12oz Feature Interview: Earsnot
Earsnot is a writer who’s appetite for vandalism is only matched by his aptitude for the city around him. As President of the infamous IRAK crew, Earsnot (born Kunle Martins) lead more than 20 of NYC’s most prolific writers through an all city graffiti onslaught beginning in the late 1990’s. Stealing what they needed to get by and leaving their mark wherever they went; Earsnot and IRAK would serve as the disciples of downtown. The city was their playground: from building rooftops, to subway tunnels, to nearly every street sign / trash can / or doorway in between; there was no square foot of the entire city that wasn’t a potential target for Kunle and his crew. Earsnot is now recognized as one of the most prominent writers in NYC graffiti history, and with 10+ year old tags still blanketing each of the 5 Boroughs; it’s easy to see why. In recent years, Kunle has taken his talents from the street to more marketable venues: including collaborations with companies like Nike and Alife, as well as with other Artists (most recently murals with Jesse Geller in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District for Art Basel 2011); not to mention a cameo in Season 2 HBO’s How To Make It In America series. 12ozProphet sat down with Earsnot to discuss his first tags, the start of IRAK, and the future of Graffiti.
12ozProphet: How long have you written Earsnot?
Earsnot: Since ’98 I guess. So around 13 years.
12ozProphet: What’s the first tag you ever caught?
Earsnot: I think the first tag I wrote was.. “Three”? Wait no, the first tag I wrote was “FBV”, which was a crew. “Fame Bound Vandals”… that was like the crew that me and my boy made up; just so we could have our own thing to do. I didn’t know what to write; I couldn’t make a decision, which isn’t uncommon. I’d write mad different things, like “THREE”… “NERS” … “KERM”… “GUNK”. Right before Earsnot I wrote GUNK, thats what my mother used to call me sometimes when she was feeling like; verbally abusive. It used to make me laugh. Around that time I had runaway, and I was downtown; I had other things going on, priorities. I was trying to figure out how I was going to survive and shit. I didn’t want to tag anything by the time I was writing Earsnot, I didn’t want to write graffiti; I was over it. Then it turned out that people were like “Ohhh I saw EARSNOT on the bridge! Thats you?” and whatever. That was the ice breaker.
12ozProphet: What New York writers influenced you early on?
Earsnot: My boy Shawn, that I met in High School, wrote graffiti. He was always writing, and his notebook was covered in it; that was like my first exposure. I was really just content with having his scrap papers that he had written on; taking them home and looking at them, copying them and shit. He just wrote whatever on them, but it was really good. Choice NY straight letters and outlines, really dope. He’s the one that put me on to who was good in his eyes; JA, Giz, Web, Skuf, etc.
12ozProphet: Tell me about the start of IRAK
Earsnot: IRAK didn’t come about until after I had runaway and dropped out. I was committed to living and racking off the land. I left home, so I decided like Ok, I guess I can’t go to school anymore. My boy Wak (STF) from Bushwick was a really big booster, he always had really cool schemes on how to rack shit; he was very active. (Wak) actually taught me how to breakdance (laughs), he had this whole like after school breakdancing steez going on. It was all very communal before the Internet, kids would just meet up after school and do shit whether it was good or bad; there was this work ethic to it, meeting up and getting it done. I was still going through tags and shit at the time, I might have even been writing “GUNK”, when Wak came up with the acronym IRAK. I didn’t really like the term “racking” at the time, I thought it was corny. I was like “oh that’s dope”, but the name wasn’t something ethier one of us really wanted. He told me “You can have that if you want”, but I wasn’t really into it. Obviously you know what happened from there (laughs).
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12ozProphet: How has the city changed since the 90’s
Earsnot: Wow, where do you start? Well, I guess it started with Giuliani coming in and having carte blanche to just do whatever he wanted because everyone was so fed up. So they were like “Yeah sure bring in a million cops! Clean up the streets!” and lock up people for the dumbest things, “yes we like that!”. That’s where we are today. It was a really hard transition for a whole decade; people just getting arrested every weekend or all the time just for stupid shit. The takeover. Meanwhile the Internet was spreading, so you couldn’t just be an anonymous criminal. You can’t just like do shit on the street, people will take your picture now. All the criminal activities had to step into the new age. You gotta be a little bit more saavy with your shit. There was a whole era of graffiti writers in the 90’s, who I feel like were left behind because they were too thugged out for the transition. You kinda had to grow up and accept and move on. For alot of people it was really cool to not grow up, and just be a derelict. A) cause we were young, and everyone I knew was young; and B) I think it was kinda of like a New York thing, The level of “derel-ness”. Everything just felt more gritty compared to now, where everyone’s polite. They whipped it out of everyone, and now when you go to another city their like “New York is SOFT”, and your like “oh, hah, yeah.. Its true, lets hang out here” (Laughs).
