Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On Ernie Paniccioli's Graffiti Photos

"Urban Blight: the Graffiti Photographs of Ernie Paniccioli"
An Essay By Michael A. Gonzales

Note: This 2004 essay was written for my friend Ernie Paniccioli's photo exhibit at Bill Adler's now defunct Eyejammie Gallery.

Since the beginning of recorded history, New York City has been a haven for outlaws. From the hard-knock characters lurking in the Lower East Side of Herbert Asbury’s seminal "Gangs of New York" in the 1840s to the Mafia families in the 1940s to the grimy gangs trooping through the Bronx in the 1960s, we have often romanticized the dirty deeds of these urban desperadoes.

Coming of age in the heart of Harlem during the late Seventies, when hip-hop culture was so young it didn’t even have a name, I witnessed another kind of outlaw emerging from the rubble of a bankrupt city. Calling themselves "writers," these kids could have cared less about composing The Great American Novel or a Marxist manifesto. Their writing was done with spray-paint, using vibrant colors that illegally "defaced" public spaces and private property. Armed with cans of Krylon, Red-Devil or Rustoleum that had been stolen (or "racked") from the local Woolworth’s or hardware store, these visual vandals created multicolored spectacles on the surface of subway cars and ghetto walls.

Standing on the elevated 125th Street subway station, where the beat-down IRT #1 train ran, it was always a joy to see the aged steel cars creep down the tracks gleaming with a fresh piece of writing. These massive and moveable artworks were illustrated proof that yet another beautiful art form, like jazz or the Charleston, had been birthed out of the brutality of the hood.

Ernie Paniccioli and Eyejammie's Bill Adler

Although these works were immediately celebrated by enthusiasts of the graff genre as genius, many New Yorkers were less than enthusiastic. Irate parents, cops, and the court jesters running city hall were in agreement that these rebel writers were simply criminals destroying property. Of course, within the tribal universe of graff crews, writing was like breathing, and as long as there was a steady flow of paint -- sunset orange, jungle green, empire blue -- the world was a perfect place.

With names like Lee and Dondi, Vulcan and Blade, many of these talented kids were unhindered by the codes of surrealism, futurism or post-modernism. Yet whatever they lacked in formal education and museum visits, they made up with an overflow of vivid ideas, crazy styles, boundless energy, and badass swagger. In any case, if comic books had been a respectable influence for Warhol and Lichtenstein in the Sixties, they were certainly good enough for the graff kids a decade later. By the early Eighties, when a new generation of art world stars emerged -- including such new-jack painters as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Gary Panter and Kenny Scharf – it was clear that they were equally influenced by Warhol and the first great graff writers.

Ernie Paniccioli was recently discharged from his service in the Vietnam War and nearly thirty years old when he peeped his first graff crew chilling at the infamous Writer’s Bench in the subway station at 149th and the Grand Concourse. "What blew me away about these kids was how true their work was," Paniccioli says. "Looking at one piece, I could pick up on their magic, pain, anger, frustration and fear. I was also deeply impressed by their commitment. They risked being bitten by transit dogs, electrocuted on the third rail, and beaten-up by rival crews. They gambled everything just to do their art."

Of course, for many of the wild boys sneaking into the treacherous train yards at night, graff seemed like the only way of announcing their presence to an indifferent planet. "These kids kids barely existed for most of society," Ernie notes. "Unless it was thugs in handcuffs on the six o’clock news or a PBS special about the failing school system, no one paid them any attention. Graffiti was a way for them to scream. With graffiti, they were somebody."

Like his graffiti-snapping peers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, Paniccioli was one of the very few photographers allowed into the inner sanctums of these subterranean style warriors. Laughing, Ernie recalls, "When I first started hanging around, a few of the kids thought I was a cop, so they would run away. After a while we got to know each other, and they trusted me enough to tell me where they would be bombing. Believe me, I took it as a great honor that these guys invited me into their world."

Photographers Jamel Shabazz, Martha Cooper, Ernie Paniccioli and director Charlie Ahearn

In 2004 New York City is a completely different kind of metropolis. The trains have changed, hip-hop has become a multimillion dollar business, Times Square has been redesigned as a theme park, and the once dangerous and decadent spirit that hovered over the concrete jungle, influencing a wide range of innovators, has seemingly disappeared.

Yet, while the furor for writing might not be as intense as it once was, there are new graff kids on the block trying to keep hope alive. These days Ernie Paniccioli can still be seen shooting pictures on the streets of the city...any city. Be it New York or Sao Paulo, Brazil (where, in February of this year, several of this show's images were shot), the brother is still doing it.

His work is important not only for its own sake, but because it preserves the work of the graff crews. "No matter how long they planned and worked on their pieces, the writers were well aware that the next day it might be scrubbed away," says Ernie. Indeed, as homegirl Susan Sontag has scribbled in another context, Ernie's work confers "kind of immortality" upon these transient masterpieces.

(Pictured below: Postcard for "Urban Blight". Mural by Team, 1985. Photo by Ernie Paniccioli.)

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