I made contact with FLASH before the Meeting of Styles festival, and he helpfully sent me a link to the ABC website (http://www.artisticbombingcrew.com/), which is a good resource to learn about the history of Chicago graffiti as well as live debates in the community now. FLASH's commitment to supporting young artists as well as his generosity in sharing stories about the old days was really inspiring. Transcript follows:
Flash Interview September 19th New Wave Café:
F: So I guess I will give a little of my background. I was born in Humboldt Park and by ’71 we were burned out with all the gang wars that go on over there. So then my parents moved to Logan Square, around here, by Schubert, as you can see it’s a nice neighborhood …but in the ‘80s it was really gang infested. There were a lot of gangs on every corner. And we had friends that associated with them. They would pay us to do pieces every time a guy would die. Those were our first murals which were peoples’ names with “Rest in Peace.” So, “Style Wars” came out on Channel 11 in ’83 or ’84, that movie. People in my Hispanic neighborhood tend to send their kids back and forth when they are bad, like I was sent to Puerto Rico in ’79 and my friends were sent to New York. [Because] of that and the movie “Style Wars” we found something new to do, which was graffiti, the at of getting up. Getting your name on everything. You know, so you start in your own neighborhood and if you look we are right next to the line, right across the street, we discovered the line, and what happens is there was this crew called CTA cew. That was really the first crew in Chicago. You met Nick Sassa [spelling not sure] you met was the guy painting next to me, he came over here and it started influencing others. But he is in Humboldt Park, and the problem with CTA is that you can’t be in CTA unless you are from New York. They started [frustrating?] gangs, and one night they came over here, before those murals were there you saw [Logan Square Chicago Public Art Group Mural titled “What do You See?” along Blue Line supports] theydid New York pieces out there, they stated piecing, by the train. The next day the gangs saw it and they came up to us and they said “You can’t piece any more. You guys have gone over our stuff” they had gone over the gang lines. They stated calling them, since they were from Humboldt Park, Cobras, Cobras tagging all day. They were really influenced by New York and you couldn’t be in CTA unless you were from New York and that’s how they excluded the whole city for a while. What happened is that we [decided] “We don’t need that.” So we started our own crew called the Angel Roberta [spelling?] Crew. Angel lives right across from me, Roberto is …and we start getting up. Its weird because they [the gangs] don’t want us piecing but they will still come up to us and say “Hey, you’ve gotta put up a name for someone who died.” So we get up on the megamall, and we piece “Rest in Peace Joey”, graffiti style, but we paint the letters, and when we took the train to take pictures of it everyone was just looking at it, and the train was full, and you just see everybody’s eyes turning and turning, and that’s when we decided, we’re going to do all the rooftops. We started going further and further until we get to Wicker Park.
That’s kind of how it starts, you know, neighborhood kids. After that we were one of the biggest crews in the city, but we kept everything in Logan Square. What happens is kids from around the city start coming to the writers’ bench, to the Eagle, to meet up with us. They want to be in the crew, so first the crew takes on another name, the Atomic Bombing Crew, and then we had some really good artists—TAKE 2, TRIXTER, and it became the Artistic Bombing Crew, and we start to invade the yards. We went into the yards one time and it was ’85, so the Bears Superbowl was at its prime. There was a celebration downtown, over a hundred people, and we were doing throw ups, in front of everybody, and everyone was like “Throw my name up! Throw my name up!” That was a highlight. We get into the yards and start to do a lot of damage, but my year is short because by 1987 I was already in the National Guard, and with bombers in my neighborhood, once they got caught they didn’t go back to it, but I still have 70 photos, to this day. It was the beginning so there was no Vandal Squad [New York derived group of special detectives to catch graffiti writers bombing trains], it was kind of like the beginning of New York in the ‘60s, but over here it took so long because of the gang influence. The gang influence is terrible here. It goes back to the ‘20s if you actually think about it, because this is Capone City, and it’s a tradition. My parents were very influential on me as far as art goes. They were always showing me art, taking me to the art institute, and I didn’t want to fall into the gang trap, so I did find the avenue of bombing as art.
CB: Were you influenced by anyone in particular? I guess that’s sort of the beginning because you guys were the beginning of graffiti in Chicago.
F: My influence is by SEEN who goes to New York and meets the SEEN in New York, and the guy tells him “Put that name up in Chicago.” If you look at the history of graffiti there is a SEEN in every city, two or three of them. In new York there is two…that’s just a name that he took and he built with it a lot. I don’t think they [the SEENs in New York] understood that he was going to do that much bombing with it. He was told he was a biter, and even then Nick Sassa told us he was a biter, but that’s New York and we’re Chicago, and a lot of writers that started in CTA had New York names, from subway art. PHASE3 and all these names—but always someone is trying to knock someone else down, to have something on them. But all it did was motivate us more. We felt that they weren’t from Chicago, they didn’t know anything about Chicago, and we knew what we wanted to do.
One thing that happens is that there is a wall over here by the [California] train station, and they give it to us to paint [the Chicago Transit Authority].
CB: The CTA does?
F: Yes, and its 1985, before all of those CTA [transit authority] competitions that you hear of. And Trixter puts up a red skyline because the fire department gave us red spraypaint, BBoy puts up Logan Square, CTA they did put up the Windy City but then they left, we don’t know why, maybe they were intimidated, we don’t know, but we came and finished it and put a train in and everything. Then we painted “Sponsored by” and started messing around with the spraypaint on the final wall and created a piece titled “Nightmare on the Yellow Tab” it was a tribute to all the drugs that were sold by Schubert and Spalding. It was an acid city.
CB: What reaction did you get from that?
F: They buffed it.
CB: After they sponsored it?
F: Yeah, because they said “Nightmare on the Yellow Tab” we did not have permission to do. They wanted to keep really tight control. We didn’t even sign it because they were there watching us to see what we tagged, and if you look Trixter is the only one who signed it and he was made to erase it, but he was just getting into graffiti, he was still a young pup and he didn’t have a lot of work up…after that, that wall, you would go to it and see everyone from the city saying hi to us at first. “Oh hi what’s up ABC” but then they started to flip us. But we kept bombing, that’s what we did. We were bombers. There weren’t really permission walls. And if there was a project, we did one in Wicker Park, after Wicker Park—close to downtown by Halsted, we put a nice production on there, and I think that like with everything we grow up, and one guy dies, one guy gets shot, and the group starts to fall apart. SEEN got shot, he was shot by his girlfriend, he is still alive, he still paints but that’s when the crew precipitated. And I went to the army, you know, and so from ’87 to ’03 the internet gets big and in 2003 we started a website called the Artistic Bombing Crew. That is when we started to come back out and start doing things and people talked ot us and we went to peoples’ galleries. Then ZORE from SB brought us out to this big 59th and Western production wth the help of a DJ named Third Rail. We had the biggest gallery of graffiti artists, over 200, painting from 59th and Western all the way down to State and the viaducts down there. To this day there are still some paintings the original stuff.
CB: How do you feel about permission walls now?
F: I think in Chicago it’s important because if you look at the map of Chicago its where all the freights start and it goes like that [shows a hand shape] and there are so many viaducts and bridges and ugly walls, I think they should let anyone put a production up. If someone wakes up one morning and says “I want to paint my wall,” then they have the right if they work with the neighborhood. The walls for the crews are important.
CB: When you do productions what is the process you go through to work with the neighborhood?
F: In the South Side, they don’t care. You talk to the guy [wall owner] and he says ‘paint a sign for me,’ and you work out a deal with him and its cool. Once you pass Chicago Avenue…it took me six months to put up the wall for the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival: going to meetings and assuring them and getting permission and…to me its tedious, it’s a wall that’s in an alley and you see it off the Blue Line but for years [writers] used to bomb it but now the owners are allowing it to be opened up. But it is important for the old school to keep working to get these walls open, so that when we do, we can bring this young kids with a lot of talent and put them on and show positive images. I’ve already done my damage, my destruction, what I feel I’m doing, sometimes, is giving back to the neighborhoods. I’ve taught at the Humboldt Art Center, I’ve donated time with the Cooperative Image Group, and we’ve helped those neighborhoods build just by putting our names to it. Those other people that want to work with the youth, I cant work with kids all the time. I will work with kids on a wall project. But I have to give props to these teachers that want to work with these kids every single day: I did try it, one of the best experiences was teaching at the Humboldt Arts Center because it was different. Its something that I’ve never experienced, and I’ve experienced everything, I’ve experienced bombing, I’ve experienced the military, I’ve experienced working in professional corporate offices, but I’ll tell anybody: Sit there with ten kids and try to keep ten kids in today’s era of videogames to keep their attention, that is outstanding.
