Sick Hands and Heavy Chords: Freddy Alva Talks about His New Book "Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore"

Author Freddy Alva. Photo by: Jammi Sloane York

Author Freddy Alva. Photo by: Jammi Sloane York

By: Steven DiLodovico

Freddy Alva is deeply entrenched in New York subculture, and has been since his teenage years. This Peruvian-born writer and acupuncturist has the underground in his blood. He was a fixture in the New York Hardcore scene of the ‘80s as more than just a spectator. Freddy and longtime friend Chaka Malik were responsible for the seminal ‘zine The New Breed and the subsequent compilation cassette that has now become a NYHC legend in its own right.

Freddy has now embarked upon a journey of documenting a largely underappreciated melding of subcultures: graffiti and its symbiotic influence over (and inspiration by) hardcore music. In the ‘80s, the hardcore that came out of New York City was so closely intertwined with hip-hop culture that it seemed like every band expressed some kind of intrinsic inspiration from a culture that was rapidly being taken up by the mainstream as a social phenomenon. New York Hardcore sought to keep it grimy, though. Almost every hardcore band out of New York had an “intro bust” in their live set or as the kickoff to their demo, every 7” cover had some form of a tag as the band’s logo. The two genres were, in many ways, inseparable. Many musicians also doubled as writers, and their tags were seen all over the city. Many Emcee’s took hardcore and punk’s DIY values and put their own music out themselves. The era was rich with a blending of subcultures that transcended race, economics, and geography.

In his new book, Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore, Freddy is seeking to celebrate a lost art form and to tell its outlaw story from the mouths and hands of those who lived and created it. I recently talked to Freddy about what the world can expect from his book and why it needs to be out there.

Sick Of It All piece by: Joe Janaro

Sick Of It All piece by: Joe Janaro

“My goal with the book is to spotlight a largely unknown connection between two important subcultures and show the common reference points they both synergistically fed off.”
— Freddy Alva

How did you find hardcore? Or did it find you?

I found hardcore by flipping through radio channels in 1984. There was a new wave station called WLRI out of Long Island that had a show called "Fun" in which they played harder-edged stuff like Throbbing Gristle, Killing Joke, and Clock DVA. I heard Killing Joke’s "Wardance" & was completely blown away. I went to a record store in the East Village to buy their record and, while flipping through the “K” section, I saw Kraut’s "An Adjustment to Society" LP. That struck a chord as I remembered seeing their "All Twisted" video on MTV, and by reading on the back cover that they were from my neighborhood of Queens, that sealed the deal. Kraut was the first hardcore record I bought, and that led me to seek out any other bands that played this kind of music.

Outburst/Absolution handstyle by: HYENA

Outburst/Absolution handstyle by: HYENA

What was your introduction into the graff world?

When I was 11 in 1980 and going to grade school everyone in my neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens, had a tag and wrote to a certain degree. When I got old enough to ride the trains I noticed and took note of the incredible kaleidoscopic images graffiti writers were writing inside and outside of the subways, blanketing the city as their own personal canvas. Older local writers showed me and my friends how to write, rack up paint, and get into the tunnels. It’s all a rite of passage for people my age that grew up in New York City’s five boroughs.

Beastie Boys piece by: CEY CITY circa 1985 West Village NYC

Beastie Boys piece by: CEY CITY circa 1985 West Village NYC

What was your motivation for putting this book together?

My interest came about a couple of years ago when I did an article for the No Echo website entitled "Graffiti and The Hardcore Connection". In it I profiled several writers whose work I’ve admired, the only provision being that they had to have played in bands. I included writers from California and Pennsylvania, but the majority of the writers were from New York City. This led to me to think about the unique and widespread synthesis of graffiti and hardcore in New York, as opposed to other cities in the US, where there were instances of that fusion but not to the overwhelming effect as there was in NYC. That synthesis had been going from the beginning of hardcore in the city all the way up to the present era. My goal with the book is to spotlight a largely unknown connection between two important subcultures and show the common reference points that they both synergistically fed off.

What eras/years are you covering?

I’ve broken down the eras into 3 phases: the early days of 1980-85, the Golden Era of 1985-1995, and the current era from 1995 to today. I realize current graffiti historians put NYC graffiti into 5 distinct phases, my deviation from that is a bit different because of the hardcore angle. The music and subculture had not been properly developed and codified, arguably, until 1980-1981.

Life's Blood sticker by: SMOG RIS

Life's Blood sticker by: SMOG RIS

In your opinion, how important was the melding of the two cultures, hardcore and graffiti?

I think it was extremely important as hardcore was seen, in its infancy, as a primarily suburban, middle-class phenomenon. The inclusion of graffiti, a uniquely urban art form, allowed a wider range of experiences to draw from. Issues of class, race, and social status figured prominently in the hardcore scene, as reflecting a microcosm of what New York City is. Graffiti allowed kids to make their own personal urban stamp on what was, for the most part, a homogeneous hardcore scene nation-wide.

