Off Script: JAMES TOP
A Brooklyn legend speaks.
JAMES TOP, aka JEE 2, is always on the move, so our interview turned into an extended walk-and-talk. We started in a juice bar in Harlem, moved along the neighborhood’s streets to the 3 station at 148th St., continued on the subway downtown and then concluded in a restaurant on the Upper West Side. As JEE 2, he was a co-founder of The Odd Partners, foremost among a generation of writers that invented the throw-up as a way to stay on top of the buff, as well as a mentor to DONDI CIA. As JAMES TOP, he killed the streets of Bed-Stuy and eventually turned his lifestyle into a profession, creating artwork, teaching at City College and Hostos College in the Bronx and hosting a weekly TV show called Graffiti NYC (which airs Sundays at 1:30am on MNN). He continues to be passionate about graffiti and his mission of passing on what he’s learned to new generations of writers.
MASS APPEAL: When did you get into graffiti and who were some of your influences?
JAMES TOP: I was probably about 11 or 12. I grew up in the East New York section in the Louis H. Pink Houses, so quite a ways from the train station. I wasn’t one of those persons that would be looking at the trains. But people would come through the neighborhood and write. Out of everyone that started writing graffiti amongst my peers I was the last one that started writing. This guy, his name was CHEER 2, he got me into writing. My first name was JEE V, and eventually I would drop the Roman numeral V—that’s how far back we’re going, we’re writing Roman numerals. This was 1972. I started in ’71, just taking little tags. That’s when I say I started. Some of the older guys now are like, “You wasn’t on lines then,” but this is when I started.
First you would be the king of your projects. The projects have 22 buildings, so I had to write in all of the buildings, every floor and every staircase and on the fucking roof. Then you’d be king of your neighborhood. I became king of East New York, which was totally bombed out. People talk about the South Bronx, the South Bronx don’t got shit on East New York and the 75th precinct.
East New York was a real tough place. At that time the Pink Houses didn’t have a bad reputation, but it would a little later on. I thought we was really living well. Across the street from the projects was the biggest yard in Brooklyn, the A yard, the Pitkin yard. At the time they would lay up double Es and As in there. The Es and Fs they would switch up, the GGs and the As would switch up, too, like the double As. They changed it to the Cs, and the Cs would switch up with other lines. I used to go into that yard when I was younger just to play. I was used to the yard. It was on. The first name I saw was FDT 56. The first big writer that came around my way was JESTER [aka DY 167].
“I almost got us kicked out of the projects, because I was writing all over the place. The police would chase me from the yard into the projects. Wrong move! I had so many moves to get away from them… ‘Where’d he go?’ Like Houdini.”
Some of the other guys would hang out with him and go to the yard and I was kinda jealous. He inspired me, since they didn’t let me in their new circle, to really turn it up. I was writing on each and every thing. My friend CHEER, his cousin is Willie Randolph that played for the Yankees. He lived in the Tilden Houses and his other little cousin used to write, too. And he lived in the same building as HURST [aka OI 62]. HURST was always telling me about MICKEY [aka TO 729 and O7]. At first I didn’t like MICKEY. HURST said, “Come on, let’s all hook up together!” HURST and me and MICKEY and IN, we founded The Odd Partners. They lived in Brownsville, and they had other people that lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant, like TEE and STIM, who eventually moved to East New York, too. We had all three of the neighborhoods locked down.
I was writing JEE 2. I first made my mark on the insides of the As, and then the outsides of the As. HURST would be on the Js and the M and the LLs, and so was MICKEY. So now I was always hanging out with HURST and MICKEY, and we would do a lot of writing around the neighborhoods. This is about ’74. I remember the summer of ’74, IN started. He was writing KILL 3. He was the fucking most prolific graffiti writer ever. We were doing small pieces, two letters. I kept with three letters, but everybody else broke down to two letters—DY, TO, OI, IN—that’s how we took over. They were throw-ups basically, but we didn’t call them throw-ups, we called them pieces. That terminology came later.
It’s been 35, 40 years since you’ve seen the phenomenon of what the throw-up became and how it is still part of every graffiti writer’s repertoire. If you can’t do a fucking throw-up, you can’t fucking defend yourself out here, because that is a tool of war. We formed the throw-up because you had to be efficient with paint. Paint was hard for us to find. We would work with silver and blacks.
