On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon earlier this Summer we met up with legendary street artist, George “Sen-1” Morillo to chat about the modern street art scene from the view from an old school street artist. Having been on the scene from the start, he’s truly the archetype street artist from the “bombing” days of gritty New York. His love for his community is clear from the moment we met him at the Little Shop of Crafts, a local youth art shop, where his vibrant murals adorned the walls. During the one block walk to his studio, he’s greeted by no less than a half dozen people, letting us know that he is a staple of the neighborhood and loved by the community. His studio is located in the lovely neighborhood of Morningside Heights in Manhattan, where Sen-1 also grew up. Barely recognizable from the dangerous 'hood that it was in the 80's, Sen-1 has been there through it all. As we enter his studio we're immediately transported back in time since it is like walking into a street art museum. With photos, art, and cassette tapes dating back to the 70's, contrasting his recent work that clearly illustrates the evolution of a great artist. Growing up in NYC my entire life I felt well versed of the scene, yet I was schooled in the brief time we hung together, because Sen is clearly a professor of street art. In fact, if Columbia is ever looking to add street art to their curriculum they need to contact him immediately.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote of bleeding for your art. He meant this metaphorically of course, but for some artist it is a literal sacrifice. This was part of the cost for young “bombers”, as graffiti artist were referred to back then. “It’s a good thing I was tall and skinny.” He joked regarding running, jumping, and climbing to evade to cops at times in train yards and platforms. “Sometimes someone would fall through a platform and we’d have to pull him out.” When asked what he considers the difference between modern street artist and those in his day, “We had to put in work” he tells me. “It was life or death. We felt like we were dying tomorrow and we wanted to leave our mark. You got your lumps, you had to fight spots to write. A lot of cats these days, through no fault of their own haven’t had to pay dues.”
Just as Morningside Heights was a far cry from the scenic , family friendly neighborhood it is today, 1970s-80’s New York City as a whole was a far from the trendy metropolis it is today. New York was on life support at the time, on the verge of bankruptcy, life in the city was at a near standstill. Massive layoffs affected every aspect of life. Garbage piled up on the streets due to infrequent pickups, students were unable to enroll in community colleges, firehouses were closed, and mass transit stalled. Naturally crime rates and drug use rose to all-time highs. The youth of New York City were impacted greatly by the hardships of their parents. With many of their parents now out of work and budget cuts preventing unemployment insurance and welfare payments many families were left to fend for themselves. The struggle was never realer, and this struggle gave birth to new forms of expression through the city’s most vulnerable population. This tumultuous time became a crucible for the youth of the city. One which forged creative expressions such as Rap, Breaking, and Graphing.
Sen 1 found himself not only coming up in an influential time, but an influential neighborhood, allowing him to become one of the great graffiti legends. He came up with such luminaries as Frosty Freeze of the legendary Rock Steady Crew, revolutionary skateboarder Andy Kessler of Zoo York and Ken-Swift of IBM that helped usher in the art/music/dance revolution of late 70’s - early 80's NYC. I asked how he got started “bombing” and like many the young creators back then, Sen 1’s work was a response to his environment. A decade removed from the Civil Rights era, and without leaders to fill the voids left by the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King there weren’t visible figures out there shining a light on what life was like for the minority population in the wake of the recession.
With so many struggling with a city bleeding jobs and suffering the fallout of a drug epidemic the youth began to document their struggle. It was a way to tell their stories, have their voices heard and immortalized. Many of the earliest large portrait murals you would see at the time were usually memorials to fallen friends and family. While it’s not quite accurate to say “bombing” kept them out of trouble Sen-1 tells us that police on the beat saw it as a pacifying activity. “They saw these kids smoking a joint or a cigarette and spending hours on a piece as keeping them from committing a more serious crime. If we were graphing we weren’t out sticking people up.”
