FAITHLESS CITY

Written and Photographed by Nigel Clarke

The writing is on the wall. The 5PTZ graffiti art space which is located in Queens, New York is facing its end. The walls of the warehouse — turned art space may come down, making room for high rise condominiums.

Back in 1992, when the building owner Jerry Wolkoff had the faith of graffiti, he allowed the warehouse to be turned into the Phun Phactory. Aerosol artists could legally hone their skills and in a sense — get up. Jerry kept the faith and in 2002, MERES stepped in and became the administrator. The warehouse became the 5PTZ: The Institute of Higher Burning.

Jerry lost his faith in 2009, when a resident artist who rented a studio was injured in a stairway collapse. That accident initiated a number of building code violations and prompted Jerry to rethink the building’s future.


 

For the sake of this article, for those of you with the faith, aerosol art is identified as graffiti and the artist are writers.

The building’s multicolored canvas is a break from the mundane place that New York City has become. “How many places in New York can you go, where you’re guaranteed to see someone spraying on any given day?” asks MERES.

“This building is important. It’s more than just graffiti” explains MERES. Before trains were graffiti proof — before Jeru got loose —  the writers bench at 149th street in the Bronx, was the most important location for writers in New York City. There, artist would receive critique from other writers and watch incoming trains to see who was up. For those with faith in graffiti, that was the ritual.

Post clean train campaign, the 5PTZ has become a central meeting point for writers in New York City. “I got the old school generation that comes, we got the new school writers that come — the old school writers can tell their tales to the younger ones and vice versa” says MERES.  The 5PTZ is essential for the younger generation of writers who need to properly learn the art of getting over.

CHIEF69, the watch the throne writer, spoke on the importance of learning at the 5PTZ saying “I’ve gone there and the older writers, if they see someone like myself who has potential, they’ll show me techniques or something or they’ll give me that simple good conversation.”

 

 

COPE2 a king who destroys, the writer who went all city, then all world, spoke on the importance of the points of the location saying “It’s important in general because it gives graffiti writers a place to express themselves. Especially writers and artist that come from all over the world. It’s grown to a point, over the years — it’s pretty iconic. When I travel, a lot of writers ask me about that place and how when they come to New York, they want to paint at 5PTZ. So it got big. It got to a point it’s almost like a hall of fame. So it’s very important for the graffiti writers around the world and New York in general.”

Although graffiti didn’t originate in New York City, it blossomed on the trains and for that reason, New York City is considered graffiti’s mecca. Writers from all over the world have made their Hajj and put their work up at the 5PTZ. When walking the perimeter of the building, when examining the masterpieces, you’ll see signatures from countries such as Japan, Mexico, Italy, Brazil and Paris. “When writers come from overseas, there’s like three things they want to do. They want to hit a train, they want to hit the 5PTZ and they want to go to some Hip Hop events” said CHIEF69.

As I accompanied MERES on his routine walk around the building, he spoke on how the 5PTZ was a place where Hip Hop was living, saying “This place, we’ll rhyme in the summer. I’ll throw some instrumentals on and we’ll get it poppin — just start spittin. There are times when we will freestyle and some cat will come in… We all just start cyphering together. ” Whether the cyphers are focused on rhymes, graffiti or breaking, the 5PTZ has been a location where Hip Hop knowledge was transferred.

The possible changes at the 5PTZ speak on the new landscape of New York City. With the changes, the new generation of individuals who migrate to the city, those who contribute to gentrification don’t know the history of the neighborhoods they’re living in. “Things are going to evolve, but what sucks is that people don’t know the history and they’re losing the history… For you to loose contact with the origins, It’s horrible” said MERES.

 


MERES also reflected on his youth, and the positive things the graffiti lifestyle gave him saying “I did a lot of shit when I was younger — I could have done time. Graffiti was the outlet I chose and over all I’m glad. I have friends who are doing time for shooting or drugs and this [graffiti] gave me a means to stay out of that.” While working at the 5PTZ, MERES has seen a generation of writers and the influence saying “It’s about saving a few kids. That’s the magic of this place, 5PTZ has been here so long, I’m seeing kids grow.” MERES fully understood the importance of the 5PTZ when a writer named DRIP was killed in a car accident, and his mother choose to commemorate his memory with a ceremony at the 5PTZ. “That was one of the most dramatic things I’ve ever seen. Made me realize more than ever what impact this has on people and that shit is serious” said MERES.

More than anything else, the 5PTZ provided writers a location where they had an outlet. JESUSSAVES, the veteran tagger who became a street disciple spoke on the importance of the 5PTZ saying “Its not fair, because now we won’t have any permission walls to do. 5PTZ was the only spot we had to paint. I pray to God they open up another spot and we can paint legally. If not, people will get tempted to do something else. This is the reason why there’s a lot of vandalism going on. Police, they’re making a bid deal out of it. People will have no choice but to go out and vandalize. Because it’s in them.”

 


Many would be politicians and individuals in law enforcement may be glad to hear about the impending end of the graffiti hub. They may feel as though they’re stifling the art form, but the clean train campaign should have been a lesson about the evolving culture. “If they took it away, it wont do anything.  That’s the thing about the art, the culture in general, it’s an art that will breed on. They’re always going to find another place, another spot to paint. There is always going to be  places to paint. Just like when the subway trains died people thought it was over. Graffiti went on, to highways rooftops and walls” said COPE2. The demise of the 5PTZ may have reverse ramifications and force writers back on the streets, or spark a return to the trains.

A city that doesn’t see the need to make 1520 Sedgewick a landmark, will be hard pressed to preserve the under appreciated art that flourishes at the 5PTZ. “A big part of why people don’t appreciate graffiti art is because they don’t understand it. And when people don’t understand something, they dislike it. Now that we’re aware that there is a time frame that the building may come down, we’re taking it day by day. Trying to do the best we can and bring awareness. For people who have not been here, come to 5PTZ, come check it out.”

Meres spoke on the current design of the 5PTZ saying “What we chose to do this year, since we knew we were going to redo it — Why don’t we crown the building with the fallen artist? This way, they’re closest to heaven.” Those who visit the points will see pieces dedicated to fallen kings like DONDI and IZ THE WIZ. Crowns on top.


There are no ill feelings towards the landlord, whose faith allowed the art to thrive on the property. MERES confirmed his faith in graffiti saying “I’m concentrating on now. This paint season, let’s have a great season, let’s have some good events. Get the walls looking beautiful and worry about next year when it comes. I have a hundred and fifty percent feeling that this place is going to stay. I don’t envision it as falling. I know things are against me, but it’s a magical place and I think that it will be here forever.”

The new version of New York City, is attempting to write over a lifestyle.  Unfortunately there is no more faith in graffiti — no crime in the city — and if New York doesn’t preserve its culture, their will be no love for the city. Speaking on the possible end of the points, COPE2 said “5PTZ history will be erased, but not graffiti history in general. It will never be erased, it is something that has made its place in history.”



 

When I spoke on the possibility of graffiti dying in New York City, Meres said “I don’t think graffiti will die in New York. It will keep going. I’ll keep going. I know there are others like me.”

New York City, remember your history. Keep your faith. Crowns on top.

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Nigel Clarke | @iamnigelclarke

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