Airone: Ciao Pistol, how did you get that name?
Pistol: I started out briefly with the name Comet 232. The number comes from the where I was born on, 232nd st in the Bronx. I changed it to Pistol soon after. The name Pistol comes from an innovative basketball player named Pistol Pete Maravich whom at the time in 1971 when I was 15, was the first white player in the NBA to dazzle and astonish the crowd with dribbling and passing wizardry. He was a magician with the ball and a real crowd pleaser. He is one of the all time greatest of the NBA, and as a teenager who always played basketball, I was greatly influenced by him so I chose the name Pistol as my tag.
Airone: How did you start writing?
Pistol: I kind of retreated into my own world that consisted mostly of playing basketball, listening to music and creating art. In 1969 I discovered the music of Jimi Hendrix and my whole world changed. His music was so powerful it changed the way I saw the world, heard the world and how I wanted to devote myself to music and art. The music would come later in terms of me playing and recording. A year and a half after discovering Hendrix he tragically died in 1970 and his death was a defining point in my life leaving a big void. I started writing in early 1971 when I was accepted to Art & Design High School. When I arrived A&D was the emerging hot bed of NYC subway graffiti. Many of the top writers were going there including Taki 183, SJK 171, Super Mug 1, K55, Flint, Fab 5 Freddy and my mentor who showed me the ropes Tracy 168. As a way of mourning Hendrix I became Pistol and as a tribute to him I immersed myself into blanketing the NYC subway system with creating graffiti works on the trains.
Airone: In 1971, Writing was just born: what kind of Writing scene do you remember in NY before you started writing?
Pistol: Graffiti exploded in NYC less than a year before I started writing. I rode the subway into Manhattan from Brooklyn with my mother. She was going to work and I was going for the first time to Art & Design High School. I remember looking out the window and focusing on all work going by me from oncoming trains and subway stations. My mother’s reaction was she knew I was being inspired by it but she didn’t approve. Among the names that stood out were Phase 2, Stay High 149, Coco 144, Spin, Tracy 168 and Bama (whom has become a life long friend and a screenplay based on our lives is currently being considered for production). As I progressed into writing full time, I wrote with writers from A&D and I hooked up with Brooklyn writers who became my posse that included Killer, Savage, Mico, Poco, Sonic Kool 171, and K55. The Bronx and Manhattan writers had their crews who wrote together but we all got along as artists and admired each other’s work. Graffiti precluded race and pop culture. Remember this was the early 70’s and graffiti was a new art form that wasn’t lumped together with Hip Hop as it is today because it didn’t exist at that time. Around 1972 I started the Brooklyn writer’s corner with WG & Killer on the Atlantic Avenue Station. Writers would meet in the afternoon and sit on the last bench and hang out and admire each other’s work. Writers from all over were welcome to join us.
Airone: Where do you come from?
Pistol: Having moved from the Bronx to Brooklyn when I was 5 years old my family settled in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn that at the time was a tough lower middle class largely italian area I affectionately called ‘the mafia breeding ground’ where most of my friends family were all connected in some way to the mob. I lived 5 blocks from the “godfather”, the last don of the mafia, Carlo Gambino. This was the late 60’s and as a jewish person I was a bit of an outsider but my older sister was very much a part of them and they took me under their wing. They always thought I was a weird off beat artist who stayed to himself. I used to ride my bike on Ocean Parkway to Avenue Z and stop to annoy the FBI agents staked out across the street from Carlo Gambino. As I said earlier everything changed when I heard Hendrix in 1969. I escaped into my own world and weaved in and out of my neighborhood. The four years I went to A&D I revolutionized graffiti creating the first ever 3D piece as well as the flag piece while quietly living in a neighborhood that paid little or no attention to what I was doing. Now 30 years later the neighborhood is predominately russian, eastern european and spanish. I have not been back in many years.
Airone: What’s your family background?
Pistol: My father’s parents were from Moscow Russia and my mother’s parents were from Warsaw, Poland. Both are of jewish heritage but we were not a religious family so my spirituality came from my faith in art and music. Both my parents were in the dark about my graffiti but they soon found out and I rebelled against their disapproval that I had a price to pay. It damaged my relationship with them and although we loved each other I did alienate them and it was difficult to repair later in life. But that is the sacrifice an artist sometimes makes.
Airone: Back in the days, what was your feeling doin’ something nobody have ever done before? Even if you were so young, did you and your friends realize that you were goin to change a lot of things for hundreds people in the world?
Pistol: We felt like alien visitors from another planet. And I mean that because we alienated many of our friends and family. It was considered anti-social behavior and because only a handful of people were writing we most certainly felt like we were creating something new and revolutionary. All great art comes from the street and European Art critics have been on record as saying graffiti is the last great Art form to come out of America since Rock & Roll and Jazz. When we started getting the attention from the media and the art world we were very aware that what we were doing would have long lasting and influential impact. But on the level it has grown is a testament to it’s worldwide influence and acceptance in modern culture. It now has a $ dollar value!!!!!!
Airone: In 1971 Writing was so young that it must have been a kind of surprising fenomenon in the city… but it was the 70s and there were so many strange and crazy movements around (not less in music as you say): when common people in NY started to think that the strange tags they saw around were not simple signatures but the beginning of something new? And when did the city start to think at writing as an “enemy”?