Comparing the adversity of being a street artist then vs now, Sen 1-talks about securing territory write on. Five Points helped mainstream the acceptance of graffiti in NY but many years before that, it was viewed a sign of indigence. Nowadays we even have curators for street art, a bustling street art gallery scene, and neighborhood collectives like Welling Court, JMZ, and the Bushwick Collective outdoor art exhibitions. Old School crews which stemmed from gangs at the time were all about territory. They had to pick their places to mark, sometimes having to fight other crews to get them and keep them.
Not to say there is no longer risk as you can’t simply just spray paint wherever you want without permission and many artist still hit the streets at twilight to leave their mark. Today’s New York is much more receptive to street artist and there are safe, legal ways that didn’t exist back then. George talks about then Mayor of New York Ed Koch and his war on graffiti. "At the time, graphing artist were considered on par with muggers, and drug dealers in terms of policing. We were public enemy #1." Mayor Koch even floated the idea of placing wild wolves in train lots to discourage graffiti writers from tagging train cars.
I was curious how he developed his style. What has helped make street art so beloved is how various the styles are, as thumbing though your Instagram feed can tell you. Street art ranges from friends posing in front of spray painted wings, to standing over a turn of a Wu Trang hook warning of heartbreak, to wheat pasted collages. There’s truly something out there for everyone. Sen-1's crew; dubbed IBM (Incredible Bombing Masters) created the Mad Mugsy Nation. A caricature of the B-boys of the time. Back in the day Break-dancers were called B-boys and B-girls. The term “Break -dancer” referred to posers.
He describes the character as modeled after battlers of the day. “Everything was a battle back then. Crews would meet up to compete for bragging rights. Back then we were all looking for confrontation” Through the years the Mugsy style has gone through various iterations but the key identifiable look is the character “mugging”. A look modeled by legend Ken-Swift, “doing a slight impersonation of Bruce Lee’s cocky look in many of his fight scenes.” Many of his pieces feature the iconic 80s MTA trains. When you see footage of the 80s, NYC, you’ll see these mobile canvases as they were the most desired surfaces to display your work on at the time.
Earlier we touched on how closely knit the culture of Graphing, Rap, and Breaking were. Sen-1 describes the timeline of the three and speaks to the brief decline of graphing in the city. He also talks about the period after Rap takes off and becomes an independent art form. A sudden rise in popularity and mainstreaming that had an impact on the other two. Where they were spawned from the same struggle of the same generation, Rap found itself commercially viable. Rap went from the streets, to the clubs, to MTV, to Madison avenue, and then Hollywood. Rap seems to have had more lives than a cat. It’s an art form that is constantly reinventing itself. Fortunately, over the years Graphing and Breaking have also saw a resurgence and enjoyed equal prestige as their established contemporaries as well.
After the interview, George gave us a short tour of a nearby park where he cut his teeth. The park has been refurbished since then and while many of the main structures are the same. Much like the surrounding neighborhood it shows no sign of the raucous days of his youth. For transplants of New York, the city often changes at a fast clip. Neighborhoods like Bushwick which was ravaged by the blackout and frequent arson attacks of the 70's have gone through changes in the past decade. Sen-1 mentions how the crevices in the sidewalks back then would be littered with crack vials where kids were running and playing. “Some neighborhoods almost looked third world.” Sen-1’s work has gone from humble beginnings to fine art galleries. and teaching artwork to kids all over the city.
His life is a true New York story, one that mirrors the city itself. From dangerous and chaotic, to reserved and nostalgic. This isn’t to say that Sen-1 is complicit. He is just as conscience a brother as he always been. Still hungry and putting in work. He remembers his youth fondly and pays respect to those who’ve passed over the years in the life. All while appreciating his current place in life, and current state of the city that shaped him. If there is a blessing in gentrification, it's that the slower, safer pace gives you time to appreciate how raw and chaotic things used to be.
Be sure to keep up to date with what Sen-1 is up to by following him on instagram @sen1original and see more of his work on his site sen-one.com
'til next time,
Young Sen-1 and crew showing that hood ingenuity, building a precursor to the BoomBox out of car stereo hardware.