In 1974, Chris Pape's older brother led him on an adventure that, more than a decade and a half later, drew his street art above ground and landed him a space in the same art catalogue as Picasso and other masters.
"Hi and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture" opened in New York's Museum of Modern Art last Thursday; the show will arrive at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles next year. One of the works catalogued is a photograph of a subway train graffitoed with spray paint by the unknown Chris Pape. (Although the show is 25% graffiti, the museum refused to show Pape's and other taggers' illegal work other than in the catalogue.)
But to graffiti connoisseurs, Pape is renowned for his works rendered on the fly in the semidarkness of train tunnels below the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.
It was an early summer morning, Pape remembers, the sky was sharp blue, school was winding to a close, and he was eager, at 14, to assuage the restlessness that grows inside many city kids.
"Vince and I were looking to get into trouble if we could," Pape says with a shrug in his black jacket and white Reebok sneakers. Before their adventure was over, Pape had visited the place where he would paint much of his illegal art.
Vince led Chris to a public restroom on 88th Street in Manhattan's Riverside Park. Under the boarded floor, they crawled through a dynamited hole--the only entrance to the railroad freight tunnel running under the Upper West Side. Pape remembers dropping 10 feet to a dirt embankment next to the rails. This is where kids came to jump freight trains and dodge city "track walkers" patrolling the rails with shotguns loaded with salt pellets.
The thrill of jumping trains faded, but Pape's fascination with the cars themselves and the tunnels grew. "I liked the way the trains moved and felt, and how the tunnels sounded," Pape, now 30, says. He developed an artist's sensitivity for the environment and atmosphere around him, which he drew into his art.
The eerie glow of his first work, a replica of Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," reflects the mystery and intrigue of the original in the Louvre. Grate-filtered sunlight, dimmed by thick tunnel air, brings life to Pape's silent madonna. Free from glaring cameras and international crowds, Pape's work reflects the solitude in the abandoned shafts in which it was painted.
Today the tunnel, now sprinkled with about 20 entrances, is inhabited by dozens of homeless people who protect Pape's work and have, on occasion, helped him paint.
"I try to keep taggers away from these murals," Bernard Isaacs, the self-styled Lord of the Tunnel, said of a new brand of graffiti artists who scribble over past works. "Chris' works mean a lot to us down here."
Amtrak, which is preparing the track for renewed service in April, promises not to mar Pape's murals. And there are even rumors among laborers repairing the track that Amtrak is calling in specialists to preserve the murals by Pape and other artists who found a haven for expression in the nether world beneath Manhattan.
Stephen H. Markowski, a construction manager for Slattery Associates, said his crew was amazed by the murals in the tunnel. "We had these fellows (workers) from West Virginia up here, and they wouldn't stop taking pictures." Markowski, a native of Queens, says he was also impressed by the works. "I looked around too," he says with a sheepish grin.
Pape, described by one tunnel dweller as "sort of a nerdy guy with round glasses (who) looks like he just walked out of school," admits he began tagging at 13 as "a toy"--planting his name in as many nooks in New York as possible in hopes of building name recognition, if not a reputation.
Then, in 1975, he saw one of New York's first completely graffitoed trains. Like a "giant white cloud," the large spray-painted words "Stay High" whisked by.
"Some kids have Mickey Mantle as a childhood hero," Pape says. "I had Stay High 149."
From then on, Pape's life paralleled the history of New York's graffiti movement. Although not a typical graffiti artist--often handing sketches of his ideas to graffiti gangs to execute because, he says, "I preferred to let them risk their lives" on the dilapidated tunnel ironworks--he helped create the graffiti culture of the '70s and '80s.
"That cat-and-mouse game with the police and media led to instant fame," complains Emory Jackson, president of We Care About New York, a private organization of volunteers who have pledged to fight litter and graffiti. "Kids wanted that fame."
At 21, three years before the Transit Authority arrested 2,400 kids for graffiti vandalism in the first year of the city's crackdown, Pape tried to retire from making graffiti. But he couldn't quit venturing down into the tunnels every once in a while. "Each time I think, this is it. I'm not coming back to waste another day down here alone. But then I get this idea, so I'd have to go back."
That's how he found himself painting his version of Salvador Dali's "Melting Watches."
"Being by myself, concentrating, I never stopped to think that I had been down there 12 hours alone in a dark tunnel painting. There was no time to feel sad or lonely." And Pape said he never considered it strange that he'd often spend his last few dollars to buy the last can of spray paint for a mural rather than eating dinner. "It wasn't my idea of fun to hang out down there. It was just, I had an idea and I knew if I didn't do it, no one else would."
And Pape continued to sign his work Freedom.
"Some people have great stories about how they got their name," Pape says shyly. Crash, for example, was a computer major in high school who took his tag from the argot of computer failure. "But I don't really know how I got mine. If I'm political, I don't talk about it."
Pape, now a comic cartoonist by day, sees mural spray-painting as a form of expression and self-assertion. He believes that if there had been an outlet for the energy and the need for expression among kids like himself, the city would not have suffered the cost and embarrassment of graffiti vandalism over the last 20 years.
"I would be playing pro ball for the Yankees had there been a Little League," Pape says. However, "I wasn't very good," he admits while rubbing his glasses.
Pape skipped school after he saw "Stay High" to paint his own subway train, the one that has found its place in the exhibit. On it, two white hands reach toward one another in an ephemeral touch, as in Michelangelo's "Creation." "What Is Art? Why Is Art?" is scrawled along the car.
The beauty of Pape's work caught the eye of photographer Henry Chalfant. His photograph of the train was chosen over 400 others of graffitoed trains for the art show. The painting itself became history when the Transit Authority started to clean up New York's 6,000 graffitoed trains in 1984.
But the art of graffiti isn't dead, according to Chalfant, who has written two books on what he prefers to call "street art." The movement, which ignited on the streets of New York, is now a bane of many American cities. It also flared abroad. West Germany even commissioned New York's renowned, late graffiti artist Keith Haring to apply his talents to the Berlin Wall. New York still confronts the taggers, according to Chalfant.
"Kids now paint trains and take pictures of their work before the cars are cleaned," says Chalfant, "then send the pictures in graffiti newsletters."
Pape, who dropped out of La Guardia High School for the Arts (where he recently guest lectured), later earned a degree from New York's School of Visual Arts.
He's living off an advance from Time-Warner's Perana Press for his autobiography, titled "The Hip-Hop Papers," which will hit the shelves in March. He's also trying to rustle up funding for a mural of the old Negro League baseball players for the Harlem Little League, which the parks department has granted him permission to paint.
"The point is to get discussions started. In 20 years there won't be grandparents around to talk about Satchel Paige. It has to be done now."
How does he feel about his graffiti being called art by New Yorker art critic Adam Gopnik, who is also one of the directors of the show?
"Art is good," Pape says thoughtfully, as he watches two young baseball players on 100th Street peer down a grate at his mural of William Turner. "I like that."
And continues: "I did that mural so kids would have something looking back at them."
Toth is a member of The Times' Washington bureau.