James Top: The People’s Graffiti Artist

By Gentle Jones

James Top is a legendary Graffiti Artist from New York City who will host his first solo show “Afrology” at the new Essex Street Gallery on Friday February 22nd  6pm-Midnight [www.essexstreetgallery.com]. Afrology debuts as seventeen artistic variations of the 1970’s hairstyle, the “Afro”, and depicts controversial, nostalgic and historical messages of the African-American experience via mixed media and graffiti art. As a special note, famed street photographer and artist Jamel Shabazz will collaborate with Top on one exclusive piece at this exciting exhibit debut.

Better known by the media as “The People’s Graffiti Artist,” James Top (JEE 2) has gained his legendary status as a founding member of The Odd Partners (TOP). Today James is an art instructor with his latest graffiti workshop having been the subject of controversy within the national and international media.

“I take great pride in capturing what I feel is the African American experience in America,” says James Top about his solo exhibition in New York. “It is my time not only to be the voice of graffiti art but also to be the voice of the people in my community.” James is also the producer and host of “Graffiti NYC,” a long running New York City weekly cable TV show which explores the impact of graffiti’s history in different neighborhoods.

Gentle Jones: You have said before that you were hesitant to start writing.

James Top: I was about 11 or 12 — just seeing it in the neighborhood. I watched different people “get up” for a little while before I started to join in myself. It was really that I just didn’t know where to start. I didn’t want to be like everybody else plus I didn’t want to let go of basketball. I was a really good player with tons of potential to develop a career in playing. Basketball was the true cause for my hesitation.

Gentle Jones: What type of climbing and other sort of infiltration skills did you have use to get to some of these yards in the 1970s?

James Top: I lived across the street from one of the largest train lines (the A line) at the Euclid yard — I spent lots of time there. We did lots of jumping and crawling even hiding in the trains until they drove into the yards. Later on, those things become more complicated to do. It felt like Mission Impossible; we had to use flashlights and bolt cutters, to name a few helpful objects.

Gentle Jones: How did you get your art materials back then?

James Top: By any means necessary, “racking up” our materials. My family could not afford to buy my materials. Buying materials was against the code of graffiti back then. Sometimes it was a team effort — it was about how much you were getting and coming out with. Sometimes, if the owner was distracted by my other friends then someone else would rack up as much as possible or if I distracted the owner, then my friends would rack up while he was too busy following me around.

Gentle Jones: Do you feel that graffiti and hand styles ever got too wild?

James Top: No. I totally understand 99.9% of the graf I see. If I have difficulty deciphering, I just figure it out. It doesn’t take long. Elaborate writing is a personal choice. If they want you to understand it, then they would write it in a way that you could obviously understand. Everyone gets fame by the way they choose to write or tag.

Gentle Jones: Why have your recent workshops been controversial?

James Top: Because there are some politicians that don’t care to see this art form (graffiti) or how it can beautify our city. My seminars have been open to the public because some people don’t want the city’s dollars to pay for my salary. They’d rather someone else with a cleaner history. I mean, after all, I did work on thousands of trains. So they never really feel that I’m intelligent enough to do anything except sit in jail. Of course that’s not true. I’m here. There are people out there who want me to stop promoting information that I know as a person who contains insight from being involved in the beginning of the graffiti movement.

Gentle Jones: Are you still involved in doing a Cable TV show?

James Top: Yes I am. We’ve been on the air for nine years. You can see it by going to: MNN.org and you can find my show on that site. Sundays, 1:30 am, Channel 67 (Manhattan only) Check it out via online if you don’t live in Manhattan. The only other person to do public access TV as long as me is Ralph McDanniels. We are also good friends (laughs).

Gentle Jones: Which situation is more stressful: bombing trains or working with art galleries?

James Top: I’d have to say working with art galleries. Writing on trains made me feel free, mainly because I had less responsibilities. Being older, there’s more work involved in artworks when people invest time and money into you so that you can produce good works. You have to be on point. With that said, working with art galleries come with lots more responsibilities.

