Graffiti Legends – Part 1

The Artists that Sparked a Pop Culture Phenomenon – Part 1

5 graffiti artists that brought street art to the mainstream.
In Inspiration, by Dimi Arhontidis, February 08, 2010

History: The word GRAFFITI simply means–words or drawings scratched, scribbled or painted on a wall. The word originates from the Greek word “graphein” (to write) and the word “grafitti” itself is plural of the Italian word “graffito.” Graffiti markings have been around since the beginning of time, remnant of early graffiti can be seen in caves all over the world. It represents a human desire and need for communication, and in some cases the simple display of existence.


A tag or a mural for graffiti artists is an advertisement for an individual–the goal is to get your name known. You have to have a marketing strategy, what will be the most effective way of getting your name (product) well known, everywhere! Sound familiar? Well it should, because that is exactly what all of us are doing on twitter every day, facebook or any other medium that we use to promote ourselves, our business etc. Companies with money use billboards and TV ads, people with less or no money in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s used a marker.

In part one of a 3 part series, I will talk about 5 individuals that brought street art to the mainstream.

Taki 183

What better place to start than Taki 183, who some call the godfather of modern graffiti.
Taki 183

TAKI 183 is one of the most influential graffiti writers. His “tag” was short for Demetaki, a Greek alternative for his birth-name Demetrius, and the number 183 came from his address on 183rd Street in Washington Heights. He worked as a foot messenger in New York City and would write his nickname around the New York streets that he frequented during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Taki 183 New York Times

On July 21, 1971, The New York Times ran an article about him on the front page of its inside section, titled “Taki 183” Spawns Pen Pals. TAKI 183’s newspaper fame spurred competitive tagging in NYC as his tag was being mimicked by hundreds of youth across the five boroughs. The people who got their names up the most and developed signature tags became heroes in their communities. Graffiti became a way for many young kids to communicate and express themselves, their graffiti is a vital part of their culture and without TAKI 183 and its media recognition; it might not exist today.

Download the full 1971 New York Times article

Taki 183

Although TAKI 183 was the first to be showcased in a major publication, it is said that Julio 204 began writing his tag in NYC first. But Julio did not write outside his own neighborhood and this is arguably the reason why he never received the credits and media-attention TAKI did.

Taki 183

TAKI was last known to be the owner of a foreign car repair shop. In an interview with the New York Daily News of April 9, 1989, he talked about his retirement as a graffiti writer: “As soon as I got into something more productive in my life, I stopped. Eventually I got into business, got married, bought a house, and had a kid. Didn’t buy a station wagon, but I grew up, you could say that”.



Andrew Zephyr Witten is a graffiti artist, lecturer and author from New York City. He began creating graffiti in 1975 and first signed using the name “Zephyr” in 1977. He has been identified as a graffiti “elder”, who along with Futura 2000, Blade, PHASE 2, Lady Pink and TAKI 183 invented styles and standards “that continue to be used and expanded upon today”.

Witten was part of the first wave of graffiti artists to make the transition to galleries, collectors and commercial work. In the early 80s, he showed at NYC galleries specialized in graffiti, such as the FUN Gallery and 51X. His art was part of a five-man show including Fab Five Freddy, Dominique Philbert, Futura 2000 and Dondi White that toured Japan in 1983. In 2005, he was included in the East Village USA show held at The New Museum.

His works can be seen in the Hip-hop culture documentary Style Wars and he was featured as himself in the landmark hip-hop motion picture Wild Style. He is co-author of a 2001 biography of fellow graffiti artist, Dondi White: Dondi White Style Master General: The Life of Graffiti Artist Dondi White. He is interviewed in the 2005 DIY graffiti video The Art of Storytelling, where he talks about fallen graffiti artist Nace. He was also featured in the documentary Bomb It as himself.

His name comes from the Greek word ???????, which means west wind. Many of his most popular pieces have been done by simply redesigning his trademark name “Zeph” or “Zephyr”. Sharp contrast in the edges of the letters is also featured throughout his artwork.


Witten’s influence on New York City’s self-image is exemplified in Suzanne Vega’s 2007 song “Zephyr and I,” which uses a conversation between Vega and Witten as a framing device to create what Vega describes as “sort of a little snapshot of what West End Avenue used to be like in the 70s.”



Donald Joseph White, “DONDI” (April 7, 1961 – October 2, 1998) is considered one of the most influential graffiti artists in the history of the movement.

Born in the East New York section of Brooklyn, Dondi was the youngest of five children. He was of African American and Italian American descent. He attended a catholic school during his junior years. By the 1970s East New York became an unstable region with racial tensions social conflicts such as the prominence of street gangs. In an interview with Zephyr, Dondi stated that he had joined several gangs in the 1970s to avoid being attacked. Anxious to leave high school behind, he earned his GED in 1980, took a job in a government office, and began to indulge his interest in graffiti.


