to achieve since the 1950’s. Graf writers successfully used billboard art to decode the signature of the sign, reconstructing the word in the advertising age, just as abstract expressionists and Andy Warhol had tried to do. Graffiti was also characterized by its punk attitude. It has guts and energy, capturing the unique spirit of New York City, void of all clichés. Its na•ve style made it stand out from out from the rest of the art world. It could be called a form of true American folk art.

After painting on the trains for almost a decade, the art world finally caught up to NOC 167 and the rest of the graffiti writers of his generation. Museums started to buy their work. Sidney Janis, the famous art dealer of 57th street that supported people like Jackson Pollack in the 1950’s, put Melvin in a group show along with Daze. The Rotterdam Museum also bought some of Melvin’s work. Graffiti artists rode the 1980’s art boom years, taking advantage of free travels to Europe. Commercial galleries in Italy were some of the first to exhibit their work, and later museums in France, Germany and Holland followed. A few of Melvin’s paintings were displayed at the Basel art fair in Switzerland. This support could be paralleled with European interest in jazz musicians in the 1920’s and 30’s, particularly in Paris. Similar to the graffiti artists, jazz musicians found that the only way they could financially survive as artists was to make European cities their home bases. This wave of success, however, was a short one.

Without ever abandoning his roots in the streets, Melvin expanded his stage to the art world. His generation had redefined the definitions of ‘High and Low,’ turning them upside down. Low was suddenly high, and high suddenly low; that was the metaphor of the Times Square Show. By the mid 80’s, however, NOC’s fifteen minutes of fame were coming to an end. Reagan’s dynasty and faulty economy were starting to collapse, as the Contra – cocaine and Iran – Contra scandals were being exposed. At home, the crack cocaine and AIDS epidemics hit hard, especially in urban areas like New York City. The recession affected the art world at the same time it affected the world economy. Graffiti, very much a symbol of the 1980’s art boom, fell out of favor and soon enough NOC’s art world came to and end.

The New York City Transit Authority’s campaign to buff out graffiti on subways cars was in its final stages. Melvin painted his last subway car in 1984. It was basically impossible to paint on cars anymore. As galleries gave up on the graffiti hype and ‘quality of life’ campaigns came close to victory, NOC came to grips with the fact that an urban artist’s creative outlets of expression were now extremely limited.

Soon afterward, Melvin began going in and out of hospitals, as his mental illness and paranoia were surfacing. In 1986, he became homeless. He was living on the streets and hopping between different men’s shelters. He developed a substance abuse problem around this time. However, Melvin was not suffering alone. New York City was going through a dark age, the media comparing it to the depression of the 1930’s. New York had become an ultra violent city, with crack cocaine and crime splitting up neighborhoods, leaving many homeless. For almost ten years, Melvin dropped out of society.

The next time I ran into Melvin was in the winter of 1994 at a men’s shelter in Brooklyn. For the past ten years I have been working at various shelters around New York City, including Ward’s Island, the East 116 Street residence, Fort Washington and Bedford Styvesant men’s shelters. I run a once – a – week art program at these facilities through Hospital Audiences, Inc. (H.A.I.). Most of the artists I work with are self – taught. Myself being somewhat trained in art school, I look to them as true artists – void of any art history references. Their work is free in style. I have never seen their abstract forms in art books. I am their student, as much as they are mine.

When I started the workshop on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, I had a book on graffiti with one of Melvin’s pieces. Melvin signed this book for me next to his subway car, “Style Wars.” We talked extensively for the next few weeks on graf art and artists we both knew and exhibited with over the years. Besides the solo pieces Melvin was working on, we started doing collaborative pieces in the shelter. After working with Melvin for a few weeks, I contacted my graffiti artist friends, Daze and Lee Quinones, and told them I had seen NOC. They both responded in shock. Most former writers knew that Melvin disappeared and most assumed he’d passed away. There were already memorial graf murals dedicated to NOC 167 throughout the five boroughs. Daze contacted the group of artists who recreate the Hall of Fame every few years on 106th Street and Park Avenue in a schoolyard. (When the New York City Transit Authority was buffing out the last few cars, the schoolyard became an outdoor museum of the best writers’ work.) Daze told this group of writers, most of whom were inspired by Melvin’s work from the 70’s onward, that NOC was still alive and they invited him to do a piece.

Melvin did not show up for the bi-annual reunion of writers. He wanted instead to return back to public art slowly. The reunion was a little too formal. Besides, as Lee often says, graf art was always mysterious, a hit and run ritual, late at night, the loner and the subway car.

Recently, Melvin participated in an exhibition at the Bronx Museum of Art on the Grand Concourse entitled, “Urban Mythologies,” covering art from the 1960’s to the 1990’s. His subway car, ‘Style Wars,’ was exhibited in the form of a large, pieced – together photo shot by Henry Chalfant. He also exhibited an original drawing in a show called, ‘Urban Encounters,’ at The New Museum in the summer of 1998. Melvin has, in more recent years, participated in a variety of group shows with HAI, the West Harlem Art Fund and La Mama La Galleria, as well as a collaborative mural project that coincided with an exhibition by Lady Pink and David Yancy. Melvin validated himself once again as a unique and inventive artist in the La Mama La Galleria show, where he showed portraits he had done using photo emulsion. His experiments with different materials, like the photo emulsion process and airbrushing, show how his work has matured and progressed. Just like he always was as a graf writer, Melvin was an innovator, while others imitated and followed him.