CB: Where in Chicago is the best graffiti being done right now?
F: Its not even being seen. I think a lot of it is on the trains. Its because I get pictures of the trains.
CB: Do you paint in Little Village when its not Meeting of Styles?
F: Yeah, when I came back to painting in 2003 the only place we could paint was on the South Side. I talked to millions of businesses over here [Logan Square] and it was a very Gestapo feel about how they would come down on me. Over there [South Side] it has always been open. We have never had a problem.
CB: Why do you think that is?
F: [People] say it is because nobody lives over there [on the South Side]. You and I were there, we saw the neighborhood, I really do think it is because of the culture. There is a different culture over there, they accept it, I’m very proud to say that the average Mexican knows more about art than a lot of people, and they see it [art] as a progression in their neighborhood not a defect.
CB: Have you noticed at past Meeting of Styles neighborhood folks wandering in, participating?
F: At one, it wasn’t Meeting of Styles but it was the reunion I told you about, and this neighborhood gentleman came to Statik and says to him “Why do you guys always come and paint on the South Side? You should just paint on your side of town, you do nothing for the neighborhood,” and Statik says to him “Okay sir, which one is your kid” and he points to a kid, “This one,” and right there in front of him Statik did a whole face portrait of the kid that just astounded the man and that is my favorite story. I love that. It is still there, it is still up, and the neighborhood loves it. Made U Look did a mural it is a city map. This was the first Meeting of Styles and they did, if you at the train map, they did a train map with their name in green, blue, and I was astonished because this lady then comes and shows her kid and goes “Look, we live here. Mommy gotta travel allll the way over here for work.” Any little thing like that is awesome and you remember it, and you feel it as something positive. That’s why I like those guys, their murals always have good content.
CB: Do you feel like that level of community interaction has been consistent in the last eight years at meeting of Styles?
F: It can get hairy. It is also done during the Mexican Independence so sometimes it gets rowdy with the neighborhood. When you are on 27th and Kedzie there was so much traffic that the police turned the traffic onto us and I was surprised how many people knew who was Trixter, who was Flash, who was Glow, and would hear that come out “Oh that’s glow, that’s flash.” And you hear that and are like, I don’t even know these people. The Mexican people are more in tune with the art I think because they grow up out of it. They see us over there every year painting. If you go on Ashland you will see some of the biggest murals you will ever see. Over here [Logan Square/North Side] we fight for it. Sometimes its draining. I’m old, I don’t have time to argue. My biggest reason, why I am doing this is the felony charges. When I got arrested for this [graffiti] I was made to go to an old folks home and clean up. And spend some time with some senior citizens. Now, its like you are walking around with crack cocaine. You have actual writers doing four to five years, and I understand the ones that get carried away, that that is what happens, but if a kid for the first time gets caught when he is seventeen, that is going to stay with him until he is 100. He gets no job, whatever he wants to do he is always going to have that on his record. And in a day and age hwere there are scarcely any jobs, that’s what he will live for [illegal graffiti]. So I feel that there are a lot of kids that don’t want to do it [legal graffiti?], so it is our job as the old school to get them places to paint, to burn that energy, to take that energy and grab it at its young age and burn it up and they will end up being a graphic designer, photographer, whatever they want to do. The city is designed to take people in and try to hold them.
CB: When you are preparing for MOS do you do anything extra?