People would say, why silver? We were doing a lot of silver pieces. Those were the only kind of paint stores in the neighborhood. They were sorta second-hand stores and refrigerator places, and they would make your shit look new by just spraying the metal parts with silver. We would break into those places and they would have tons of silver. We wasn’t racking up in paint stores. All the paint stores around our way were burned up a long time ago. We would get the High Heat silvers—these were really shiny, blind-your-eyes. You know when you mastered silver—and I didn’t know it at the time—you are powerful. It’s a powerful weapon. We used it because the trains had one blue line, and then the rest was silver. All we really had to do was mist that blue line and then basically you had a piece.
When we were doing pieces, all of us, we’re going for lines, and if anybody was the king, we’ll go after that motherfucker right there. That was our strategy. We were the only crew known to take over lines. Other crews, they had different philosophies on how to paint on trains and what they were going to do. We went over whoever was the king. Whoever had the most pieces on a line, we went after that motherfucker right there.
We were becoming so famous by taking over so many lines, the guys would go, “Hey, I want to write with TOP!” And eventually all the kings of all the different lines, they all started writing TOP and the throw-ups were taking over. The buff had a lot to do with this. The first generation guys, when the buff came, it totally erased all the graffiti that was on the trains. We were hitting fresh fucking trains, plus we were hitting spots that other people weren’t hitting. We hit the floater panel that was up over the line, so when they do buff, our shit would still be on the trains.
Of course IN is most notably known. He took over the system twice. When he got caught—him, HURST and MICKEY—they were fucking 15 years old. They sent out Vandal Squad and all kinds of shit to try to stop us. When they were chasing us at one line, we went to another line. It was a real game of cat and mouse. And then we would hit at different times. Like, the Js and the Ls, they would pull in all the trains at Broad St in that tunnel during lunch time. We would hide in the back of the train. The conductor thought he’d cleared the train and he would pull into the lay-up. We jumped out and hit all the trains during lunch time. They didn’t know it for a long time, and then this fucking dude set MICKEY and IN up, and that’s how they got caught.
A lot of people didn’t quite notice me. These [other TOP] guys had big time reputations. They were really good. Me, I was satisfied going across the street to the yard, but of course they would go all over the place and a lot of people got to know them and they were on other lines. The IRT New Lots yard wasn’t far from where I lived at, too, and eventually I would go a lot in there. But when you talk about TOP in the beginning, people were mentioning these guys, but they weren’t mentioning me. It was just their time. By the time I was 17 years old, we were the kings of all the train lines in NYC.
Tell us about life in NYC during the late ’70s.
During the blackout of ’77 there was crazy looting going on in East New York. We were looting stores and we had a club house. We would take all the stuff we were looting in the fucking club house. We asked this guy to watch our shit, his name was TAI. He opened up the back door and [spread the word] around the neighborhood that we had a whole bunch of shit and we were selling it. We came in and said, “What the fuck is going on?” So we wind up kicking the dude out. But we looked outside, there was a fucking line going down the block of people waiting to buy shit for real cheap prices. We broke into the pharmacy and people came in saying they wanted to buy medicine, Pampers, milk. People were coming with hard stories. And eventually we stopped selling shit and we were just letting people come in and giving it to them. We got a reputation for being something like guardians: “These guys were looting like Robin Hood, looting and giving it away to people. And they have milk, and if you needed a flashlight you go over there and these guys will give it to you!”
After the blackout was over, we’d go to weed spots and the motherfuckers knew that we was in the TOP crew and they would just give us weed. Everyone in the neighborhood loved us. I held on to that feeling. That’s why I’m here today.
Who are some of the writers who you inspired?
I brought DONDI in. This guy would follow us around the neighborhood, tag and write, and we would use him as a crash test dummy. Go in here, and if [he] can steal this shit in here—and we were much better at racking than he was—then we knew we could go in there and get some shit. He was young, 15, 16. We’d take him to the yards with us. He’d shake up the cans and bring the cans up and do, all that grunt stuff that you had to do to be an apprentice. We lived by the apprentice system.
