Remembering…IZ the Wiz
Michael Martin, Subway Graffiti Artist Iz the Wiz, Is Dead at 50
“This is it…..This is it…”
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Published: June 29, 2009 by the New York Times
In the 1970s and ’80s, chances were good that anyone traveling the New York subways rode at least once in a car emblazoned with “Iz the Wiz.” Cryptic but euphonious, often abbreviated to the ultraminimal IZ, the signature could be seen all over the subway system: fat capital letters spray-painted on a door, below a window, across an entire car or even along the full length of a train.
Iz the Wiz was a legend among graffiti artists, by almost all accounts “the longest-reigning all-city king in N.Y.C. history,” as the graffiti Web site at 149st.com puts it. In other words, Iz put his name, or tag, on subway cars running on every line in the system more times than any other artist. Michael Martin — Iz the Wiz — died on June 17 in Spring Hill, Fla., where he had moved a few years ago. He was 50. The cause was a heart attack, said Ed Walker, who is working on a biography and documentary of Iz the Wiz.
“Look at any movie shot on location in New York from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, and you will very likely see an Iz tag,” Mr. Walker said. “He told me once that in 1982 he went out every night and did at least a hundred throw-ups” — letters filled in quickly with a thin layer of color. “People can’t fathom it.”
Michael Martin, known as Iz the Wiz, was a prolific embellisher of New York subway cars, including this one painted in 1982.
Not everyone was appreciative. His career put him on the wrong side of the law — he was issued summonses on several occasions — and of New Yorkers who regarded graffiti as vandalism, not art. But he was a hero to generations of taggers. Mr. Martin started out spraying graffiti on walls and buildings when he was 14, using the tags Scat or FCN, for French Canadian National, although he was not Canadian. He soon graduated to subway cars, specializing in the A line, the longest in the New York subway system. He painted his first cars with the tag Ike — his nickname, Mike, minus the first letter.
In 1975, in the 68th Street Station of the Lexington Avenue line, he saw a poster for the Broadway play “The Wiz” with the slogan, “The Wiz Is a Wow.” It had a certain ring. “He said, ‘If the Wiz is a Wow, why can’t Iz be the Wiz?’ ” his friend and fellow graffiti artist SAR (real name, Charles Sar) recalled in a telephone interview last week.
With the graffiti artist Vinny, Mr. Martin mounted an intensive throw-up campaign on the A line. In the late 1970s he branched out to other lines, spray-painting top-to-bottoms (graffiti displays extending from the top of a train to the bottom), burners (complicated works intended to dazzle the competition) and fully realized scenes, like his homage to John Lennon, painted after Lennon was shot to death in 1980. It was a two-car scene with a portrait of Lennon and a graveyard filled with tombstones.
“He was an artist, but also a bomber, recognized as a person who made himself seen by everybody,” said the photographer Henry Chalfant, using the graffiti term for a prolific artist. “At the same time he appreciated the aesthetic side of it. He didn’t do wild style” — complex, interlocking letters — “he had a simple, readable style with great color and interesting forms within the lettering itself.”
With the photographer Martha Cooper, Mr. Chalfant published “Subway Art” (1984), recently reissued by Chronicle Books; with the director and producer Tony Silver, he produced the documentary film “Style Wars” (1983), which included Mr. Martin in its portraits of graffiti and hip-hop artists. He also appeared in the role of a transit police detective in the cult 1983 film “Wild Style.”
Mr. Martin was born in Manhattan and lived in a succession of foster homes after his mother was imprisoned for burglary. He did not know his father. He grew up in Ozone Park, Queens, and as a teenager lived in Covenant House on the Lower East Side.
Like many others, he found a community in the graffiti movement. Early on he worked with artists like Vinny, Epic 1&2, and Evil 13. Later he painted with many of the top crews, or graffiti collectives, in New York, including the Odd Partners, the Crew and the Three Yard Boys. At one point he was president of the Master Blasters and the Queens chapter of the Prisoners of Graffiti.
When the graffiti artist Spar One, interviewing Mr. Martin for at149st.com in 1995, asked how many complete cars he had decorated (“You mean like burner top-to-bottom jammies?” he asked), he said: “Oh, I don’t know, I never counted. But I know in the years ’81 to ’82 I did no less than 25.” Mr. Martin often added snippets from classic rock lyrics to his tags, like “whole lotta love” or “welcome to the machine,” which became the informal titles for his more famous works.
The displays enjoyed surprising longevity in the days before the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began cracking down on graffiti. Elaborately painted cars could run for months or even years. Artists would often gather at certain stations to watch their work and keep an eye on the competition, much like their counterparts did in 15th-century Florence.
Mr. Martin withdrew from the scene in the mid-1980s. He managed a grocery store briefly, then began using drugs heavily. A marriage in the late 1980s ended in divorce. He is survived by a brother, Peter Poston of Spring Hill, and a sister, Evelyn Poston of East Stroudsburg, Pa.
In the 1990s Mr. Martin jumped back into graffiti, painting cars, but also taking part in the legal graffiti movement, expressing himself on walls set aside for the purpose. He was one of the first artists to work on the Phun Phactory, a 200,000-square-foot industrial building in Long Island City, Queens, that artists began covering with graffiti in 1993. It is now known as the 5 Pointz Aerosol Art Center, or the Institute of Higher Burnin’.
Mr. Martin learned he had kidney failure in 1996, which he assumed was a result of working with aerosol paint, and for the rest of his life he was on dialysis. His financial situation was dire. “He never made the connections he needed to make to be appreciated in the art world,” Mr. Sar said.
Iz the Wiz sought fame, and found it, but not on gallery walls. His work appeared on the old dusty brown subway cars known as coal mines, and their replacements, called ding dongs for the bell tone that chimes when the doors close. Painting one of those, end to end, Mr. Martin once said, “was like sex in a can.”
A version of this article appeared in print on June 29, 2009, on page A19 of the New York edition.