F: Every year a bunch of us sit around and do the Photoshop thing and everything but as we get older and this is out seventh or eighth one we didn’t have time to do that this year and they kept us in the dark about who will be painting next to who so we just showed up to the wall and did whatever this year.
F: Which graffiti is. It shouldn’t be that planned out. I’m not condemning the kid who uses a projector, I’m not condemning the people who use straight line or whatever, but sometimes I like the originality of it which is just like freestyling. It is a freestyle form of art. You see a break dancer and he stops like that [mimicking a breaker standing on their head legs out at an angle], that’s the arrow [in a wildstyle piece], I always see those images, a guy from new york was telling me, free styling that is in skateboarders is also in graffiti, because you don’t plan where that arrow is going to come out where you are going to put your doo-dads and that’s the way it should be sometimes.
CB: What’s your reaction when your work gets gone over?
F: I live in Chicago I don’t care. Because I’m going to go over someboday else. You cant get attached. I see it as you are giving someone another chance to paint.
CB: Do you document your work, and if so how?
F: I have an external hard drive and I have been documenting—my first document phase is ’82 to ’87 and I have about 180 photos so out of those I’ve been able to make a good little old school career out of it. From 2003 I’ve been documenting from there on. The things in the galleries, the bombing, and mostly on the Blue Line, since that’s the train I take, I always have my camera with me.
CB: Do you use Facebook or Flickr?
F: I like to sit on the computer and have facebook, photobucket, graffiti forums and Chicago Graffiti Forums and just hit em at the same time with 200 photos, hence I have to live up to the name Flash.
CB: I’m sort of interested in how artists network globally—do you have preferred graffiti sites that you use?
F: I like Flickr a lot, it ahs a lot on that of bombing and I am a fan of that, and I like our own forums, you can’t get in unless you know somebody’s name. The kids come on it. There are different crews. There is always someone new who wants to show their stuff from Chicago. There’s other ones set up that are worldwide and you go into it and you feel like you get lost. So I like the forums that have specifically New Yorkers, you get to see whats going on in that town. What we did, when we started our forum [ABC’s Website] is we put in a bad word filter so that the colleges don’t block it, the schools, and we’ve had it like that. Every year I get a kid whos trying to do a video from Columbia or something like that, and that’s how this [DVD of interviews] came about, it’s a collection of Columbia College that went around with me documenting, we put it together, made a video out of it.
CB: How would you feel if there weren’t any more Meeting of Styles?
F: I would still paint. We would make our own thing in Chicago and we would invite other artists. I think we would still do it.
CB: Do you ever get involved in the planning?
F: No, SB is the crew that handles that, and they do a pretty good job, of organizing and changing up the artists. I haven’t painted at the wall I was at this year for a pretty long time. As the old school I like to go to the other different walls, participate. This year there wasn’t a lot of out of towners so they gave the wall in the front to the old school and it was pretty cool.
CB: Who else was on that wall?
F: Nick Sassa, Chumbley, Meek, Drastic, Trams, and I’ll send you the others, Seesa Crew, and Dean 4.
CB: Dean 4 was the one who did the brush painting for his mom?
F: Yeah, he always paints like an old schooler, and I get my hats from him, my shirts, I support him. We just tried to keep it to the eighties this year, which was hard.
CB: Do you have any concerns about the future of graffiti? For example its commercialization.
F: I think that commercialization is terrible right now because you have a lot of guys just setting up companies and grabbing from people. Because we are a generous beast as it is, and will help anybody, and then you go back and see the person try to do a project and you want to work with them and its like “Oh no I’ve got enough of you don’t worry about it.” And that’s where the abuse, the being used comes in, and you don’t keep a relationship with the artist that you used for your book or whatever, and there is a lot of that going on.
CB: You said there were few out of towners this year, what do you think the importance of having out of towners at MOS is?
F: To show that Chicago accepts people from out of town. We don’t want a cold society.
CB: Would you say MOS is just graff writers or is it also for other audiences?
F: I would say that its for other audiences because as you saw, Sunday, there is a community of photographers that come out now to take pictures, so I think it is for everybody to enjoy.
CB: That’s all I’ve got. Thank you so much.
**Photo used with permission