“To Joe Public: You might be askin yourself right now, what is this shit…what is this all about? Its about a kid who is just livin his life and tellin his story. The only one he knows how.”
So begins REVS’ autobiography, worlds under New York in the farthest folds of the subway, the words written in black on top of a white-washed section of wall. It’s an underground memoir: the stories of a New York childhood, adolescence, and adulthood etched into a space few can see and even fewer know how to access. A private life in a public place, both hidden and protected by the plexiglass windows that shield straphangers from the filthy subterranean world of New York City. Press your face to the window and watch the tags stream by, REVS standing out among the scrawls in huge white block letters, as though REVS had nothing to hide, as though REVS had nothing to fear, standing there on top of the third rail in the dark, taking his sweet time writing on the wall. He makes the other writers look scared, and besides you can hardly read their tags as the train rushes by. But REVS’ pieces jump out at you for their size, their whiteness, their audacity. “We think art should be dangerous,” REVS said in a rare 1994 interview. “It’s considered mindless vandalism by most people but there’s really a lot to be said about a guy who scribbles his name on the wall. Why would a guy risk being hurt to do that?”
REVS is one of the most notorious graffiti artists in the history of New York street art. He got his start in the early ‘80s, covering New York in REVLON, his tag before he decided to cut out the “LON” during a suicidal epiphany on the Manhattan Bridge. In 1993, REVS started running with COST. Together they covered Manhattan in tens of thousands of posters and wheat pastes, blanketing the city in Krylon and vegetable starch. The city was their canvas, a stage for their humor (COST FUCKED MADONNA, scribbled in your subconscious after seeing it pasted to every WALK / DON’T WALK sign in Manhattan), their existential crisis (SPECIMEN REVS, taped to every trashcan in New York), or their need to let people know that, for a moment, they’d been right here. “I’m trying to let people know that I’m here during this time period,” COST once told the New York Times. “Let it be remembered or forgotten, that’s up to the people.”
Aboveground, REVS is prolific (even more so 20 years ago), his rollers massive and highly visible, inaccessible spots that clearly can’t be reached without 30 foot tall ladders or a harness system. Below ground, he’s a legend, a hero in the graffiti community. From roughly 1994 to 2000, he kept a subterranean diary of sorts, 235 “pages” total chronicling various thoughts and events in his Brooklyn-based existence. The New York Times has described his work as “feverish diary entries worthy of a Dostoyevsky character.” For years, he had the Vandal Squad (the NYPD task force committed to bringing graffiti artists to justice) and the MTA befuddled by what was evidently a massive safety breach that allowed someone to take his time chronicling his life in the tunnels between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Cops were reading the pages, trying to track REVS through the biographical details he supplied in his writing — his birth date, the hospital in Bay Ridge where he was born. Who was this guy, and how the hell was he getting away with this?
After half a decade, REVS was ratted out, caught in the act, charged, and convicted. It turned out he was “a 33-year-old iron worker from a working class neighborhood, not so different really from any of the cops pursuing him,” as described in a segment of the This American Life episode themed “Cat and Mouse.” Not so different especially because he was in uniform when they found him — all these years he’d been dressing in a stolen MTA track worker outfit. Ryan Thomas Gallahard, for This American Life, continues, “Everyone who saw him with the buckets of paint just thought he belonged down there.”
REVS’ autobiography is a rare moment where New York’s infrastructure serves as both canvas and transportation, the past and the present co-mingling in his stories of growing up in a different Brooklyn while you ride under the present one, reading the writing on the wall. It exemplifies the fact that some artists use graffiti as their voice. And beyond a form of expression, graffiti is also a form of documentation. Today, subway cars are spotless compared with what they once were, but history still visibly bleeds from the walls just beyond the train windows. It’s actually surprising that there’s only one such autobiography in the subways, considering how many people have lived, worked, and passed through these tunnels.
Hannah Frishberg is a fourth generation Brooklynite and freelance writer and photographer.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.