A Father’s Graffiti Legacy

By Kristopher Kesoglides

The writing on the wall was meticulous, the pigments vibrant. Atop a firebrick red layer sat crimson blues and metallic golds. I heard the colors before they made their marks, being shaken and stirred in the aerosol cans. Excess paint leaked down the sides of the artists’ cans. Their shirts were an accidental tie dye, and their hands held remnants of a painting. Fresh fumes filled the air on an urban rooftop in Washington Heights in northern Manhattan.

Steve Kesoglides, a graffiti pioneer, in a photo taken decades ago.

It was strange for me, up here on the roof with my dad. He basked in the memories of his youth for a moment, as he and old friends gathered once again to relive graffiti’s heydays, to make new marks on old buildings. I had never visited this part of the city. He put down his spray can and pointed to where he and his friends would tag up before running from the cops.

“We tagged everywhere. We bombed all the trains. The city was our canvas, and the cans our paintbrushes. We painted it red, literally and figuratively I guess.”

My father’s tag was SJK 171, which combined his initials and the number of the street he grew up on in Washington Heights. It symbolized his roots and let the community know that he was a part of it. The official description of his trademark from the United States Patent and Trademark Office reads: “The mark consists of the wording in a unique font with the letter K extending down into a hook shape. Underneath is the number 171 connected with an underline drawn through the bottom of the numbers.”

In grade school, he would do my art homework. He drew cover pages for my book reports, and the kids in my class envied me. They used generic clip art; I had my own personal artist. For my birthday, he refused to buy Hallmark cards, because his designs were so much better. For a while, I thought it was just a hobby. That is, until he started buying canvases again. And eventually, a documentarian was interviewing him in our living room.  In that moment that I realized my father, Steve Kesoglides, was an originator and a part of the artistic revolution known as graffiti. It was a movement that would eventually inspire artists around the world to shape and evolve this novelty into a global phenomenon.

Steve Kesoglides points to a photo, taken in 1973, of himself and friends, now on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, graffiti exploded in youth culture and became an art in its purest form. It was a medium for teens to have a voice against the establishment, a way to spend time and preach to their communities. Against a backdrop of the Vietnam War, these artists demanded peace. However, the authorities associated this newfound art with drug use and rising crime rates around the city. Shop owners, locals and subway commuters complained about the apparent vandalism that was destroying their properties and communities.

My father promised me: “We just wanted our voices to be heard. We weren’t affiliated with gangs, and we weren’t violent. We were the opposite. It was sort of ironic.”

It wasn’t until 1971 that graffiti gained public attention. One of the most renowned pioneers, TAKI 183, was mentioned in a New York Times article about the rise of graffiti and vandalism in Manhattan. The article reported that certain groups were being influenced by seeing Taki’s tag and wanted desperately to see their name in lights. Taki was personally surprised when he learned of this, claiming he didn’t necessarily see himself as an artist. Many of his friends felt similarly, until about a year later.

In 1972, a student at City College, Hugo Martinez, became interested in the growing youth community that deemed themselves “writers.” At this point, trains, residential buildings, storefronts, advertisements and in one case, an elephant in the Philadelphia Zoo, were decorated with graffiti.  Martinez worked with his art professor to provide large canvases and a studio to a dozen of these writers. Most of them were 14-to-16 years old, and one of them was my father. Martinez’s intention was to legitimize the art, curating the sophisticated and innovative elements to cultivate a movement. It was the first time these writers worked off the streets. It was the first time they were acknowledged as artists, and the first time many of them had ever felt a canvas.

A young Steve Kesoglides in Washington Heights, 1975.

The United Graffiti Artists, the group started by Martinez, lasted about three years. During that time, some of the works produced were sold, and some were shown in galleries around the city — the first steps in validating the movement, and the artists involved gained some credibility.

Fast forward to the summer of 2016: My father is in Los Angeles signing posters and books after a showing of Wall Writers: Graffiti in Its Innocence, a documentary that he is featured in, spanning the early years of the art. In line is a 14-year-old boy, nervously fumbling his aerosol can and book, waiting to get them signed. My father looks up at me, reflecting on what has come full circle over 40-odd years. He chuckled and shook his head. “I never thought I’d be sitting here,” he said.

And I never thought I’d be standing there. Because in that moment, I realized I had one thing in common with everyone in the room: We were inspired by my father.