NEW YORK — In torn jeans and saddled with a black backpack, Andrew Witten glances up and down the street for police. The 51-year-old then whips out a black marker scribbles “Zephyr” on a wall covered with movie posters. He admires his work for a few seconds before his tattooed arms reach for his daughter, holding her hand as he briskly walks away.
Witten and a generation of urban latchkey kids who spray-painted their initials all over Manhattan in the 1970s and `80s and landed in the city’s street art scene are coming of age – middle age, that is.
And like Witten, a 51-year-old single father, some street artists considered now to be graffiti elders are having trouble putting away their spray paint cans. As Witten says, “I’m ready. I could go tonight.”
“I’m chronologically old to be out there doing it,” Witten admits with a playful smile. “I’m sure I can’t run quite as fast.”
Witten built a reputation as a master at spray-painting extravagant graffiti pieces on freight and subway trains, called train-bombing, in the neighborhoods where he now teaches his 6-year-old daughter, Lulu, to skateboard. For him, spray-painting other people’s property with his nickname, or tag, is almost an addiction, and danger is part of the drug. Crawling under barbed wire, ducking from police officers, even being shot at is all part of the experience.
But with an artist’s heart, Witten describes painting graffiti in more poetic terms. He calls it a freeing experience, in which the silence of night gives way to the hiss and mist of the spray rising into the moonlight…