DONDI had a prolific career. At one point he was holding down TOP and CIA. Cats don’t know that. A lot of the outlines you see, CIA, DONDI did those outlines. He learned from us. He gave us credit. They formed CIA because we didn’t want them in TOP, because we felt they didn’t have the stature to be in TOP. I was one of the first guys in CIA, too. But DONDI, I knew he was special when he had that talent. He turned out to be such an ambassador for us and this crew.
When the other members of TOP slowed down, people started writing their real names. JAMES TOP, MICKEY TOP; HURST was writing WILLIE TOP. Even DONDI picked up after that, too. His name was Donald, but somehow he got to calling himself DONDI. I took my first JAMES TOP tag in ’77, but I didn’t keep it up. By ’83 I was JAMES TOP. A combination between gangster Brooklyn and Manhattan Shaft. JAMES TOP! People used to think it was JAME STOP. I would do the damn thing down Fulton and everything for a long time. We moved to Cumberland for a while and I got to know those guys over there. ROB 359, me and him together, we called ourselves the Crazy Two. I became the king of Fort Greene at the time, too. I was crazy, I was writing my fucking name everywhere. It was our stronghold. HERB was in Bedford-Stuyvesant, MICKEY came from Bedford-Stuyvesant.
I did make a comeback [on the trains] with my man EKO from the Kold Crush crew out of Brooklyn, they originate from Greenpoint. He brought me back and I did G whole cars with him, T2B whole cars, and then I started laying down some JAMES pieces. People say, “I used to see JAMES on the train,” but I didn’t do a lot of JAMES pieces. JAMES didn’t really represent the trains, it represented the streets in my neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant. I lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant during most of the ‘80s, all the way up until the ‘90s, and I was pretty satisfied just having my name in Bedford-Stuyvesant, being the king in the streets. I held that down for 10 fucking years. The trains wasn’t like that for me anymore. I did my thing with my early TOP partners, MICKEY and HURST. When MICKEY passed away in ‘79, of course that was a real blow to me.
My first best friend got killed on the trains, his name was STIM ONE. His brother was TEE and they were really up. STIM was another special person. His enthusiasm for graff was fucking crazy. Just unfortunate that he passed away. They said he slipped. I don’t know, he was fucking cat-quick, and he fell through the train cars? Come one man! This shit didn’t even seem right. We all started writing his name in Brooklyn.
How has your style changed over the years?
The real early Brooklyn style masters from central Brooklyn—like BLACK DICE, DEGREES, GHETTO CHILD and TIP TOP—had such a beautiful handstyle. I tried to emulate that style, it made a real impact on me. My Es and my J—the J would kick out with a flare, my Es would be loopy. Eventually that style was played out and I went to more regular E styles. Simply easy, clear style. PATCH 147, who is from Broadway—his brother is MOSES 147, one of the first kings of the 1 line—he would show me the Uptown style, but I liked my style from Brooklyn, because I could write it fast.
Not too many people have double Es. I would write it fast and connected together. Then I developed this J, and I talked to JESTER about it today. I don’t know where I got it from, he don’t know where he got it from. I just kinda developed that J. My early style came from those original style masters from central Brooklyn. Those guys were my style idols. HERB 99 had a really nice style, too. Their handstyles were supreme to me.
To me, you have to develop your tag first. You know guys now, they got no handstyle, but they do these crazy nice burners. You’re missing something! Back in the day, you had to perfect your tag. Your tag was who you was, you know? If your tag looked trash, then basically you’re trash, too. I developed my handstyle, that was my anchor. I used to love the insides, I was a big insides guy before the outsides was necessary.
Because JAMES has more letters than JEE, it was really refreshing to me mentally. I got a chance to write an S, which I think is the best letter in the alphabet. I used to like STEVE 61, his S. My S has changed through the years, it evolved. My J has evolved. My P has evolved, when I get to the P I don’t know which P to use. All my letters evolved from when I first started writing JAMES. I love it. People get nostalgic and they ask me for JEE. I never do JEE 2 tags anymore. To me JEE was part of being an Odd Partner, and since those guys are not here no more, it’s hard for me to write it. It takes me back to my childhood and my teenage years.
Do you have any favorite markers, spray paint or other tools?
