Tuesday, January 6, 2015

All You See Is… SKEME

An interview I thought worth sharing 

Interview by Chris Pape
It’s very rare in graffiti for a single writer to dominate the scene for an 
extended period of time, Skeme was an exception. He had a blistering 
two year run in the early 1980’s that saw him pull out one quality car 
after another on the 1 and 3 lines. He did wild style burners and characters 
with equal grace, and left throw-ups to the lesser writers. The profile of 
Skeme in the documentary Style Wars helped make him a hip-hop icon. 
We were lucky to catch up with him for an interesting Q and A.

What was it like growing up in Harlem in the 70’s?

Harlem in the 70’s was like Disneyland. You could have all the fun in the 
world and get into half the trouble, all within a 5 block radius. Although, 
we did undertake the occasional troop down to 42nd street and Times 
Square; it was like a rite of passage, a pretty brave feat for a 10 or 11 
year old, navigating the peep shows, arcades, street walkers and their 
“managers”, all while avoiding the predators. There were still a few 
“Popeye” armed heroin addicts nodding their way up and down the block. 
I saw my share of dead bodies growing up, mostly those fished out of the 
East River directly behind my house; some murdered and dumped, while 
others were simply kids and adults alike who over-estimated their 
swimming skills. I was also unfortunate enough to witness a murder when 
I was about 9 or 10. We survived the 1977 blackout and kept a watchful 
eye out in case The Son of Sam was looking for a new hunting ground.

Photo by Henry Chalfant
How were you introduced to graffiti? When did you start writing?

My first introduction was like any other New York City kid – it was 
everywhere; on the trains, on the bus, in school, in the hallway, in the 
bathroom stalls. I really started “reading” and contemplating the who, 
how, when, and where of it around ’77 or ’78. In 1978 I took my first 
“tag” under the moniker “Cheerios”, I also wrote “Spivey”. In 1979 I 
met a great friend and brother to this day, through a Fraternity I 
pledged to called The Order of the Feather. I didn’t even know he wrote, 
one day he saw me tagging at my art desk and asked me what I was doing, 
I said tagging, he laughed and called me a toy. I vowed never to be 
called that again. He then revealed to me that he wrote Mr. Mean and 
was down with Tean and Kade and knew the whole TMT crew. I thought 
he was lying and making it up but he wasn’t, and he gave me style and 
taught me the ins and outs and the do’s and don’ts. In October 1979, Mr 
Mean took me to the 1 tunnel, and I “got up” as Skeme for the first time 
on a New York City subway car from a lay-up (not from motion tagging 
which I had done previously).

What was it like having the 3 yard as a base of operations?

In 1968 my family moved from the Bronx to Harlem into a newly built Co-Op 
called Esplanade Gardens, and as destiny would have it the 3 Yard was 
literally 100 feet from my front door. This would prove to be of course 
beneficial in my race to king that line as well as making my presence 
known on the Broadway 1 line. I knew the yard like the back of my hand, 
all the exits, the best times to go, even the sounds of the yard.

The only real downside to the yard was that the 3 train didn’t above ground 
for any significant photo opportunities. I estimate I am missing at least 30 
cars that I did that I never got pictures of because of this. It was relatively 
quiet for this reason as well, most cats didn’t like the 50/50 odds of 
catching flicks.  The good thing was the 3 trains were regularly switched 
and intermingled with those of the 1 line, which had prime photo ops at 
the 125th street and Broadway station. But you had to do more than a 
significant amount of cars on the 3’s to make any kind of impact on the 
1’s, especially when competing against guys who lived in the 1 yard and 

Skeme, Daze, 1981 (Photo by Henry Chalfant)

While you’re known as a stylist, I think some of your best work was 
done with characters, who influenced in that area?

Well I’m glad to hear that I’m known as a stylist, I really take pride in the 
development and exploitation of letter forms, much like my heroes: Phase 2, 
Riff 170, Kool 131, Chain 3, Kase 2 (RIP), and other Style Masters like Part 1 
and Dondi (RIP). As far as characters go, a guy named Puma Kid went to my 
school (Music and Art High School), that was the first time I saw Kase 2 who 
would visit Puma Kid regularly. He didn’t write graffiti but Puma Kid was 
known for his expert renderings of B-Boys on Lee Jeans and Jackets. He was 
the first person I saw do the leaning B-Boys with big afros, ski goggles and 
Puma sneakers. The lean of the characters I believe came from the line 
created by Vaughn Bode, whose work was very popular among graffiti writers. 
Both of these artists motivated me to do characters, but more importantly 
they motivated me to create my own. To this day I have never done a Bode 
character because I considered it biting or copying…a definite No-No for me. 
As a matter of fact the first time I drew a Bode character in conjunction with 
my name was in Mark Bode’s house in San Francisco about a year ago when 
I met him.

How did you get involved with the film Style Wars? Did it end your career?

My interaction with Henry Chalfant was like most writers, I heard about his 
studio, went and checked it out, and basically spent a fair share of my truant 
mornings there browsing through photos and talking shop. Henry and I 
developed a friendship, as much as a 15/16 year old can with an adult, based 
off of mutual respect and trust. There were guys who stole photo’s and things 
like that from Henry, but I never did. I think we also connected because I 
respected his “’Switzerland” like stance in his navigation of Graff politics. 
As far as why he felt I or my mother would make interesting television, you’d 
have to ask him. After the filming, I knew the gig was up. I knew that once
my face was revealed, the mystery would be removed and nothing would be 
the same. My mother knew too and shortly after the filming sent me to the 
Army Recruiter on 125th St in Harlem, but I continued to bomb for the next 6 
months, even up until the night before I left for the army.

Skeme, Dez, Mean 3 (Photo by Henry Chalfant) 

At a time when the lines were muddy with throw-ups, you stayed away 
from that, why?

Well it’s simple…if you are able to do 100 push-ups…you don’t do 20. 
Throw-ups didn’t appeal to me, especially the poorly executed ones. 
I did a few to see how it felt, and I got absolutely no satisfaction from it…so 
it wasn’t something that resonated with me.

Now that your fans are able to find you are you shocked at the impact you 
had in the global movement?

I don’t know if I am shocked as much as I am inspired and glad the art form 
has not died off and is in fact evolving to new heights.

Show love