Nemo Librizzi: Idleness In The Wild
"I have come to a new understanding, living a life that’s closer to nature, even in this big city."
Photos by Jammi York
As I get older and randomly take time to reflect, there are people I have known for decades. Some, I still don’t know their names. Some, I have no idea what they do. Some, I don’t see for years on end never knowing where they go off to. And there’s a surprisingly large amount that when the question comes up, usually from my girl, “How’d you guys meet?” it’s only met with furrowed brows trying to pull up some recollection and…nada.
I had heard of some cat named Nemo for years and seen this dude, who knew all the same people I did and then some, around everywhere from 125th to the Chelsea Hotel to LES to the movie screen. Sporadically, we’d give one another a nod with an occasional side-glance. Eventually, I put two and two together, and I suspect it was years after that that he put a name to my face.
There are a few people like Nemo that fill me with melancholy and nostalgia about the fact that I was ripped away from New York City for a large chunk of my youth, albeit in close enough proximity to be able to hear Red Alert, Marley Marley, etc. on the radio. Though there were constant excursions, there was still this lacking, and as soon as I could, I re-immersed myself into the city streets for good—a short time in college, some time as a bike messenger for a photograph printing company, and many years working in nightlife. Though all of the people in the circles I ran with were clearly unique, there was a certain knowledge and bond that they seemed to share, and I spent years gleaning what I could to catch up. And what a wealth of information these giving souls were. In no time, I was on my way to earning my stripes in the streets, the basketball courts, and the clubs.
There will always be that little sadness, but then being able to spend time with people like Nemo comfort me that the legacy of the old NYC is still in good hands. For this interview, we chilled around Chinatown reminiscing, bullshitting, and walking in silence. Later, I emailed the Q&A part that I tailored specifically to him, and in inimitable Nemo style, he got back to me six weeks later with this. (Not for lack of effort or some cool kid nonchalance. No, my man crafted this amid his life’s constant adventures, letting me know along the way that he wanted to get it right, and to that I’m humbly grateful.)
Nemo: I grew up in a household where the arts substituted for religion. And my parents were zealots for dance, poetry, painting, literature, cinema, philosophy, sculpture, even cuisine. Our house was full of rare books, and ukiyo-e prints, Pre-Columbian artifacts, and records by Monk, Dylan, Chopin, Pound reading the Cantos. My mother dragged me to watch Nureyev and Baryshnikov dance the ballet, and my father regularly interrupted my studies at school so I could meet Motherwell, or hang around the Warhol factory. It wasn’t so important that I minded manners, and I didn’t learn how to tie a necktie, but at a tender age, I was expected to read subtitles at Italian Neo-Realist films, and to express my insights after an Ionesco play. Other kids teased me that I didn’t know the first thing about sports or pop music, but if I felt out of step in their realm, I was fulfilled by a life in the art world, long before I made it my own.
I remember having some childish sense that Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Picasso’s “Guernica,” and Pollock’s drip paintings were just as great as the moon landing, or conversely, the atom bomb. But little by little, art works began to speak to me in a more direct and intimate way, just the same way a face in the crowd suddenly becomes a friend. The first time I can remember this transformative experience, it was at MoMA, viewing a vitrine of Dada objects. I saw Man Ray’s “Cadeau,” an iron armed with thumbtacks. I was three or four years old, but in my gut I appreciated the cool way an item had been at once unyoked of its practical use and exalted into an artwork with a twist of the absurd. Beside it, Meret Oppenheim’s “Object” defied reason in a similar way by de-purposing an everyday object, though her solution of lining a teacup with fur was warmer, seeped in a feminine mystery and cut closer to my heart. These works broke heaven out of the iconic gold flake and ultramarine and imbued the commonplace with poetry, forever bridging my understanding of pedestrian objects with sublime ideas.
But if the primary education I received from my parents spilled out from the hermetic confines of the museums, it wasn’t until I was five years old that I would discover my own path. Holding my father’s hand on the subway platform, the shapes and colors emblazoned on the train cars stood out clearly as a fun new system of ideograms, and I asked how this alphabet art came to be. My father explained that kids would sneak in the tunnels at night and paint the trains when the police weren’t looking. A cartoon lightbulb illuminated over my head and I knew at once that was all I wanted to do in life. Right there on that subway platform, I received my dad’s blessing. A lot of subway artists see themselves as the best or the most famous of all writers. I was just happy to be a part of the culture and humbly set out to learn all I could. And at 12, when I painted my first train, I had a strong feeling that regardless whether people loved or hated my work, I could die happy having realized this dream.
