The colorful world of graffiti caught the eye of Hugo Martinez, a 22-year-old student at the City College of New York who had studied street gangs and, inspired by the Latin Pride movement, took a particular interest in Puerto Rican graffiti writers. He went searching for the people behind the names he had seen on the walls and found HENRY 161, who connected him to the rest of the Washington Heights writers. Impressed with their energy and talent, he invited them to do a painting demonstration in a room at City College (with the school’s permission), providing paper, spray paint and markers. Twelve writers showed up that day and by the fall of 1972, they formed a group called United Graffiti Artists (UGA). Members included SNAKE 1, SJK 171, MIKE 171, STITCH 1, HENRY 161, WICKED GARY, BAMA, COCO 144, PHASE 2 and several more.
Martinez invited writers from Brooklyn and the Bronx into the fold and as word spread about the organization, writers voted in new members themselves. Martinez referred to the writers as artists and focused on getting their work onto canvases and into gallery shows. In December of 1972, the first UGA show was hosted by City College, featuring a collaborative work on one 10-by-40-foot wall canvas. The show was so well-received that it was covered by The New York Times.
In early 1973, UGA headquarters moved from Martinez’ small apartment to the studio of Herb Migdoll, an arts photographer who had attended the City College show. He pitched the idea of collaborating with the artists to Twyla Tharp and the Joffrey Ballet. In April, eighteen wall writers participated with the Joffrey Ballet in the performance entitled Deuce Coupe. They painted a rolling backdrop on stage as dancers leaped about through what Migdoll recalls as “a mist of lethal enamel spray paint.”
The event proved a pivotal moment in graffiti’s history—a month later New York magazine ran a cover story on the graffiti movement, featuring many of UGA’s members, which lead to a warehouse space provided by the city, private commissions and on September 4, 1973, a group show at the Razor Gallery in Soho.
A few other shows took place, but clashing personalities, financial disputes and aging writers turning their interests toward other things disrupted the group. By 1975, UGA was over. Some of the writers quit painting altogether while others still continue to show in galleries today. Some went to art school and some say they will forever be taggers and wall writers.
Paintings and Photographs by: COCO 144, SNAKE 1, SJK 171, Michael Lawrence, Herbert Migdoll, WICKED GARY, JOE 182 and JEC*
BEYOND THE STREETS New York, 2019. Photo by Dan Bradica.