Charlie Ahearn

My film, Wild Style, came out of the Time Square Show. Well, I did many things at the show, but I was not central to the show. I considered myself one of the peripheral contributors. I was not a main organizer, because I was working on films at the time. I'm the one who painted the sign out in front that said "Times Square Show." I remember I walked out there and I just did it. I didn't ask anyone. That's the weird thing about it. There was no one in charge that I remember. I remember just taking a ladder, paint, and I taped it out with masking tape. It just said, "Times Square Show." But I never got credit for it or asked for credit.

I was very inspired by the idea of the TSS, because I was going to 42nd Street to look at Kung Fu movies. I consider Times Square the epicenter of street culture in all the boroughs. I mean people came from Brooklyn, people came from the Bronx. There were "crews," as they called themselves. People from the outside would call them gangs, but they were crews, which just meant collectives of youth would come to Times Square and hang out and go see movies. So I was into street culture on 42nd Street in a big way for years preceding the TSS. My thing was going into the housing projects and seeing what was going on.

I brought the cast for my 1978 movie, The Deadly Art of Survival, including Nathan Ingram, to the TSS exhibition to perform there, and I showed the movie there. What people don't realize is that there were multiple shows going on besides the art show. There were performances, there were music shows, there were film screenings every single night. There's a great fold-out where you can see that there were like three different things going on, like Jack Smith. Different artists came and did their thing.

And I had posters for The Deadly Art of Survival movie up in the show, and I actually turned the third floor into an open silkscreen shop where people could come in and help me make the Times Square Show poster. That's where I printed it, on the third floor, and people could come in and help print the poster and hang it up. We pasted it all over the Lower East Side with the image that Jane had drawn of two hands with cards playing three-card monte. I remember it was my silkscreen, and I wanted to make this poster. Obviously I would have done it very early because it's not like people got together before the month of June and they made this Times Square Show and then they open the door and everyone came in and went, "Wow! Look at that!" No. It was not anything like that. It was more like something that was constantly changing and that . . . I mean I think I used the third floor because it was there.

At the TSS I met Fred Brathwaite (AKA Fab 5 Freddy), who mysteriously I had not met even though we were in these similar circles for a few years downtown. But he approached me one night, I think it was after The Deadly Art of Survival crew had already performed there [at the TSS]. Fred shows up and he's got a pair of dark Ray-Bans on and this was at night at the TSS. He wanted to bring some artwork into the show, and he asked if he could meet me. And we immediately started talking about Lee Quinones, because I felt like Lee was the guy, and I wanted to get Lee into the show. I had met Lee once. He came by to the handball court near where I lived down in the Lower East Side by the Brooklyn Bridge. He had a big Afro, and he was a skinny kid with this homemade little motorbike. I had been told by local kids that he was the artist who was making these murals. To me, the thing was the openness to art in both directions; and when I was looking at these murals, I thought this is the greatest artist of the whole street scene of the Lower East Side. Who is he, right? He's not anyone we know.

Fred said that he was working with Lee and that he would bring him tomorrow morning to meet me and bring some work for the show. (As it happens Fred had worked with Lee on an art show of his graffiti paintings that went to Milan.)

And I said that it would be great if they did a piece downstairs on the wall. It was an absurd idea, because we didn't own this building. I offered them fifty dollars to buy spray paint, which they did and they showed up the next morning. They did a Fab 5 piece on the wall out in front. On the front façade of the building, out on the street. It was what you call a "throw-up." It just said "Fab 5," and then there was a little writing on the wall. You have to understand this is Times Square in daylight. If you so much as shook a paint-can outside in Times Square right now, police would be all over you. But that was then. In 1980, you could just do this piece, no one bothered anybody. They brought some canvases that we hung upstairs—I think in the stairwell or something from both of them. So they were brought into the show.

So the night before, when Fred and I were talking, Fred said to me that he thought it would be really cool to make a movie about the rap scene that involved graffiti. To me the whole thing was great. If we could get Lee involved, that would be really cool. That's how I looked at it. I felt that right at that moment we, in my own mind, had begun making the movie.

Fred and Lee were already friends with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Fred likes to tell the story that some guy was standing there and he was bragging about the painting on the wall that was by Fred and was saying stuff about it and acting like he knew him. It turned out to be Keith Haring. And Keith Haring hadn't met Fred yet. So they also met there.

