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CRUNCH (graffiti artist)

CRUNCH (graffiti artist)

CRUNCH was an old school New York City graffiti master of the 1970s and early-80s. A subway artist who started tagging IRT and IND train interiors in 1972, he progressed to exterior "pieces" in 1974, when spray-painting the sides of subway cars was still a relatively nascent sport.

An early "panel-piece" artist, he developed jagged-edged "crunched" lettering with a "reverse-rainbow" color scheme, well before the late-70s emergence of "wildstyle" graffiti art. Something of a purist, he painted subway trains and tunnel walls illegally, stole his spray-cans as a rule, and never sold canvases or other commercial graffiti art for profit (despite being a successful professional graphic artist). He was never caught or arrested for graffiti. His 32nd train piece graces the cover of Subway Art, Henry Chalfant's seminal photo book on New York City graffiti art.

Early art career

Born and raised in Manhattan, Johnny Crunch dropped out of the West Side High School before the Board of Education shut it down as an animal house. Entirely self-taught, he was a respected graphic artist with a city-wide reputation by age 15. He employed a unique style of pointillism using fine-tipped felt markers and rapidographs. Training himself in airbrush, silkscreen and other professional media, he became a prolific designer of posters, tee-shirts, drum covers and album covers for rock bands performing around New York City during the 70s and 80s.

Naming and street ethics

Like all graffiti writers, he experimented with names. In the spring of 1971, as a nunchaku-wielding juvenile delinquent of 13, he chose his original moniker KITE for a variety of reasons: for the sense of freedom and superiority the word itself conveyed (a kite "got up" and flew high above the rest); for the hard "K" he equated with the thundering "clack" of speeding trains; and for its brevity and attractive letters (in that a nod as well to graffiti pioneer TAKI 183, who had recently been profiled in a New York Times article, inspiring a generation of early street writers).

KITE began tagging on walls and billboards on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, using squash-tipped markers with permanent ink. He soon fell in with a crew of teen writers calling themselves the Underground (UND), who staked out the Zoo York Tunnel running beneath the Central Park Zoo as their "clubhouse". (This tunnel, where extensions of the Broadway BMT and Sixth Avenue IND lines merged underneath Central Park, housed four tracks on two levels, which curved underneath the zoo and out below Fifth Avenue to the 63rd Street Line; dubbed "Zoo York" by UND co-founder ALI, it served as a gathering point for early Central Park-based graffiti artists from 1971 through 1973.)

CRUNCH, as KITE, tagged his first moving subway car in the summer of 1972. Two years later, he changed his tag to LAKE (containing the same hard "K" and idyllic imagery as KITE), and progressed to the use of "Uni-Wides" and "Midi-Wides" drenched with opaque inks in every color of the spectrum. To his credit, as LAKE, he was one of the earliest graffiti writers to shun the popular "black plague" carpet-bombing of subway car interiors in favor of multi-color "ribbon" tags, an effect created by "edging" the broad felt blades of wide-markers with contrasting colors straight from the nozzles of Flo-Master ink-cans.

He reserved his heavier weaponry— spray-paint like Krylon and Red Devil topped with "fat caps" (wide-nozzles stolen off orally nitrous-depleted whipped-cream cans)—for exterior traincar sides, abandoned stations (i.e., West 91st and East 18th Streets), and tunnels like "Zoo York" and the "Freedom Tunnel" of the New York Central Railroad running underneath Riverside Park.

In the autumn of 1974, he was beknighted "The Crunch" -- a play on his actual surname -- after knocking out rival DOC with a kick to the head. The name stuck: it had the hard sound he liked, a good run of letters to play with, and, best of all, it was earned in the street, not egotistically devised. Trained in by elders including ALI and LSD-3, CRUNCH started solo-bombing the Broadway and CPW locals, later teaming up with a succession of running buddies and graffiti crews. By pickpocketing drunk-on-the-job yard-masters, he gained illegal possession of all six major NYC subway keys: both IRT conductor and end-door keys; both IND/BMT conductor and end-door keys; and both of the Transit Authority's Master Lock #375 and #400 subway station keys -- gaining him unimpeded access to Manhattan trains, stations and railyards.