Erasers from school, we would steal all those and we would use other devices, like cigarette lighters, and put ink in it, before you could buy ink to fill up your markers. Now I think people don’t even do that anymore. That was a lot of fun. STIM ONE had marker cleaner, some solution that you put inside your marker to clean out all the other colors so you could start fresh again. I was like, this guy, he’s too much! Basically, we would write in ink, and that was a big part of the experience when we were younger. We loved that stuff. Every single article of clothes that I had back then had paint on it. Even today, all my clothes still got paint.
What’s the best part about bombing for you?
All of it. The streets, and just being with the TOP guys. We didn’t do it for money, we just did it because we loved it. We were like brothers. We started this crew. Out of all the thousands of graffiti writers in NYC, we achieved what they didn’t and that was to be actual kings of the NYC subway system. We made that pact when we were about 13 years old, going on 14. By the time I was 17 years old, we did it! There was no parade, there was no party and shit. Actually, we didn’t even know when it was and it happened. But it happened.
We got up every morning and we knew that we had to get together, and we had to get paint, and we eventually had to paint on the trains. And that’s what we did, every day. Like preparing for a fucking basketball game, you’re playing against another team and obviously it was us against the MTA. It was never us against other crews. It was never like that for TOP. Other people, their experiences were different than ours. You know, we had the reputation that we had of being who we was, and we wasn’t mad at anybody or anything. We just put in our work.
We never thought about doing this full time as making a living. It wasn’t that until DONDI started being in galleries and going overseas. This guy had a ATM card before I even knew what a goddamn ATM was. I did not believe that we could make money, that anyone would want to buy this shit. It was the furthest thing from our imaginations.
My mother [knew what I was doing], I almost got us kicked out of the projects, because I was writing all over the place. At one time, the police would chase me from the yard into the projects. Wrong move! I had so many moves to get away from them. I would run into the building, and the building had a back door, but I would run up the steps, come back out the steps, run through the door and then jump into my bedroom window, because I lived on the first floor. “Where’d he go?” Like Houdini.
After a while, it was just normal. Your mind is just on automatic. When you’re in the yard, you have to be as one, you have to be a rock in that place. Your ears have to be attuned to different sounds. The trains, the guys working in there. You have to know the difference between a work bum, a conductor and a fucking cop. And this is just using your hearing!
We ran so much that it was just natural. MICKEY, no matter what, he was going to run. We would sneak on the trains and we’d be surrounded by fucking cops. MICKEY would jump on the fucking tracks—elevated tracks!—you miss your mark and you’re going all of the fucking way down. He would jump and run across the tracks. We had no fear of tracks at all. Go on the other platform and slide down the cover of the steps. The cop’s seeing that and goes, “Fuck that, I’m not going after them.”
I went to a school called Brockport State, right outside of Rochester. I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to stay in New York, bombing with MICKEY and HURST and them. But they said, “Nah J, you gotta go, man!” They really pushed me to go to school. I‘m the last original survivor of the original TOP crew. Just like we’re walking down the street, I remember walking down the street with them. When I get a chance to talk about them, it gets emotional, because I feel they’re supposed to be with me right now. A lot of people have their friends and stuff and I don’t have any of my friends with me. Those guys, if they was here, man, it would make my job so much easier.
What does it take to become a good graffiti writer?
Love and dedication and knowing your history. That’s important. You don’t know where you’re at in history. I look back and I didn’t know that I was even a part of some history. Who would fucking care about The Odd Partners? There was one reason I was writing: Because it gave me self-esteem, because it gave me an identity. People would know in the neighborhood, that’s JEE 2, that’s JAMES TOP. He is the graffiti guy here, and he’s representing us in our neighborhood with this art form. No matter where these people go, they’re gonna talk about graffiti and they’re gonna mention my name. “Oh, you know JAMES TOP?” “JAMES TOP, hell yeah, I know fucking JAMES TOP!”
You don’t know where you’re at in history. Hopefully you’ll dedicate your time and your love to this and you’ll become a part of this history, and you’ll become attached even to the train history, even if you never wrote on a train before. It’s about attaching yourself to places. Painting the graffiti hall of fame at 106th and Park. Getting down with a train crew that originates from the subway and the trains. Talking to some of the oldtimers. Immersing yourself into the culture and lifestyle. I challenge anybody’s love for this art form and the evolution of it. You gotta make this better for the next generation of people that want to call themselves graffiti writers.