My first step into the subway tunnels was a confrontation with everything that frightened me—the dark, rats, criminals, cops—and not least of all, it was the definitive proving ground for one’s own artistic talents. I was joined by some friends who could hardly have protected me if hell broke loose. But in those dark, creepy catacombs, I faced my fears one by one. I managed to navigate all the gangs who hung around train yards to rob paint from writers, not by being tough, but by having an unshakable conviction. I once shocked myself by telling some wild-eyed kid who aimed a baseball bat at my head, “I didn’t come here to hand you my paint, I came here to paint trains.” And even more surprising, that he accepted this rejection and took his crew off to rob other writers. At City Hall layup, I painted my piece with a tranquil heart as rats scurried around my feet. When we were raided, I jumped off the train tracks in front of the arriving work-bum train laughing maniacally at the adventure of it, escaping to the street, sweat dripping off my brow, heart still pounding to have a slice of pizza and joke about our close call. And the one time I was arrested, I feared my father’s reaction more than the police. But when he came down to the precinct, like a real Sicilian, he brought me out after for a fat corned beef sandwich at a 24-hour Jewish delicatessen, and toasting cream sodas declared, “You are a man now.”
The court placed me on six months probation. I quit, since scarcely did I want any part of juvenile corrections. But Jon One 156 said I wasn’t being true to my calling if my fear of jail overshadowed my passion for the craft. I descended with him and an Army duffel bag full of paint that very night to paint trains at 145 St, and was chased back into the tunnel when some uniformed police in the station noticed us materialize out of nowhere on the platform. We emerged out of the hatch on to the busy Broadway sidewalk, in a big hurry.
The fancy neighborhoods we lived in (my father was a successful art dealer) had poor graffiti culture, so I regularly ventured into the South Bronx, deep Brooklyn, Harlem, and Washington Heights. Even now, but especially back then, this was risky business. In the end, it was some kind of baptism by fire. I never felt like a made man, but at each endeavor I was met by brand new challenges from all sides. And if I made a name for myself, it wasn’t so much by talent, but sheer tenacity.
One thing I certainly did not learn at home, and did not properly learn in school, is that in contrast with most of the practitioners of the craft (who were for the most part Black or Latino) is that I was a white-boy. Almost everywhere I went as a writer, I stood out as an outsider on potentially hostile soil. But like others before me, it was my work and not my ethnicity that earned me a place in that closed society. After a protracted initiation process, I was accepted as a brother among kids who did not share many of the material privileges I had known, and yet stood as honorary stewards of this mysterious art form that has since taken on global proportions, both in the “graffiti” tradition and hip hop—the business. If my parents world was ruled by Bird, Kline, and Kerouac, mine was Bambaataa, Crazy Legs, and Phase 2. And when the tagged-up trains were replaced by the teflon, stainless steel, graffiti-proof cars, I didn’t continue my campaign into the streets, galleries, books, or T-shirts, but like a name written in the dust, a part of me died right there.
This dissolution of those class and race barriers that prove such a problem to folks outside of the subculture forever shaped my understanding of art. A Jewish buddy explained that his sect wasn’t so much expecting the arrival of a single messiah, as rather a messianic age, a general elevation of consciousness. I felt myself a part of the art equivalent in the early days of hip hop. Everyone was a DJ or a writer, a breakdancer or a rapper. And this is before there was a dollar in it. Unlike the highly specialized “ivory tower” artist of the Western tradition—who stands beside lawyers and doctors as a professional—in hip hop, otherwise anonymous, marginalized kids rose to legendary status by merit of their talent alone. An Italian friend of mine lives among the Baka (“Pygmies”) in Africa, and he described a village ritual in which everyone participates, singing and dancing, so that there is no “audience” and there is no “artist” or “musician.” Likewise in Egypt, we cannot name a single artist throughout the 3,000 year regime. And yet, stylistically, there is a cohesion of form throughout this vast era. Cleopatra’s time is far closer to our own than to that of the pharaoh Ramses, and yet for century upon century, except perhaps during the short rule of Akhenaten, the traditions in art and architecture were homogenized. Curiously, the connection is not made too often among academics that the epoch of the Egyptian empire is the birth of the Western tradition, and as such, Egyptian art is African art. So, somewhere in my education, I came to see clearly that the African model best exemplifies the hip hop generation, and the art form that began on the New York subways is best understood as a system of hieroglyphics developed by a league of kings in exile. I don’t think this is bombast, hyperbole, or poetic license. There has been a disconnect in African traditions since the middle passage, but in the artist’s hand is the unmistakeable touch of royalty.