So what I'm saying is a lot of things happened. Joe Lewis was involved and he brought all these artist-friends that he knew from Harlem. David Hammons was one of the more renowned. Hammons came and took bottles of Night Train, which was a kind of street wine, and broke them and poured the broken glass up the stairs. But I honestly didn't know who he was at the time. This is 1980. Jean-Michel Basquiat went in and spray-painted things over other people's artworks. Right over the artwork. I didn't know him either at the time. This was right before he blew up. And Keith Haring, I got to know him while he was at the show. I didn't know him at the time, either.

At the TSS, there was no "gallery." There was a series of somewhat cramped hallways that would then open up into rooms, and there was the stairwell, which was really cramped and small, but people did artworks all the way up. There were three floors of spaces, and then there was a whole basement. And in the basement there were all kinds of stuff that was some of the best artwork that I remember from the show.

What I'm trying to say is that there was a movement afoot, and it [TSS] was a lightning rod for a lot of energy that was happening. Jean-Michel Basquiat was out on the street writing. I always consider 1980, the summer of 1980, the hottest of graffiti on the subways in terms of whole cars, whole car paintings. You have to go to Henry Chalfant's documentation of that work to see how many whole car paintings were produced that summer. And I think my experience working with Fred and Lee is just probably one of many, and you could probably ask around and find other stories of people where this moment sort of changed their lives. You know Wild Style ended up changing a lot of things. A lot of people's lives were changed not just from the showing of that movie, but the making of the movie brought energy and focus to things and started to draw some kind of understanding of the culture that was going on.

I would show slides of graffiti trains and things happening in the clubs downtown to sixteen, seventeen-year-olds up in the Bronx with the idea that they're supposed to get it, that this stuff is connected. Those kids from Brooklyn or from the Bronx started coming to shows at the Mudd Club, which later became like the Roxy in a few years, and created this big, grand synergy of things going on.

At the TSS, there was a fashion show with DJ Johnny Dynell and the Dynells. They used WRAP in the title with the idea that it was a joke on the word "rap." So people were aware of rap, but there was no real rap or hip-hop DJs at the Times Square Show, not even close. That hadn't happened yet. That was coming, and it came because certain individuals like myself and Fred went to clubs and started making contact with people and inviting them to come downtown. Or we were going there and taking pictures and recording their music and bringing their tapes downtown. The fact that graffiti was so unusual there [at the TSS] gives you an idea how things hadn't started yet.

Likewise, Basquiat hadn't really made paintings yet. He came in to the TSS, and he wrote words on the walls, and he actually did like a kind of abstract expressionist painting on the wall. John Ahearn was already in the Bronx for two years, and he had a whole show of his casts of people from the Bronx in the TSS. So the connection between Fashion Moda and the TSS was very strong in that sense.

The term "All City" meant that where you wrote was All City. It meant that train would travel to all places, and you were hitting walls in all the different neighborhoods. You weren't relegated to your neighborhood. So I consider that a very inspirational title, "All City." It means breaking down barriers of all types—and we'll even throw class in there, because there were crews with prep school kids mixing with kids from the Bronx, et cetera, et cetera. And once they were in the yard, they were all on the same plane. Ideally. Ideally. I'm speaking ideally because there was a lot of violence and there were a lot of people getting messed up, so I'm not trying to be Pollyanna-ish about it.

What happened after the TSS was this boundary-breaking idea of going across boundaries and connecting people beyond race and class. Both musically and art-wise, it created a huge explosion around the world. It's how I see it. To this day it remains relevant. In any continent, you can start to talk about this and what it did and how it transformed things.

As told to Shawna Cooper, August 8, 2011

Charlie Ahearn (b. 1951, Binghamton, NY)
Charlie Ahearn moved to New York City in 1973 to attend the Whitney Independent Study Program. In the mid-1970s, his work centered on the production of 16 mm films. He wrote, directed, and produced The Deadly Art of Survival, his first feature-length Super 8 film, in 1978 and 1979. The film was screened at the Times Square Show, June 1980. Immediately following the exhibition, Ahearn began working on Wild Style (1983), an important film celebrating the emergence of graffiti and hip-hop. Ahearn lived in Times Square from 1981 to 1993. Additional information is available at http://charlieahearn.com/.

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