Mackie "HYPE Jason from the Cro- Mags

Mackie "HYPE Jason from the Cro- Mags

What is it about the two cultures that make them so similar?

I think there were parallels in both subcultures, such as the outlaw angle. The same mentality that took to go into unauthorized locales such as train yards was present in setting up shows in abandoned and/or illegal spaces. The drive to get your graffiti tag or name up as much as possible was also present in bands trying to get their name out by any means necessary via flyers/wheat pasting. In New York especially, the same kid that wrote and was down with a crew could easily make the transition to hardcore as the stark, utilitarian underground sound was an appealing alternative to the commercial fodder flooding the airwaves at that time.

How significant a role does the actual city of New York play in influencing and informing both art forms?

The geography of NYC greatly impacted graffiti as it took a person out of their comfort zone, namely the neighborhood they grew up in, and took them to areas they might never have gone and interacted with people they would never have otherwise. Graffiti was the great common denominator, crossing over ethnic/social classes and unifying kids from wildly different backgrounds into a common goal. The same can be said of hardcore: a small percentage of kids lived in the epicenters of NYHC, namely Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Kids traveled from the outer boroughs, upstate NY, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and it was NYC’s mass transit system that provided a direct and lengthy commute. The economic blight of the city in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s also played a huge role in shaping both art forms, as it allowed kids to use the bare minimum of resources to express themselves in a society that appeared to be falling apart at the seams. The dire circumstances provided a fertile ground for art to flourish.

Terminal Confusion flyer by: VOYER TMR 1989

Terminal Confusion flyer by: VOYER TMR 1989

You’ve interviewed a number of musicians and writers for this project, who can we expect to hear from? Do you have a favorite interview thus far?

I’ve done about a dozen interviews so far. Writer/musicians like Sergio "DEEM" Vega from The Deftones/Quicksand, Gavin "NATZ" Van Vlack from Burn/Absolution, Louie "KR" Gasparro from Murphys Law, as well as leaders of what is a unique New York phenomenon: graffiti crews made up of mainly hardcore fans, people like DMS president Danny "EZEC" Diablo and Ed HUSH from SPORTS (Skins & Punks Out Rocking The Subway) fit this category. My favorite interviews were the ones in which all I had to do is ask one question and the responder was off and running, speaking non-stop for the next ten minutes, covering many different important topics. It’s a pain in the ass to transcribe, but totally worth it. I would say all the interviews are my favorites, everyone explaining in their own fashion this thing we call NYHC graffiti and why it matters.

Along with interviews, will there be photos? What can we expect to see?

I want to showcase unseen photos of pieces and tags done by writers that played in bands as well as writers that did tributes to NYHC, either by name checking bands and/or doing flyers/shirts/logos/record covers that referenced this vibrant scene. There is a huge body of work from the past 36 years that most people have not seen put together in one place, all the better to highlight its full visceral effect.

Have you ever put up any pieces?

I was never good at doing pieces. I was more of a tagger and doing throw-ups kind of writer. The couple of times where a full piece did go up with my name, it was through the efforts of a couple of old friends of mine that were good at piecing. All I did is help with coloring the finished work and sign my name next to it. Belated thanks to ROTE and DEEN, both X-Men crew, for hooking me up way back when!

Freddy's first fanzine: "FTW" by ROTE X-MEN

Freddy's first fanzine: "FTW" by ROTE X-MEN

Who should be interested in reading this book?

There is an obvious built-in audience in the graffiti and hardcore worlds that are interested in these subjects, but I think that there’s a wider range of readers that would be into it. Anyone that enjoys reading about NYC in the ‘80s or urban metropolises in general, will find something to take away from the book. Plus, the pure visual impact that will appeal to anyone based just on the overall intrinsic aesthetic value.

What do you hope to accomplish with this book?

My goal is to document a largely unknown connection between two seemingly disparate subcultures that continues to resonate in this modern era, long after their respective heydays. I also want to give an alternate history of what’s long been held as the gospel truth in Hip-Hop history, namely the assertion that Rap was the exclusive soundtrack to Graffiti writing. This was clearly not the case from my experience and from talking to other people that were around back then. Guitar-based music such as heavy metal, hard rock, and, of course, hardcore, was the preferred soundtrack for many writers. The history of a particular subculture’s origins can sometimes be shown in a way to fit a particular agenda. My aim is to give a voice to an untold story, largely from the people that were there, and to ultimately give a multi-dimensional view to what’s become, to a large extent, a nearly extinct phenomenon: urban subcultures.

New York Hardcore piece by: FCEE GAS crew

New York Hardcore piece by: FCEE GAS crew