“Urban Myths Smith, of the notorious NYC graffiti writing duo, SaneSmith, reveals the truth behind the many myths that have been surrounding his and his late brother’s work.”
“So, you wish to learn more about the myths surrounding SaneSmith?
Well, the graffiti culture is strongly based on oral history so not everything can be learned by reading, but I will enlighten you a bit. Like many kids, Sane and Smith were born into a family without much parental supervision and with a simple sibling rivalry. By the time we were in our mid-teens, we were left to explore the city and both took an interest in graffiti, fuelled by our friends’ graffiti involvement as well. So by telling each other, ‘Yo, I got up here’ or ‘I did a piece there’ the other brother would have to get up as well. Any graffiti writer with a great partner will tell you that a small bit of competitiveness can inspire great feats. That soon led to each of us finding spots to paint and informing each other and having an instant partner to bolster one’s courage to actually go out and paint.
As I was the elder brother, I had more time to wander around after dark but that left my younger brother more time to practice doing pieces on paper. That quickly showed in our work as Sane became more skilled and Smith was tagged across the city. Back in the mid-80s, we didn’t have any mentors so everything was trial and error. Somehow it seemed to work since in just two years of hard work we received a visit from the head of the Vandal Squad. He wanted to persuade my hardworking mother to stop us. But how many knuckleheaded teenagers listen to their moms? So then we painted one bridge too many…
“On reflection, painting a monument such as the Brooklyn Bridge was probably a bad idea since we were unprepared for the consequences. Around that time, we had been painting a couple of the other bridges around New York and thought it would be just another spot. By this time we had been using bucket paint a lot instead of spray paint since it was easy to acquire, custom colourable and so much thicker that the colour just boomed. One day, Sane said ‘Yo, I got this spot in mind. I scoped it. It looks easy enough, so let’s do it. There’s this ladder and a ledge just wide enough…’ The next morning we looked at our handiwork on both sides of the bridge, smiled and took our photos. A few days later a newspaper reporter called our house and informed us of the enormity of the deed. Then came a couple of calls by the news media. Sane, the more verbose brother, did an interview with one TV crew, feeling that we should stand up and let our intentions be known. It came out as a sound bite and we saw the futility of trying to get our meanings across in televised media.
The writers that we knew were surprised that we should be given this kind of attention and we received many calls of congratulations. We were all used to being called punks in the media and mentioned whenever a politician wanted some attention for a war on graffiti and a better chance at being elected. A short time later the city sent us a letter informing us that we owed some money for the clean up. Although we could only ignore that letter, sure enough a messenger came to the house and served us papers saying that the city was suing us, our mother and our best partner, JA, for damages done to the city. Luckily, a famous lawyer, William Kunstler, decided to take our case and somehow the city lost its will to pursue the matter. We wound up moving out to avoid all the unwanted police attention, and the bridge got painted a second time the following year. I guess no one learned their lesson.
“Over the years, many tactics have been attempted by the authorities to stamp out graffiti. As time goes by, it seems that the government is getting more authoritarian and removing whatever freedoms they can from the people. Expressing yourself with a spray can is no longer tolerated with a slap on the wrist. In our neighbourhood, it used to be every little kid grabbed for a simple graffiti tag was yelled at, slapped around, sprayed in the face or grilled about his peers by the police. We would then hear the stories of how the cops wanted to arrest us, or other police tactics, from friends that would get arrested. One amusing story from our pal JA was when he encountered a SaneSmith tag in the urinal of the police department a short time after I went through the system (taken with only smudges from the fingerprint ink left on my fingers, the police weren’t too pleased to tell JA).
Although we were on top of a most wanted list for many years, most of the arrests we went through were for minor charges and dealt with somewhat casually as young men would. A few times we were slapped around while in custody but minorities definitely had it tougher. The opposite was true whenever we stepped into a train yard. Instead of having to be the tough white boys that got into a fight whenever needed, we simply got up all city as much as possible. We gave a lot of respect and got a lot of respect over the years. Our heroes weren’t in the movies, they were writers walking around the neighborhoods just a little older than us. It is hard to describe to normal people what it means to meet these graffiti legends and have them know who you are merely by reading the writing on the walls.
“Nowadays, the culture has really changed. The commoditisation of graffiti in the galleries led to a major talent drain from the subways. By the time we started there were a lot fewer writers willing to mentor a rising new jack. It is gratifying to see the skill level at a point that it is taken seriously as an art form in the galleries and in street art publications, but it is condemning all those with lesser skill levels to be hunted down. Those unwilling to be artsy or play by the rules are facing extreme anti-graffiti measures by the authorities. Banksy is a famous example of a former graffiti writer that has matured to a point that his work is hailed as great art. I respect him greatly for his wit and cheekiness but I fail to see how his work is part of graffiti. Maybe this is the face of graffiti in the future and all tagging will be reduced to pre-teen crayon scribbles. I myself have married and luckily earn a living with my painting skills. My wife Lady Pink and I have been ‘playing the game’ for some years now to pay the bills but we try to keep our spirits true by painting legally in the street every now and then. And if you happen upon a SaneSmith tag scrawled somewhere where it shouldn’t be, I didn’t do it…”