In 1971, The New York Times reported on an anonymous graffiti tagger called “Taki 183” whose magic marker markings were appearing all over the city and were prompting an outbreak of similar graffiti tags all over Manhattan.
At that point in time, graffiti in NYC wasn’t new, but there was something about the prevalence of Taki’s tags, and the attention The New York Times article brought to them, that spurned a kind of mythology around the anonymous “artist”.
Who was Taki 183?
Why were they doing this?
And what, if anything, was their message?
Initially, the answers to these questions were underwhelming.
Tracking down the artist, who turned out to be a bored 17 year old from Washington Heights named Demetrios, the NY Times questioned him about his motives.
To his credit, the teenager dismantled any fantastical notions about his work by stating there was no lofty message and even less reason behind what he did:
“You don’t do it for girls… You do it for yourself. You don’t go after it to be elected President.”Taki 183, The New York Times, 1971
Demetrios (last name withheld), went on to admit there wasn’t a great deal of artistic influence or personal philosophy involved in what he did. He just did it. He’d seen the tag of the lesser known JULIO 240 in his neighbourhood and thought he’d give a try.
He’d experimented with paint and found it messy and impractical, so he settled on the easier and cheaper option of magic marker. Which, coincidentally, was much harder to remove from concrete leading to his tags outlasting many others.
The ubiquity of his tag was also rather easily explained, when after becoming a courier Taki found himself regularly criss-crossing the city. By keeping a marker on him while he worked, he was able to scrawl his tag across New York on multiple subway platforms and carriages, as well as locations like the Kennedy International Airport and New Jersey.
Graffiti, which had been a public nuisance in NYC before the article was published, seemed to spread like head lice in a kindergarten afterwards. Soon, anyone who could hold a pen or a spray can was getting in on the act.
And although by no means the first tagger, Taki’s notoriety and the frenzy of graffiti and street art that appeared in its wake resulted in him earning the title of “The Forefather of Graffiti”.
In fact, so big was his influence they made a movie about it:
Although they didn’t exactly strike when the iron was hot. The movie was released in 1985, a mere 14 years after the initial NY Times article was published.
Furthermore, as with most movies “inspired by true events” there was very little truth in Turk 182. While it did involve a subway vandal hunted by city officials, the tag (and the movie) had a message man.
No longer a meaningless street signature left by a bored teenager, Turk 182 scrawled and painted on subway carriages and walls to raise awareness about the dirty dealings of a corrupt city official. Unlike Taki, the tagger in Turk 182 wanted to change things. He was a revolutionary, not some clueless kid with a felt pen.
Shockingly, the movie was not a hit.
While he might have failed to set the box office alight Taki 183’s influence did inspire other much better art.
For every hundred kids who read about Taki in the Times and picked up a pen, there was one who said, “Hey, you know what would look better than my tag? A picture.”
And thus, actual art was created and a street art community was born.
In an environment of experimentalism, artists like Jean Paul Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf honed their craft on the endless concrete canvases of New York City.
Haring, who was trained at art school, described the subway walls as “his “laboratory” where he could work out ideas and play with his trademark line work.
Through that experimentation came breakthroughs of form and composition that lead to Haring and others quickly trading the walls of the NYC transit system for those of upmarket Manhattan art galleries.
Over the next 40 plus years, street art evolved from modest magic marker beginnings into a legitimate and very, very lucrative art form. So much so, that today we take for granted that nearly every city on Earth has a street art district or area. Hell, even Banksy, who at the writing of this article is still anonymous, is a household name with his stunts like the Shredded Art Auction being reported regularly in the mainstream press. Which I guess is fitting, because in 2021, street art is mainstream and its influence can be seen everywhere from pop culture to films and fashion.
It’s amazing then, to look back on where it originated and discover how much of it can be traced back to the scribblings of a kid with a pen and a handful of subway tokens.
But what of Taki? Did he, like the art movement he unwittingly sparked, evolve too?
Well, like most teenagers tend to do, he grew up.
His interest in tagging was already clearly waning in the 1971 article that made him famous, and, not long after its publication, he went to college eventually becoming a draftsman and car restoration expert.
So, you could argue Taki had (and continues to have) a creative life, but he didn’t become Banksy or anything.
(Or did he?)
To his credit, he also avoided any kind of revisionism when looking back on his teenage graffiti exploits.
In fact, when interviewed by the New York Times in 2011, Taki praised the artfulness and talent of the street artists that came after him but maintained, as he had 40 years earlier, that there was no real message or artfulness behind his (or anyone else’s) tagging.
“We did it because there was nothing else to do, and it was easy to do it. We were just killing time.”Taki 183, New York Times, 2011
Say what you like about Taki 183, his “art”, his cult-like mythology, or his legacy – at least he’s honest.