Blade & Chris “Freedom” Pape Discuss King Of Graffiti, NYC Graffiti + More…

Entire generations of artists — whether they realize it or not — owe an immeasurable debt to writers like Blade and his crew mates from The Crazy Five (TC5).  It’s very important to remember the origins of any art form, and graffiti is no different. With Blade’s latest book The King Of Graffiti credit is finally being given where it is due.

Those already well versed in the origins of graffiti know that New York City artists like Blade are largely responsible for much of the current work being produced around the world today. Looking back now, they may not have been the “prettiest” pieces ever done, but consider that in the 1970’s there was no frame of reference. There were no photos to study or the internet. It was all uncharted territory.

As a graffiti writer during the 1970’s Blade altered the sub culture of graffiti into another dimension and this book will show you why. 1xRUN writer and photographer Mike Popso had a chance to talk with Blade aka “The King of Graffiti” and artist Chris “Freedom” Pape about their latest book The King of Graffiti…

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Blade & Chris “Freedom” Pape

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Whole Car by Blade

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Freedom In The Freedom Tunnels by Chris Pape

1xRun: When did you guys first meet?
Chris “Freedom” Pape
: 1983 at an art gallery. Blade probably doesn’t remember I was a mere peasant to him at that time!
Blade: Now hold on! That’s uncalled for…but probably accurate. Anyways we’re great friends now.

But yeah, I was doing a solo show and Andy Warhol was having a show a few doors down the same evening. Not sure which show exactly, but it didn’t matter because it was Andy Warhol. It was huge that we were on the same street at the same time showing artwork. I was the young guy coming in and he was the established older artist. Famous magazines and newspapers covered both events.

1xRun: I read in the book that in 1972 the city started to close down recreation centers and after school programs in New York City. Do you think that had a direct influence on giving birth to graffiti?
Blade: I was 15 that year.  Three o’clock rolls around everyday and everyone had no where to go after school. So both parents are at work until 5 or 6 everyday. The crew I was hanging with TC5, we weren’t no goodie goodies, so we went to park, played basketball and chased women. Thank god we weren’t mugging people or robbing liquor stores with sawed off shotguns like most kids. We decided to share a can of Red Devil paint and go do tags with stolen markers.

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1xRun: At that time there weren’t any references to look at. There was nothing to go by. Other than other graffiti what influences did you bring into your train pieces and letters?
Blade: The music I listened to influenced me. Also when I was drawing and smoking hash.

1xRun: So it’s in 1975, you’re getting high and you’re at the park. Any feeling quite like seeing a car whole car go by? Either yours or someone else?
Blade: We would be playing full court basketball at the park and we would hear a train coming by. The entire game would stop with excitement to see which cars were coming. Everyone froze at their spot, watched the trains go by and then continued the game.

1xRun: So Chris, were you one of those early spectators that was floored by the work in and on the subway during that time?
Pape: My generation is a bit different, Blade was already a king in the 1970’s. I didn’t start to notice until 1974. We would draw in our notebooks in school all day, then I watched trains go by after school for hours, then we would eventually go paint on them.

1xRun: So did you guys ever paint together?
: Hahaha! Blade would never paint with me!
Whoa! It’s not like that. We are from different time periods and from different parts of the city. I’m from the Northeast Bronx, he was painting the 1’s.

1xRun: So you never had beef?
Blade: No! Beef in my days was way different than it is now. That couldn’t happen in my era, it was rival schools mostly. You punch someone one day, the next day everyone is friendly still.

1xRun: So there were never any problems that lasted or went beyond a fistfight?
Never. The beef that I see today globally I can’t comprehend. Guys in Amsterdam have feuds with people in Rotterdam, whatever you’re all Dutch! I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Lots of problems started happening in the 80’s. But I was already showing in galleries by then.
Pape: Once the genie gets let out of the bottle in the 70’s with whole cars it’s not unlike graffiti itself, suddenly everyone is doing huge pieces. The crack trade and guns roll into the scene in the 1980’s and now graffiti writers have guns because everyone is strapped.

1xRun: I sat down with the book and read it front to back in two days. To be honest, I’m very jealous of that time period because everything just sounds way more fun. Not only graffiti.
In the 70’s everyone was just having FUN! It was just more competitive. Writers like Tracy168 would do a whole car and would inspire me to draw my snowman and easel man. I wouldn’t want to destroy those pieces if I came across it in the layup. That’s pussy shit. The biggest punk move of all time. It made me want to go out and steal better paint and go bigger. If you have a problem with someone then you confronted them. You didn’t hide like a coward.

1xRun: For you the book goes deeper than graffiti and that era. It’s pretty much an autobiography. Was it difficult to track down those photos and remember all those stories?
Pape: It was a tremendous pleasure and Blade was very open. I’m honored and will probably never be able to compile a book like this one ever again. Hours of story telling and details that usually are forgotten are documented here.

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Blade: Working with Freedom and Roger Gastman was a pleasure. They both appreciate the history of art and graffiti and get pretty in depth. I hope that one day we can promote the book more around the world because it is an interesting time capsule. Maybe at Art Basel or in Hawaii or Japan. One thing the book didn’t touch on was the music of our pre-disco era. We listened to a lot of Motown, Led Zeppelin, and Curtis Mayfield in the layups. Hip Hop didn’t exist yet. It makes sense in 80’s obviously,but in the 70’s when we were painting, Donna Summer wasn’t rapping.

1xRun: So music wasn’t just background noise for you guys?
No, we’d go to a layup with a transistor radio blaring Earth, Wind & Fire or The Doobie Brothers, Chicago or Three Dog Night. Watergate just ended and Nixon was leaving. Nobody was spinning on there heads break dancing quite yet.
Pape: I was able to interview 50 artists from Europe a few years back for a magazine. Every single writer told me, they started out as a DJ or a B-boy and then picked up painting. I had no idea what the hell they were talking about. Because we didn’t come from the Hip Hop era.

1xRun: Writing graffiti is in a sense storytelling, when you decided to go out and paint back then did you bring a sketch, or were you simply improvising everything on the spot?
We were doing stick letters, you would do a piece later with a cloud. So we were in school sketching instead of listening to the teacher. So eventually what you were drawing that day in class would wind up on a train later that day.

1xRun: There’s no cameras back then in the yards, layups etc. Were you guys just strolling in and helping yourselves essentially?
You were doing a lot of climbing. You had to be very physical. You had to be stealth and worry about the workers. I always painted a layup because if the cops came you could get out way easier. There’s pictures in the book of some TC5 guys climbing poles and crawling into spots.

1xRun: Did you have a similar experience Chris?
Sadly at that my age my testicles were not that large. When I was older at 20, I wasn’t doing it yet. Those guys were 16 and could rack 300 cans of paint in a weekend, that’s not how I rolled.

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Freedom’s famous illegal productions in New York City’s “Freedom Tunnels”

1xRun: Do you think the impact would be the same if graffiti didn’t explode onto the subway system?
: I don’t see how it could. I could have a train piece run for 3 to 5 years in the early days.

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No one would clean it or cross it out. Henry Chalfant shows a picture in Subway Art that was shot in the 80’s that I painted in the late 70’s. So 5 to 6 years later this piece is still getting caught and documented.

1xRun: That’s incredible! Some pieces don’t last 24 hours.
Blade: It should also be noted that in those days, your friends would be drinking and catching tags together with a few cans of paint at first. Next thing you know you’re doing multiple pieces and the paint is running out fast. It became a job to rack paint. Most writers back out because it was difficult to keep up with the rest of them.

1xRun: I’m 30 now and I still paint. I guess we just need attention as writers. Do you guys feel that all this is just making up for some void we will never be able to fill?
Blade: I love it! I wake up at 4:30 a.m. every morning and paint. As far as back then, all of my concepts and ideas all come from dreams. I wake up and sketch them out on paper. Even now I just go right to it, sometimes I wake up at 2 a.m. and just remember the dream and go right to the painting. I paint because I love it.
Pape: There are a lot variables involved. Blade is an extremely hard worker. He wakes up everyday and gives 110% in his art. These guys are wired differently. It takes me 4 months to prepare for a show. As far as the psychological aspect. Yea, you want to be seen.

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Blade: You were exploring the worlds many people will never see. You were having fun, like Huck Finn! If I had the chance to do my childhood over I wouldn’t do anything differently. People ask me would I do things differently, I always tell them no. Because every country in the world now has graffiti and every bookstore has a graffiti section. My peers and myself have textbooks written on what we were doing. It was a profound experience and we were just having a blast.

Pape: It has a lot to with the extraordinary events of New York City in the 70’s that will never be duplicated. Graffiti was a major part of that and Blade was in a perfect place at that time. I have two kids now and don’t wish that the city will ever look like that again, as far as how dangerous it was. I wouldn’t change anything either.

Blade: It truly was a golden era of New York. There’s too many cameras and surveillance now for anything like that to ever happen. It’s non-sense and you can’t have any fun.

1xRun: This is kind of a cliché question but did you ever once stop and think they’re going to be writing books about this movement 20 years from now.
Never! We were just wild kids having fun smoking weed and the fact that it’s a global business now is unbelievable.

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Today enormous worldwide, large scale productions find artists projecting their entire image on their canvas. To say things have changed is an understatement. Blade and his crew members during the early 1970s were trailblazers in the formative years of graffiti.  One thing you have to remember in all this chaos is every single train was done 100% illegal in every form of the word. Trespassing into the train yards, stealing the paint and applying the paint with new ideas to a world of unbelievable imagination. New York City should be honored that graffiti was birthed in the post apocalyptic era of the 1970’s.

Pick up Blade’s King of Graffiti here!

 – Each Available with Custom Original Artwork from Blade – 


Interview by 1xRUN writer and photographer Mike Popso. Previously Popso has covered Venice Biennial’s Bridges of Graffiti, Pow Wow Hawaii and more for 1xNEWS. You can follow him at @mrpopso84.