Gentle Jones: Where were you during the NYC blackout of 1977?

James Top: I was on top of an elevated train lay-up on the J line between the Atlantic and East New York station. We climbed up a large pole (about ten stories high) where we could see the whole city— then we saw the whole city go black. The TOP crew (myself included) became legendary graffiti heroes that night. It was great, it was the last good time I had with my original members of The Odd Partners— of which I am the last surviving member.

Gentle Jones: What the heck were you doing up a pole?

James Top: I was doing a layup as a point to kill the J train line with work. It was really like our last “hoorah” after accomplishing so much on the trains as a crew. It was then I’d gotten an offer to go to college so it was the last summer of hanging out with our friends. The lay-up was an elevated track in which we had to climb up the foundation poles where there was a big ditch. We were hitting the trains so hard that they were waiting to catch us on either side. So we climbed the poles, crawled underneath the trains and started bombing. The police were baffled. While we were up there, I first saw Brownsville go out and I could hear the sounds— BOOM! Then different areas went out and we were like, “Oh shit! It’s a blackout!” Things went crazy at that exact moment of realization.

Gentle Jones: How did that night make TOP legendary?

James Top: There was lots of looting going on, during the blackout. We were looting like everyone else and then we found ourselves giving away whatever we looted those who didn’t have— milk, eggs, food, all of those things. It changed me so much that after going off to college, I came back home to give back to the community. In my book that’s coming out, My Life as an Odd Partner, I have an elaborate detailed story about that night. It’s about my life as a graffiti artist, growing up in East New York, and how I grew up as an Odd Partner. It’s the history, the controversy and the legend of James Top. It talks about people who contributed to TOP as well as my life. It talks about finding my identity as a graffiti artists.

Gentle Jones: What is your opinion of Hip-Hop music these days?

James Top: I actually like the R&B stuff a little bit better than Hip-Hop. The hardcore gangster images and lyrics aren’t helping to improve or promote positive images of African-Americans. We can still find a way to spread messages about hope and issues in our communities without perpetuating a rich, luxurious lifestyle — trying to sound like someone else. Originality is gone. I hear Hip-Hop from different areas of the world and it sounds way better than what’s here in the US. I feel it's because they tend to capture the essence of pure hip hop. But I do like Talib Kweli, Common and a lot of the old school pioneers who aren’t into drugs and money and those other things. Am I allowed to add dead prez to that list?

Gentle Jones: Who do you see from the 70s who is still around doing art?

James Top: I do know a few, Blade, Tracy168… they don’t do that many gallery showings but wish I could say I knew somebody from the 70’s who is more involved in the community. The old timers get together and paint out in 5 points (Queens) every year but it seems as though it hasn’t yet elevated from train writing to painting community-related messages.

Gentle Jones: What was the situation which allowed you to transition from street art to gallery activities?

James Top: I wanted to step up my level of artwork and make it accessible to those who didn’t live in Bed-Stuy or East New York. I wanted to put my artwork out there for people who would appreciate the art form. On a more personal level, I’m a role model for a lot of young writers out here so I have to be responsible. The Vandalism [police] Squad here in NYC is very innovative when it comes to locking up graffiti artists. It’s time to make positive growth; we can still do murals but be responsible and touch base on community needs and messages. I’m looking to be a responsible communicator of the art form. I was a soldier before, now I’m a general— it’s time for me to take a different position by transforming graffiti’s energy into something that’s welcomed in our communities rather than outcasted. We can paint messages for positive means and still help the community. It’s definitely possible.

Gentle Jones: Tell us about your upcoming art show.

James Top: Afrology. Well, it’s an opportunity to express myself artistically (especially on canvas). I have varying feelings about the African-American experience that surround sports, politics, current events, for example and the artwork provides a platform in which to express the varying subjects featured in the exhibit. I’ve been doing this since 2001. I used to see vintage velvet Afro portraits and go into the train yards to do them. I later moved those images onto canvas in 2001 and they have been very well received. If it involves African-Americans, then I can express it in the form of an Afro (laughs).


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