Louie KR.ONE Gasparro Brings ‘True York’ to the Masses
Queens through and through
Louie KR.ONE Gasparro is all heart when it comes to the letter. A life-long devotee of writing culture, painting and trains are in his marrow. From his early days coming up in Astoria, Queens, in the ’70s—as part of the third wave of original NYC writers—up to this very day, KR has never once wavered. He is still as seduced by mark making of his own and by iconoclasts as he was as a kid.
While that enthusiasm has never ebbed, it jumped from walls and trains to canvas and art books. Gasparro’s work is always eye-popping, with a collision of color from another planet, clean lines and rule-busting imagination.
MASS APPEAL recently caught up with him for a studio visit. Imagine the space: from floor to ceiling, it teems with his work, large and small, in all states of progress. The walls and fully-lined bookshelves are polka-dotted with a lifetime of homage and graff history, like a one-room school house dedicated to the writing greats.
KR welcomed us in just days before his largest exhibition to date, True York opening this Saturday, August 12th at One Art Space in Tribeca. We got the lowdown on his origin story, the exact moment he made landfall with graffiti and all that’s come after.
How did graffiti come to be part of your life?
I know the moment. 1974. My brother Rocco used to take us to Yankees and Mets games. That year, the Yankees played all their home games at Shea Stadium because they were fixing the old Yankee Stadium. I was like eight years old. Rocco was taking us to Shea Stadium to see them play. We were on Queensboro Plaza and the 7 train pulled up, and I was like, “What is that??!!” I didn’t even know they were names on the train. I didn’t know what it was. I just saw what we call bubble letters, what I call loop-de-loop ’70s style. Cartoons, Snoopy. I remember seeing Dick Tracy. I said to my brother, I go Roc, “What is this?? Who’s doing that??” He said, “Ah, it’s just a bunch of punks with spray paint.” [Laughs] It was like a giant cartoon driving up to me.
It literally found you.
There are a few exact moments like that. Yeah yeah yeah. So, we went to the game. I wound up catching Bobby Bonds’ foul ball, who’s Barry Bonds’ father. Like an idiot, you know what we did? We brought it right to P.S. 166, and we destroyed it. We’re Yankees, and we just killed the ball. The leather would come off the ball, and we would tape it with electrical tape, and it became a black rock. But, once I saw that train, I continued to draw. What I decided was, I want to draw that. I want to copy that. I remember the first thing I ever drew on a wall, it wasn’t even a word, it was a shape because I didn’t know that those loop-de-loop letters were letters. I thought it was just like abstract shapes.
So fast forward: I’m like 10 now. A friend from the neighborhood is showing me pictures of trains one day. I’m like, “What are you taking pictures of trains for?” He said, “Look on the train.” And I go, “What’s that?” He was like, “That’s graffiti.” It was like … That was the word that was describing what I saw when I started tagging up. I remember him telling me, “Yo Lou, that’s toy.” And I’m like, “Toy, what does that mean?” He said, “It’s not that good.” I said, “Okay.” [Laughs] I just kept going from there. I started to go onto the trains. I started in ’77 on streets and everything. Then ’78, I went to the train tracks, Broadway, 36th Avenue gang.
Those were the double Rs back then, right? The elevated train?
BMT double Rs, yeah. What they did was they switched, the R is now the N. The N used to be the R. I started riding, going in train yards, tunnels and everything, and I started getting better at it because I cared about it. I started practicing lines on plywood in my back yard. Never really doing pieces because I didn’t want anybody in my family to know what I was doing. They just saw the spray can as a medium, like, “Oh, he doesn’t use the brush, he uses the paint.”
I kept doing it til about ’83. Winter ’83 is really the last time I ever went riding on a train. But then I continued to do graffiti, and I was probably the first one in Queens at least to do graffiti art as an advertisement. I started getting paid. This is like ’85, ’86, I’m getting paid now. And it was what I was doing on the train. Except a little bit more legible. I had to commercialize it a little bit. But it was graffiti-styled ads. That’s what I used to tell them. They were giving me 50 cans of paint, meanwhile I only needed like 20.
Yeah, exactly! I didn’t have to rack up anymore. They were buying. That kept going on until … I never really stopped doing that, but in between all that stuff, I started playing drums. In 1982.
I remember my mother telling me, “Louie, you don’t like sports anymore?” I was in an international traveling baseball league. I played in Mexico, all over America. I made this all-star team. Starting catcher. I was leading three different kinds of lives. Drummer, baseball player and graffiti artist. Still am. My mother would say, “Hey, you don’t like sports anymore?” And I’m like, “Drumming is a sport.”
So is graffiti though, right?