Graffiti became a serious part of Dondi’s life in the mid 1970s. He tagged using “NACO” and “DONDI”, and worked on refining his style, gradually moving from simple tagging to building more elaborate pieces. He became a member of TOP crew (The Odd Partners) in 1977. In 1978, Dondi formed his own crew, named CIA (Crazy Inside Artists), which included other prominent artists such as CRASH, DOC, and RASTA. For the next 20-odd years, Dondi became recognized as the stylistic standard, influencing a generation of graffiti writers.


His most famous work was Children of the Grave Parts 1, 2 and 3—three whole cars on the New York subway in the years 1978–1980. The name of the piece was taken from a Black Sabbath song. Journalist Martha Cooper filmed the final piece from start to finish. On this last piece, Dondi adopted the cartoon characters from the late Vaughn Bode. It was a dream-come-true for Dondi, who was building his reputation as a graffiti writer.

Dondi was the first graffiti artist to have a one-man show in the Netherlands and Germany, and his work is collected by European museums.

Phase 2


(aka Lonny Wood) another and well known New York City graffiti artists. Mostly active in the 1970s, Phase 2 is generally credited with originating the “bubble letter” style of graffiti writing, also known as “softies”. He was also influential in the early hip-hop scene.

He began writing in late 1971 under the name Phase 2, a moniker that had a rather mundane provenance. As Phase 2 would later recall, “the previous year we’d given this party. We were getting ready to give another one and I said, ‘We’ll call this one Phase Two.’ I don’t know why, but I was stuck on the name. It had meaning for me. I started writing ‘Phase 2.'”

Part of the appeal of graffiti writing for Phase 2 was that it allowed him to get his “name” known yet remain anonymous. He noted later that tagging provided disadvantaged urban teens “the only significant vehicle to represent their ‘existence.'”


It was in late 1972 that Phase 2 first used an early version of the “bubble letter” or “softie”, a style of graffiti writing, which would become extremely influential and is considered a “giant leap” in the art form. The puffed-out, marshmallow-like letters drawn by Phase 2 were soon copied by other artists who added their own variations. Phase himself quickly embellished on his original form, creating and naming dozens of varieties of softies such as “phasemagorical phantastic” (bubble letters with stars), “bubble cloud”, and “bubble drip.” He is also credited with pioneering the use of arrows in graf writing around this same time. Hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang has noted that Phase 2’s canvasses from 1973 have “been widely recognized as defining the early genre.”


Over time Phase’s work become more and more complex, moving far away from the simple tags of the early 70s to “hieroglyphically calligraphic abstraction.” New York graffiti artist, Vulcan, remarked that “one of the things about Phase is that he was the only person at the time whose name could roll by ten times and each piece was different. That’s what you noticed about his work.”

In 1974 Phase 2 joined the newly created United Graffiti Artists, a professional graffiti collective that began to attract media attention. He was featured in an important essay on graffiti art by Richard Goldstein, which appeared in New York magazine and inspired a new generation of graffiti artists.

In the 1980s, Phase 2 began publishing International Graffiti Times, the first zine about graffiti writing.



Fernando Carlo is a famous graffiti artist from the South Bronx, New York. He has been writing graffiti since 1978-79, and has gained international credit for his work. Though he is now known worldwide, he didn’t receive recognition in the mainstream graffiti world until the mid 1990’s.


Cope2 has achieved considerable mainstream success for his artwork and has collaborated and released many projects alongside such names as Adidas and Time Magazine.

Bomb the System

In 2002 Cope2 provided artwork for Adam Bhala Lough’s Bomb the System, including the infamous piece on the Brooklyn Bridge. He can be seen on the DVD’s behind the scene footage painting one of the pieces at the end of the film.

cope2 and converse

In 2005, Cope2 collaborated with and designed a pair of sneakers for Converse under the “Chuck Taylor All-Stars” line.

Also in 2005, Time Magazine commissioned Cope2, for $20,000(USD), to paint a billboard ad in the SoHo district of Manhattan, New York on Houston and Wooster. The ad depicts the magazines cover with graffiti tags scrawled over it; the text reads “Post-Modernism? Neo-Expressionism? Just Vandalism? Time. Know Why”.

In 2006 Cope2 appeared in Marc Ecko’s video game, Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure. He features prominently as one of the “graffiti legends” that gives the protagonist advice on the graffiti world. His “throw-up” is also widely recognizable throughout the game. Cope2’s “throw-up” has also had appearances in other media productions. It has appeared on walls in the videogame GTA IV and in the movie “Shrek The Third” amongst others.

Get your hands on the “Dondi White Style Master General” book mentioned earlier and more graffiti books here.

Resources: Wikipedia, Google Images, Taki183

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