It is the surface and not true substance that lives on in the bastard child of graffiti, consumer-friendly street art. Also, Madison Avenue took a cue and now blasts trains with wraps and posters that have a similar flash, and are state sanctioned. Almost none of the best writers ever made the transition to commercial success. However, I’m not nostalgic. The good old days are always right now. When I was 12, I was able to get into Roxy and Danceteria. There, I saw Grandmaster Flash DJ, Cold Crush Brothers emcee, and Frosty Freeze breakdance. I regularly went to parties for the next 30-odd years: Tunnel, MK, Sticky Mike’s, Payday, Soul Kitchen, and Cheetah. Today, people say New York has lost it—I don’t agree. Bobby Konders and Jabba have a party every Sunday on Empire Boulevard that is among the finest Caribbean joints I’ve ever been to. As well, I started going to House Party with DJ Soul, Electric Punanny, and Just Blaze so often that they made me an official host. It’s a young crowd, but my gosh, how they “turn up.” If I was once the kid on the scene, now I’m the old guy, but I love the crowds shamelessly. Flex comes through, or maybe a visit from some Classic ’90s rappers, but the spotlight is on all the new artists—Fetty Wap, Lil M.A, Joey Badass, Bobby Shmurda, Danny Brown—there is a lot of exciting raw talent coming up.
But not all my interests are urban, I also have a reverence for the classical. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is like a castle in this regard. I like to wander aimless through the halls, from the Ancient Greek through a Japanese bonsai exhibit down an empty corridor of handcrafted musical instruments, only to turn a corner and be in a wing full of earthy Inuit and Navajo artifacts. That’s very New York as well, juxtaposition and pastiche. Or to spring for box seats at the opera and watch Tosca pitch a fit, or the ballet that I have learned after all to understand as a language, hanging on every gesture. People who get bored must be narrow-minded. Now that “everyone” is an artist, there are a ton of dilettantes making half-hearted efforts that flood the bookstores, art house theaters, stages, and galleries. But if you take the time, there are always powerful new expressions cropping up too. For some it’s a job, for some it’s a platform for vanity. But, a few are authentic visionaries, and if art is important to you, you will seek out their work, like a miner who digs a ton of earth to find an ounce of gold.
Since my involvement with the subway movement, I have never again found such thrills. I still enjoy making things. I draw, paint, write, and make films. Given a few beers and the right record, I may even dance. But whatever happens when my work makes contact with the marketplace is, for me, a complete turn off. Which is odd, because I have no moral objection to the sale of art, or to see one’s talents through to a livelihood. I think it’s just my own personal quirk to enjoy the creation, but not the sale. As a result, I live in a sort-of obscurity. But, again, it feels right to me.
I have come to a new understanding, living a life that’s closer to nature, even in this big city. I hang around with this Rasta elder, Jah Sun. His father was a fisherman. He grew up riding a bicycle around the village selling the fish. Here is a man I can identify with. Somebody I want to be like. A simple sustainable life, but for and about art. I’m working on another book now, and when it’s finished I will find some way to publish a small edition so I can distribute to my circle of a hundred or two hundred friends. And when the calls and emails roll in from people to respond to their reading, people I still look up to—like Lee Quinones, Jim Jarmusch, Mahen Bonetti, Popa Wu, Nadine Johnson, Allah B, Julian Schnabel—to whatever extent it touched the people I most admire is all the accolade I could want. So I am opening a cafe in SoHo, the reincarnation of the legendary San Remo Cafe in the village. It will be a bit Cafe des Flores, part Max’s Kansas City with some hip hop flourishes. The events I will host there are an attempt to keep the torch lit for downtown New York. It will be something funky—you can bet on it!
Nemo Librizzi’s new book, Benjamin’s Silver Cup, is now available for purchase via Paradigm Publishing.