Back When ABC No Rio Hosted An Exhibit For “So-Called Graffiti Vandal” SANE
Here's what having a graffiti exhibit at NYC's most punk gallery was like in 1989
Soon ABC NO Rio will soon be demolished and relocated. The dilapidated, once-abandoned, four-story walk-up in the Lower East Side has been the epicenter of DIY culture in New York since its inception in 1980. A collectively run community center for art and activism, ABC No Rio has historically offered a number of resources that include: a silk screen shop, darkroom, computer lab, zine-library, art gallery as well as a space for a weekly hardcore punk matinee.
My first experience with the venue was attending the opening reception for SANE’s art exhibit in October of 1989, which he entitled: “Selected Works of a So-Called Graffiti Vandal.” The show mostly featured his tags on found objects. “His show was sort of like a non-event,” recalls his brother and fellow renowned writer SMITH. “No one showed up. You were like the main star in the room that night. We had to do everything ourselves.”
Unlike modern graffiti art exhibits that get blasted across social media, this show didn’t get a lot of support. “There was no one to help advertise or promote the show,” says SMITH. “He designed four flyers on one sheet of paper then photocopied it a bunch of times. We also didn’t realize we would have to open up, so for like a week, we would arrive in the afternoon, open the gallery and just sit there. It was okay for SANE because he would just spend his time doodling on paper, where I was just bored out of my mind.”
Gavin Van Vlack, a guitarist for New York Hardcore bands Absolution and Burn and a former graffiti writer who used to put up NATZ, reminiscences about the moment SANE announced the show. “I remember one day SANE and I were doing pieces on a balcony in an abandoned theater building in the Lower East Side,” says NATZ, “when he said ‘Hey I’m doing a show at ABC No Rio.’ The show was like a week away so we went there. They were prepping the space for his show and they just let us go off. SANE painted everything: the backyard, the interior, the rooftop, the rooftop of (Striet’s) Matzo Factory next door. Some of the original ABC No Rio sign he painted in the front is still visible today.”
Along with his graffiti-bombing brother SMITH, the siblings from Washington Heights — collectively known as SANE – SMITH — came on the scene in the mid to late 80’s, making a name for themselves during the final years of the subway graffiti era. They continued to paint trains into NYC’s clean train era, as well as rooftops, tunnels, gates, and walls across the city. The relentless duo garnered the most attention when they painted their names on both sides of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1987. It made the cover of the local paper. It also drew an unprecedented amount of unwelcome attention from law enforcement, resulting in lawsuits, fines and harassment.
One year after his show, in October of 1990, SANE was found dead floating in the waters of the Flushing Bay. His name has been kept alive by SMITH and former bombing partner JA. At his wake, J.Son Edlin aka TERROR 161 read the following poem:
Let us remember the one called SANE, who in this life could not remain.
Of life’s fruits he’d barely tasted, but I don’t believe his life was wasted.
He left us his art perhaps to show the reasons why he had to go.
Why was he punished, for what crime? To be taken so while in his prime.
I’d like to think that his very last breath, he was bombing a bridge and fell to his death.
It’s very hard to lose a friend, and not know how he met his end.
How could we have kept you Dave? You took the answer to your grave.
But your life was never ours to save.
I’m sorry that we never knew the pain you felt inside of you.
Believe me Dave although you’ve perished, the art you left us all shall be cherished.
On the Brooklyn Bridge he left a stain and on many a wall and subway train.
So along with Billy Bear and Caine, let us remember the one called SANE.