Yup. Totally a sport. You’re meeting at the school yard. You’re collecting paint. You’re moving. [Pointing to a framed print of Martha Cooper’s iconic photo of DONDI painting between two train cars in 1980] Look at this picture of DONDI. He’s in motion!
I think the great thing about the expressive element of graffiti to me is, when you paint, it’s like you’re bringing it all out here, [motioning from his core outward] Look at that movement, it’s like, here. It’s the same thing with drums, I’m real army when I play. It’s all expression. I always say, if you can just open up the door and let that beam come out… and it’s been coming out since I’m a little kid. It’s a lot of sharing with me. It’s all about the love of what you do and showing it to people.
If we were to literally cut you open right now, all this style and paint would fall out.
All of it. If you’re gonna go inside my brain, [motioning around the studio] this is how one of the rooms would look. And if you could listen to some stuff that’s in my brain, you’d hear what I play on guitar and my drumming.
Art encompasses so many different things for me. Growing up in Astoria was like, there was art everywhere. People didn’t realize it because we were busy being kids, but I lived right around the corner from Kaufman Studio. The creative output that was happening in this neighborhood, I was noticing all of it. The graffiti, the hardcore bands, the punk rock bands, the metal bands, I was like, holding on to all of it and navigating myself. I wanted to be on that path. I always say that I love everything I do so much that I wanted to become it. I wanted to be a drummer. I’m a fucking drummer. I wanted to play guitar. I taught myself how to play. I have this new band called Starchitect. It’s exciting. I’m writing all the riffs. These guys are killer musicians. They’re way better than me on guitar, but they’re taking my riffs and a lot of my words, and it’s developing into this whole thing. That’s another expression. I’m a graphic artist, I learned Photoshop and Illustrator and all that bullshit. And then my son…
He’s growing up surrounded by it.
Vito grew up in it. His tag was VORTEX and now he’s GRIME. He’s changing the letters around. I’m blessed to have this kid, man. He grew up seeing daddy’s art. There’s no stigma attached to it for him growing up. He understands the stigma now because I showed him and he understands what’s legal and what’s not. Everything like that. He loves it. I remember on that desk right there, he would come in and be like, “What are you doing, Dad?” I’m like, “You want to draw?” He was like, “Yeah.” So I’d set him up with a table. And he would draw. And then he would be like, “Dad, put on some tunes.” And I would put my music on. Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, heavy metal. Anything. So he’s starting to learn about that, and about this. He was a little, little boy. Now what does he do? I left him here to sleep over one time. When I came home, he’s right here drawing, listening to music. It’s no greater feeling than to show him this is beautiful because all you really need is a piece of paper and a pencil. You could be in a square room. When you’re in prison, it’s a big thing when they give you paper and a pencil. It can save you.
And it saved you in a certain sense?
Look, this neighborhood was a great, great neighborhood to grow up in. I would not trade it for anything, but it had things flying through it. Waves that took people under. I remember just saying, “I cannot go past that line. I got too much that I want to do.” I know a lot of people that just went, “Line? What line?” Or they’re incarcerated now or something like that. Art and music basically provided me with an outlet to escape the inner city problems that I think are allowed to exist. I still feel like, I’m still that guy that started doing what I was doing when I was a kid. I learned more about it, and I’m a little bit more articulate in how I want to present it and all that.
Tell me about True York, the show coming up.
It’s the biggest show of my life coming up. This is like me going from CBGB’s to headlining the Beacon theater alone. It’s crazy. The show is Saturday, August 12 til Wednesday the 16th. And the gallery is rippin’ awesome. This art show is a mission. I’ve been painting basically since they told me go. I already had a body of work, but I just haven’t stopped.
It’s a ton of new work?
It’s not all new. It’s a lot of new stuff but some stuff that you may have seen before. I have these analogies that are musical and artistic. When a band plays, they play a chunk of new material, and then they play the songs that you know. The difference I think in art for me is that you might be looking to see that thing, but when you see that, you’re gonna go, “Wow. The new material’s good too.”
You’ve basically devoted your life to the letter. What then does the letter mean to you?
It’s that alphabetical graffiti is the alphabetical derivative, the stylized, enigmatic band-aid on what we once knew as the ABCs. All the letters… I love the whole alphabet because one of our prized possessions for a person to have or a person to collect is one graffiti artist’s complete alphabet. I love every letter in the alphabet because we’re taking a fixed system and making it ours. We take the letter A and we’ll just bend it up a little bit, we twist it, we put one line behind the other and turn it into this abstract version of what we were told it was supposed to look like. We just changed it around. I love all the letters. For life.
True York: The Art of Louie KR.ONE Gasparro opens at One Art Space (23 Warren Street, NYC) this Saturday, August 12th at 6 pm. The exhibition runs through August 16th, 2017.