Pistol: It was divided. A percentage of commuters were not thrilled sitting on dried paint and not being able to see out the windows. Mostly younger people and tourists liked the movement and of course the growing number of writers. At the time the Mayor of NY was John Lindsey whose administration was inept and put the city in debt. When the tags became large-scale pieces Mayor Lindsay became obsessed with trying to combat Graffiti to the point of assigning a special task force that far exceeded the city budget. He had a special op named Swartz who led the force to capture all the top writers and it escalated to the level where so many millions were spent and they couldn’t make a dent in stopping it. Mayor Lindsay was publicly obsessed with it and it divided his administration to the point he became ineffective in running the city and it is widely said that his inability to fight Graffiti brought down his administration.
Airone: The evolution from the simple tag to a “masterpeiece” has been a quite fast but gradual process in the Writing evolution, and in the very beginning every step have been done by writers only to find some particularity to their tags to be distinguished from the others. How did it happen that people start to think and consider “style” as the true art element in the graffiti writing movement?
Pistol: It’s no different than any other art form, musical style, automobile style, architecture style or fashion style. If a human being creates it, another human being will copy it, improve upon it and complicate it till the point of no return. While this is happening other human beings will write about it, criticize it, come up with names for it and convince the rest of the human beings to believe it and follow it. But it always comes full circle to ‘the truth’. The truth is always the simplest of things and history always gives us human beings a choice, which is what they choose to see!
Airone: It’s remarkable how many writers from the first wave came from art schools, most of the people just think about ignorant ghetto-kids… do the art-teachers realised what some of their students were creating in the subway tunnels or do they understimated the fenomenon?
Pistol: Very interesting question! I attended Art & Design High School in 1971 when Graffiti was in the early stages. The subways were covered with it making the subway cars moving canvases. The instructors or teachers rode the subway to our school to teach us just as the students took the subway. The teachers and the students were artists, however half the teachers were appalled by it, which were the more technical teachers and the other half who taught painting and communication art found it fascinating. We had a special security guard named Shaft who focused on finding out who the top writers were because the city and police knew that Art & design was a breeding ground for what was destroying the surface of New York City. He loved us and never gave us up!
Airone: Music and Writing seems to be hard linked from the beginning in your life’s story. As you just said, music had a great influence on you when you started painting. Did Writing have later the same influence when you become a music player?
Pistol: Indeed it did because I approach my music very similar to a painting. I have an idea but I’m not sure where that idea is going to go and starts to take on a life of it’s own. Well with music I may have a composition in sketch form and when I play it. It sounds different when in my head. When my musicians join in and play their parts I have a whole new foundation ( canvas that has been layered in gesso ). Than I listen for the best parts and merge them together to create a coherent rhythm. The colors and form of the painting are taking shape. Than I’ll add overdubs such as guitar solos and horn lines much like a painting that is in it’s final stages and than Tears comes in and adds his flow on top of it and before long after mixing and editing you have a piece of music that in my ears were inspired by my eyes such as a painting!
Airone: What do you mean when you say “my spirituality came from my faith in art and music”?
Pistol: I feel people who are sensitive, self aware and creative no matter what nationality or religion will agree with what I am saying. Religion tends to divide people. It tends to oppress people. It tends to strip them of independent thought so as not to arouse any conflict with what they are told to believe in their respected religions. Religion is a form of politics that excludes and in this complicated time in our world tends to be outdated and doesn’t work in terms of giving people spirituality and faith in God. When you create music or art or hear and see others creating music and art it gives you a sense of spirituality because all and anyone is welcomed to enjoy and interporate what they see and hear thus it is inclusive. It promotes harmony and brings people together that otherwise may never have even given each other a glance! It breaks down barriers and promotes independent thought with out having to offend someone because of a particular religious belief!
Airone: What has it been your story after the A&D school?
Pistol: Your talking 32 years and it would take almost as long to write about it but briefly I attended School Of Visual Arts for 1 year than I was accepted into the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music for one year. After that it has been one long wild ride. I stopped being involved with Graffiti for almost a decade and became a Magazine Art Director and designed many different publications over a twenty-year tenure. I became involved again in Graffiti in 1985 and never looked back. During the entire time I was always involved with music and I am currently working with an amazing rapper named TEARS whom I collaborate with and produce music with. We have a website that showcases our music. It is currently being revised and updated. I have been involved in gallery showings since 19 85 till the present. So the ride continues.
Airone: Through the many king’s name you talked about the one who comes off from your words is Tracy 168. Why him?
Pistol: Simple! He is the real deal. He is exactly the same now as he was the day I met him. Child like and every bit a writer as the day he started. He still tags and does pieces. The last time I saw him in 2003 he was driving without a license drinking a beer and tagging a mailbox on Madison Avenue and 61st Street. I was watching with my jaw dropped and shaking at the knees at the same time. We than went to a tavern and got drunk together and it felt like 35 years never came between us! He was the writer who showed me the ropes in 1971 in A&D. To me he exemplifies what graffiti is. He does it because it is who he is. Many writers who achieved great success were more about self-promotion and ambition but basically became commercial artists and repeat themselves. That in it self is O.K. but Tracy never cared so much if he became a brand, which what graffiti has become. I am O.K. with that because there is a lot of that in me, but there are boundaries I won’t cross because of my respect for the art form. I would prefer to sell paintings of my own way of seeing the world with Graffiti as the catalyst.
Airone: Do you feel good nowaday?
Pistol: I just turned 50 years old and I feel better now than I did in my twenty’s, thirty’s, etc. for the simple reason that I have stayed true to who I am. I still am loyal to my art with Graffiti and music and I do whatever it takes to keep doing it. Believe me I have my emotional conflicts and sadness cause as you grow in age some friends and family leave us as in death and that loss is unbearable but you pull through. I am happy to be alive and my health and fitness is great. I look younger now than twenty years ago and that is something to be grateful for.