Adhering to the strict code of true subway artists, he never tagged or painted temples, churches or mosques or defaced private property, and frowned upon the widely accepted practice of "getting up" on MTA buses, trucks and other commercial vehicles, which he considered the folly of "toys" (talentless wannabes). In CRUNCH's esteem, trains, their stations and tunnels, and of course one's own guarded turf, were the only "legitimate" canvases for street and subway graffiti.

Subway Painting

As an early burner of "flatside" subway car exteriors, CRUNCH hit the IRT 1, 2 and 3 lines and old IND BB and CC Eighth Avenue locals almost exclusively. Being homeless much of the time, he kept his cache of spray-paint cans in stolen canvas mailbags conveniently stashed in the abandoned station at 91st Street and Broadway.

His ritual was to steal his cans in the morning; spend the day at leisure (often snoozing atop the old Wisteria Pergola behind the Central Park Bandshell); attend rock concerts, parties, or both, in the evening; then go clubbing downtown until the magic hour of 2am, when he would proceed, alone or with one or two cohorts, to the uptown yards or lay-ups where the trains slept. Often as not, daybreak found him and his boys covered in soot and spitting rainbows, collapsed on a subway station bench, watching in numb satisfaction as their newly-emblazoned cars thundered by (hopefully waking up the suits and other urban zombies who rode the drab subways to their 9-to-5 jobs).

An ongoing game of "points" was often tallied at these reflective moments: 1 point for an artful exterior tag; 2 points for a two-tone "throw-up"; 3-5 points (depending on colors and quality) for a "panel piece" between passenger doors; 6-10 for a below-windows "end-to-end"; 10 and up for a "T2B/E2E" (a top-to-bottom, end-to-end, full-car masterpiece); and up to 25 points off for an incomplete piece (meaning the artist had been run off by authorities or a rival gang, and had failed to return and complete it -- "conduct unbecoming" in the wargame of nocturnal hit-and-run raids which set subway "bombing" completely apart from the safe and cozy "home artistry" of toylers). The writer with the highest score -- whoever was "up" the most at any given moment -- was "king" of that line, until inevitably "knocked off" by another subway artist.

Old haunts and alliances

CRUNCH lived for a time in the Beacon Theater on 74th Street and Broadway, where he came to be referred to as the "Phantom of the Beacon" by its owners and bouncers, who were never able to identify or catch him. A "resident" of the old music palace as a runaway from a broken home in his early teens, he knew its hidden interiors better than the custodial staff. He was said to enter and exit via a forgotten IRT emergency exit on a sublevel of the old theater's basement, spawning an urban myth that he had discovered the fabled passageway underneath Broadway from the Ansonia Hotel which Babe Ruth reputedly used to escape paparazzi and other fanatics when attending the Follies at the Beacon. (In fact, such a passage would have been cut through by the IRT subway line in 1904.) Concertgoers to the Beacon during the 1970s recall CRUNCH'S coup de grace, a seemingly impossible "piece" on the ceiling of the glamorous Depression Era hall, which had to have been created by climbing into the central chandelier, hundreds of feet up in the air.

A close friend of ALI, Johnny Crunch was "master-of-arms" of ALI's Soul Artists while Futura 2000 was away in the military. CRUNCH and ALI enjoyed raiding the yards toting the former's fully-automatic 9mm greasegun, which Ali dubbed the "Ratchet" in reference to lyrics from Jimmy Cliff's tune, "Johnny You're Too Bad" ("Walking down the street with a rachet in your hand,/Johnny you're too bad...") Crunch also wrote with SIE-1, Haze (when he was writing SE-3), Revolt and Zephyr, among other contemporary luminaries. He befriended SAMO (Jean-Michel Basquiat), when the latter was crashing on Ali's couch. He also made the early acquaintance of a guy he came across in stations in the dead of night, who drew cryptic characters in chalk on the ad spaces along subway platforms, which got posted-over with black paper between paid advertisements: a young artist named Keith Haring.

A member of numerous graffiti crews from the early 1970s into the 1980s, Johnny Crunch laid up his cans at age 21, his philosophy being that at some point one gets too old for such frolic. He spent most of the 1980s in a heroin-induced stupor before hanging up drugs altogether in 1986.

CRUNCH was a member of several prominent crews, including:

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