Louie “KR.ONE” Gasparro is an artist and former NYC subway train graffiti writer. He was one of twelve children born in Manhattan to Italian immigrants, and was raised in Astoria: he lived in Astoria from 1966 to 1996. He started writing graffiti when he was just eleven years old. Over email I heard from Louie about his memories of writing the trains and of growing up in Astoria at that time. And of how the 30th Ave subway station was a meeting place for two of the “cliques” (writing groups) that he was a part of: IRT (Invading Rapid Transit), and TSS (The Super Squad).
Towards the end of the interview you’ll find details of Louie’s new book about graffiti writer Joe “DON 1” Palattella who is also from Astoria – as well as upcoming events here in New York City.
- How did you first start writing on the trains?
I started writing graffiti very young in 1977, I was 11 years old. Ever since I can remember I was always drawing, sketching, finger painting and reading comic books etc. So when I started to notice the cartoons and bubble lettering on trains I was immediately attracted to it. Seeing art that big going by so fast and stopping right in front of you was truly an amazing thing to witness.
- What did you most enjoy about writing the trains, and what were the biggest challenges?
There were many enjoyable things for me within this art form. Specifically in the subway era. Sketching the outline to executing it and seeing the result fly by while you are 15 years old sitting in your homeroom class is really unforgettable. The challenges were actually getting away with it. Going into a tunnel or train yard and doing a piece on a train that you liked and then walking out unscathed and not arrested were the biggest heaps. Painting in the dark was a challenge for sure – that’s why I painted mostly in yards. In the daylight.
- What was the dynamic like between the writers? Competition, camaraderie, both?
Subway era graffiti was totally competitive. Every writer would try and “burn” the other with style or with quantity. There was also a lot of camaraderie. Being a (graffiti) writer really transcended any and all social, economic, ethnic and racial boundaries. The art was the common denominator.
- Where were the best places to go, to write on the trains?
When I took part in the subway era (1977-1983) the places to go were the train storage yards, the elevated layups of out of service cars and the tunnels. I liked tunnels and yards. I felt more secure knowing no one could see us doing our thing.
- What, for you, characterized Astoria in the 1970s and 1980s, and how would you describe the ways in which it has changed since that time?
I grew up always feeling very safe in Astoria. Everywhere I’d go I always knew someone. If I didn’t, they’d usually know someone in my family. It was a true neighborhood. Astoria Park and all the school yards were the social network. I still visit Astoria frequently because of the many great restaurants, the Museum of the Moving Image, which I used to play in when it was an abandoned wreckage.
It is also a cultural mecca of sorts, where I’ve had several solo art and musical events in the past few years. I have one coming up in Long Island City at 10Ten Studios on June 6th and 7th.
The change that I notice is the obvious gentrification that is taking place. Many “hipster” bars and cafes have sprung up everywhere. All the girls wear glasses and the guys have beards (lol).
- Any particular memories about Astoria’s 30th Ave?
The 30th Ave subway station was a meeting place for some of the cliques (writing groups) I was a part of. I would meet up with writers from IRT (Invading Rapid Transit) and TSS (The Super Squad). Guys with names like RCA (Reckless Car Artist), SN (Sick Nick), and KB (Krazy Boy) aka Savage 1. RCA and KB were the founders and presidents of these two Astoria based cliques.
- Any walls you painted in Astoria that you are particularly proud of?
In the mid 80′s I was the first graffiti artist (in Astoria) to be commissioned by the community and private businesses to do murals. I was also a part of (believe it or not) a community group called “Graffiti Busters”. I sat on panels with community leaders and parents discussing what could be done for kids who were defacing property. I’d be sitting there with really long hair and a leather jacket explaining the psychological reasons why kids were writing their names on walls. I got used to being stared at really quickly (lol). I’m very proud of those murals.
- You’ve traveled to many countries – have you seen any examples of public graffiti with the impact and scale of the NYC subway car paintings?
It really hit me when I was performing in Italy. I was on tour with a band called Murphy’s Law (from Astoria!) We had a little time off in Milan and while I was walking around I had a double take happen. A train was rolling by with an awesome graffiti piece on it. It was a top-to-bottom whole car. In other words the complete side of the train was painted from one end to the other and from the top to the bottom.
I was blown away because at the time I didn’t have the internet and was reading about and seeing magazine articles of the European graffiti scene. It was amazing. It truly was happening like the days of the mid 70′s and early 80′s. I truly believe that Europe completely took to graffiti art because of its artistic history. Centuries of art and culture left no mistake as to what they saw in what we started here.
- And why do you think that what’s known as graffiti art emerged from NYC – i.e. why NYC, at that time?
When “Cornbread” ( a graffiti writer from Philadelphia) was noticed and TAKI 183 and Julio 204 took it to the next level in NYC and the whole metamorphosis from the more simplistic “single hits” of graffiti signatures went to “bubble lettering” and more elaborate “burners” and “wild style” the entire vocabulary of graffiti art was laid out on the NYC subways and streets it was the invention of a modern art form.
That art form was known to its practitioners as “writing”. Writing, because it was letter and name based. So we were writing. Writing for ourselves and each other. In the mid-eighties, books like Subway Art and Spray Can art came out. The whole world found out about this new art. From New York City. I say NYC, although its early origins lay in Philly because of the evolution. The evolution and style metamorphosis that happened in NYC from let’s say 1970 – 1980 is responsible for the global phenomena of graffiti writing and graffiti art. I always say that we needed to write and apparently so did the world.
- What have you been up to since that time – and what’s ahead?
I am still an artist a musician and now an author. I’ve been doing art and music for the better part of my life and I have recently written a book called “Don 1, The King From Queens – The Life and Photos Of a NYC Transit Graffiti Master”. It is a book about a very influential graffiti writer from the 70′s – Joe “DON 1” Palattella. From Astoria! It has over 200 never-seen-before photos of the old Astoria RR trains and the DON 1 tags and pieces (short for master-pieces) that adorned those trains, all taken when Don 1 was a photography major at Art and Design High School in Manhattan. Astoria Bookshop held a signing where over 200 fans and lovers of this art came out to support.
My band “Servants Of The Crown -Keepers Of The Sign” is a music project that is purely for the love and fun of performing and enjoyment of music. It is comprised of great friends with great talent. We’ll be performing in Astoria this summer.
Tuesday May 27
A book launch and panel discussion will take place at an amazing museum in Manhattan called The Museum Of the City Of New York. This will be an historical event featuring many stars within the graffiti art culture. And it is in an actual real museum. On 5th avenue!
Friday and Saturday June 6 and 7
As I mentioned earlier I have a solo art show coming up called “The Bright Stuff Of Dreams”. It’s a two day only event in a two floor gallery (10TEN Studios) in Long Island City.
I am a proud New Yorker and an even prouder Astorian. Astoria , Queens, New York City is where I learned everything I know and love and I want to share that love and knowledge with everybody! Peace, Paint, Love and Led Zep!
Louie “KR.ONE” Gasparro
Find out more:
New York Daily News on Louie KR.ONE Gasparro’s book on DON1: “Influential graffiti artist DON1 unveiled in new book by one of his longtime admirers”, Lisa L. Colangelo, New York Daily News, 5 Feb, 2014
And the archive of all the interviews on this website, “30th Ave – A Year in the Life of a Street”
More of Louie’s work: