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Q&A: Alco


By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/18/2009

Born and raised on the east side of Baltimore, graffiti artist Alco is one of Charm City's many graf writers whose stories are as illuminating and gripping as his art. Alco and Labtekwon met back in 1987 when Baltimore's young hip-hop community was teeming with all kinds of activity that ran into skateboarding and even the punk community. Drawing was always something Alco did—"I've been drawing since I was a little kid," he says—but it was in seventh grade when he got kicked out of Southern High School—for tagging—and sent to Patterson High School that he was exposed to the wider range of graffiti going on in Baltimore.

Alco:In seventh grade that's when I really started to pay attention and decided that [this] was something I wanted to do. When they sent me to Patterson, that's where it really kicked off for me because that was the school for graffiti. They had a used wall out back, and I thought it was a setup or something, because I had never seen that type of stuff live. Every day at lunchtime I used to walk up and down the wall just looking at all the burners. And it was the size of a football field.

That's when I realized that it's not just me. So a friend of mine who used to live at Dunbar middle school, Clayton, used to live in Latrobe Projects, he used to draw on his subject dividers. He didn't write graffiti per se, he was more into characters. And I was amazed by that, and he would teach me a little bit. I was never as good as him with characters, I liked drawing letters. That's how it started for me.

City Paper: But you saw graffiti around the neighborhood before that, right?

Alco: I was still young, so I didn't particularly leave East Baltimore much. There was graffiti that I did notice, though. There was Beau, and that's when all the [light] poles used to be green instead of silver, and he would use Wite-Out as his pen, and I used to see it everywhere. And there was this dude Reese1, he was from New York, and I used to see it everywhere.

As I got older and I started to get on the bus lines, I'd see a lot more. A lot of these people are from the Westside—like Uzi, Style 2, Chazz, Glad—these were all the graffiti I would see in the black neighborhoods. And once I got to Patterson I ventured out and got to meet the whole culture.

City Paper: Were there lots of people doing it?

Alco: At Patterson, it seemed liked everybody was doing it. And that was the start of me getting indoctrinated in the culture of graffiti. They knew people who were older than them, they knew people who were younger than them, and they would just say, "My peers." And they introduced me to Eric Meek, Billy Mode—all their last names are their tags.

City Paper: What do you mean by getting indoctrinated into the culture?

Alco: Learning the difference between piece and tagging and throw-ups. A piece is more a mural type of thing. A throw-up is just that, a hollow line, no fill-in. And a tag is just an actual signature. Things of that nature. Different markers—whereas I was just, I was just going to write with whatever I could write with. That's still the same, but certain things are better than others for certain things.

City Paper: Did you start to learn technique and style then? Or do those things come about as you keep doing it?

Alco: It's a little bit of both. It's a little bit of watching somebody and saying, "I really like that" and he says, "Do it like this." I remember Billy Mode showing me a tracing thing—you write on one paper, and then you trace around it and you get a thicker letter kind of style. And I've never forgot that, and when I started practicing, I noticed that my letter formation was getting better.

But the most paramount person in my circumstances was Danny Cousins. He took the most time out of anybody in my whole graffiti career to say, "You make your letters like this. The basic formation is this"—which is what I always show now when I'm trying to teach somebody else. I call it the anatomy of the letter—everything has some type of structure, some type of basic form. So he taught me the anatomy of letters, where things should end, how things should form. I give the most credit to him for teaching me how to draw the letters.

City Paper: Did you meet him through Patterson people?

Alco: I met him through Eric Meek, who I met at Patterson. Eric Meek introduced me to a lot of the other kids—mostly it was Highlandtown kids. Once I went to Patterson, that's when I realized there was a lot of white people doing it, that it was a multi-cultural thing. To me, when I was small, I just thought it was black people—because that's all I saw and that's all I knew. But it all depends on the situation of your city, because I came to know that up in New York it was black, white, and Puerto Ricans doing it. And when I came to Patterson, it was, like, "Wow, everybody's doing this." And I liked that a lot, so I would spend a lot of time in Highlandtown and Pigtown, because it was all related. If you lived in Highlandtown, you knew somebody in Pigtown. That's where a lot of the inner-city poor white kids lived, and that's when I realized we were all in the same boat. This was at a time, the mid-'80s, when hip-hop as a whole culture was flourishing and blowing up, and we were all a part of that.

And being in that multiracial and multi-economic milieu showed me a lot—you can't just look at it all in one way. It's not all good and it's not all bad. Everybody has their own reasons why they do it and how they came about doing it and why they're still doing it or why they won't do it. Everybody has rules for what they'll write on and what they won't write on. Mine have changed over the years.

City Paper: So why do you do graffiti?

Alco: The main reason I do graffiti is because I come from the eastside of Baltimore. I got involved with things I shouldn't when I was 14 years old, and I kind of got tired of being around guns, being at [the Charles] Hickey School, being around all the drugs and guns and violence. I just got tired of it. Enough is enough for me, and it took a couple of years of that—and I was living in it already. I lost my brother to it just before I got into graffiti culture. And I just decided that this is what I'm going to do and I'm going to do it.

I was basically putting down something that is really bad for me and picking up something that is not as bad for me, where I could use my creative side—because the streets took all that away. After my second time in juvee, after six months, I wasn't drawing anymore, I didn't know who I was, I didn't know what I wanted out of life. Like, who am I? What do I want to do? And I was, like, what do I like to do? I had to go back all the way back and start all over—I like to draw. I'd like to be an artist, still in an inner-city vibe, you know. And I wanted to escape. When I do graffiti, I escape. I escape my all my pressures. If I'm down, I'll catch myself sketching and drawing a lot. It's an escape—an escape from my mental and physical environment.

That's why I still do it. I stopped for a few years—got my life together and went to college. I still tagged on stuff but I didn't piece a lot. But you only are who you are, and I want to do graffiti. I'm 35 years old and people are like, "Aren't you too old to do graffiti?" Nah—when I can't do it no more, then I'm too old. Until then, I'm going to do it.

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