12ozProphet: What sets New York graff apart?
Earsnot: Of course theres graffiti overseas, and in all major cities, but people say graff started in New York City; which I think is a load of shit, but it’s certainly where it got it’s first shine. That’s due to New York’s ability to shine a light on itself and be like “look how dope this shit is right here”, and everyone just agrees, you know? Graffiti was happening, and someone shined that light on NY, and they were like “Look, we started this”. It was for the kids and young people, not everyone like it is now. Everyone at your high school, everyone you knew in their 20’s, every drug dealer or whoever; it was only relevant to a certain group of people, and then it just picked up from there. Its gone through alot of stages. Obviously the ’70’s Beat Street era, the trains and empty lots and all that shit. Then it went into like a thugged out sort of “shoot em up”, gang type of thing. They it moved to more like, street shit. Just hitting up everything because the streets were so neglected. People thought like “I’m gonna walk around and sell drugs and write graffiti in everyone neighborhood I’m in, and everybody’s gonna know my name”, or whatever reason they had for getting around. Doing drugs? Who knows (laughs).
12ozProphet: Most memorable run in with the law?
Earsnot: This dude Castner. I don’t know if he’s a Sergeant or whatever; Officer Castner. I remember him because he was crispy, and by that I mean he was good looking. So I got arrested or whatever, and they like coax some sort of confession out of me. It was one of the first times they brought that whole Law and Order thing to me, like “If you don’t admit to this, were gonna come back at get you so hard!”, and I totally fell for it. Mostly due to the fact that there was a blonde with big tits in my face, meaning Castner, acting like a good cop, and that’s all it took. I was on 5 years probation as a result, and felt like an idiot for all 5 years. The whole time he seemed like a good guy, and when he took the stand he told a couple of bold face lies to seal the deal. He didn’t even need to do that, he’s a cop, they were going to take his word over mine anyway. I was just hurt. I think I learned my lesson, who knows.
12ozProphet: How do you feel about the role that the Internet plays in graffiti today?
Earsnot: The Internet is whats pushing graffiti right now, but the same thing could be said for anything. It an accelerant, it gives everyone a voice. As long as you can take a proper photo, and have some sort of minimal comprehension of how to upload shit to the web and portray yourself, you’ll be good. Otherwise, your dead in the water. Theres always been the dudes who paint in the safest place possible, and somehow get themselves exposed, but the opposite is true too. There are a lot of old school writers, by old school I mean 90’s, who were able to come back because of the Internet. Its surprising, even JA with the YouTube videos and shit, things like that. Not that JA needs to do anything, but it reopens him to a lot of people. Its almost a publicity stunt.
12ozProphet: What’s your opinion on graffiti in the high art/ gallery world?
Earsnot: What’s happened is that a handful of talented people were able to present themselves to a more sophisticated audience. People become famous who don’t intend to, there are people who are trying to, there are several dichotomies there but it is what it is. With the recession, someone who doesn’t come from a lot of means can see a benefit to all of a sudden getting paid $10,000 to write their name all day; but also want to talk shit about someone else doing that too, because it doesn’t look right or something. Its like the real world, everyone is different, every case is different; everything has its own context. It’s like what you tell your kid, the rules are different for everyone. You know? You can’t be someone else, but you can look at their story and ask “How does that apply to me?” Its different for everyone.
12ozProphet: Why do you write?
Earsnot: I write graffiti because I feel like I didn’t have a voice, I’m aware of that. Control, power, communication, visibility, all that stuff; its all addictive. The attention is addictive. People start knowing who you are and it gives you this reason to pursue. There are people who shy away from it, and people who feed into it. I think I am sort of just of letting it happen, cause I didn’t want it to happen this way. The last thing I wanted to be was this professional graffiti writer guy, I thought that was the corniest thing ever; and I still do. Like I said, everyone is different. It’s about how you do it, and about what class or lack of class you bring to the arena. You can do anything, just don’t be an ass. Or be an ass, just be a classy ass.
12ozProphet: Any word for younger writers?
Earsnot: They just need to educate themselves. That should be their mantra, educate your self on everything that came before you and whatever it is that your doing. It just makes sense. It should be interesting, you should be psyched to do it. If your into graffiti it shouldn’t seem like a bunch of work to learn about everyone who’s up right now, and memorize all the little stories and do research on the Internet. It’s like looking at porn.
Photos: Martha Cooper/ Kunle Martins