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Flint Gennari
Courtesy of Flint Gennari

The faces behind New York’s graffiti explosion of the 70s

As one of the first young graffiti writers during the 70s, Flint Gennari discusses being a precursor to the modern art and growing up in its golden age

Picture it: Brooklyn, 1965. Dyslexic and hard-of-hearing, young Roberto Gennari didn’t fit in anywhere and performed poorly at school. A sensitive child, he began to withdraw into his own world, finding pleasure in photography. But it was a fourth-grade social studies class that changed his fate. During a lesson about World War II, the teacher began talking about “Kilroy Was Here,” the doodle made famous by American soldiers that started popping up around the world for years.

Gennari was hooked. He likened the idea of writing his name on the walls to advertising. He cites Madison Avenue logos and slogans as his primary reference, as well as the work of artist Peter Max, who made his name the centrepieces of his public artworks for the New York City transit system.

Inspired by the world around him, Gennari began writing cheeky phrases like For Those Who Dare, For Ladies Only, Bad but Not Evil, and The Time Will Come then signing them as “FLINT.” A decade later, his exploits would inspire his high-school classmate Al Diaz, who went on to create SAMO© with Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1977, after FLINT was out of the game.

In 1970, Gennari borrowed his father’s camera and began photographing New York’s graffiti scene, capturing a culture (destined to take over the world) in its infancy. Gennari, whose photographs span 1970–77, speaks with Dazed about growing up in the first generation of New York City’s graffiti scene.

When did you get into the idea of writing graffiti?  

Flint Gennari: I was nine years old when I decided I wanted a secret identity. I was already reading Marvel Comics (Daredevil being my favorite) and looked at the first five James Bond movies as a guide in many ways on how to live my life. I felt that I couldn't write James Bond (even though another writer later wrote BOND 007).

I wanted to feel special but without necessarily commanding any attention to myself. It really got my attention when the teacher talked about this guy Kilroy and the way he got his name known all around the world. I knew that by using a marker I could do the same thing. I was toying with the idea of writing messages on walls to make people stop and wonder.  

The name “Flint” followed me around before I had it.  That same year, I started photographing the band across the street. One day, we were walking through the nearby Catholic schoolyard; they were carrying guitars and I had an empty guitar case. We were trying to get girls! I heard someone yell out “FLINT!” Instinctively I turned around even though I was not officially writing it yet (just in my sketchbook).

When did you officially start writing FLINT?

Flint Gennari: In 1966, my family took a cross-country camping trip during the summer break. At that time, I was mostly writing on bathroom walls and carving my name on picnic tables and on trees with a knife. I was the black sheep of the family and tried to get away from them whenever possible. And the name FLINT—that couldn't be me. My father was Furio, my brother Gino, grandfather Augusto, and me, Roberto.

By the late ‘60s, I was writing FLINT up and down Flatbush Avenue and in telephone booths like my idol PRAY. At that time I went to Intermediate school in Crown Heights. Being one of the few white students in the school, I got in many fights. The one I remember the most was in the locker room after gym class. What was it about? Who knows? This big fellow challenged me and I just wanted it to over fast so I jumped up, grabbed a pipe overhead, lifted both feet, and kicked him squarely in the chest.  This move was in the movie Our Man Flint, and immediately kids started calling me FLINT.

“In the ‘70s, someone in the culture could spot another writer easily... We dressed a certain way, had a bag or knapsack to hold paint, ink on our hands, etc.” – Flint Gennari

I love those snappy phrases you used to write. It's got such a classic 1960-70s vibe. How did Madison Avenue influence you as a writer? 

Flint Gennari: Catchy phrases always stood out. You read it fast but it has impact.  “Coke. It’s the real thing.” “Army. Be all you can be.” It’s like a song you can’t get out of your head or a brand that has so many impressions that it is instantly recognizable.  

I used to walk with a pocket size notebook and go up and down the list [laughs]. I took everything from sayings in fortune cookies to lines from lyrics of a song and made them my own.  

How did you recognize other graffiti writers of the time?

Flint Gennari: In the ‘70s, someone in the culture could spot another writer easily. We were all going on missions. We dressed a certain way, had a bag or knapsack to hold paint, ink on our hands, etc. Chad (LSD OM) and I believe we saw an old lady writing PRAY once and she disappeared rather quickly.

I love that you were partners with LSD OM. What made you decide to start a crew and create the Rebels?

Flint Gennari: I enjoyed going to the Bronx. Chad introduced me to STAY HIGH 149 and all the 56 Boys. I turned down the Ex-Vandals when they asked me to join. I was very much a loner at that time. With Chad we could just be our answer to them.

Did you have a preference for spots or locations to tag?

Flint Gennari: I liked to stand out. I would not write next to someone else (for the most part). Once I climbed up a long pole to write on a ceiling in a train station.

Art & Design is the quintessential graffiti high school. Someone needs to make a film! What years were you there?   

Flint Gennari: I think it was 1971-75. When I arrived, I was already famous. But like Clark Kent who no one recognized as Superman when he had his glasses on, the teachers didn't bust me. They called me “Flint” because that was my name.

I was the first writer to tag that school. It was clean when I got there. I don't know about the years before, maybe they just painted it for the new school year, but when I put my name up, everyone else replied: TRACY 168, PISTOL 1, STEVE 61, SHASTA, FUZZ 1, SHADOW, BOMB 1, etc.

Wow. That’s an impressive list of legends right there. What did you think when you heard about SAMO©?   

Flint Gennari: People told me about SAMO©. I was not aware of many things; it’s just the way I am. I'm so involved in what I am doing that I miss a lot. I remember Al Diaz trying to tell me about it. I said “Sam-o” and he said “Same-o, meaning ‘same old shit.’”

When did you stop writing? Why did you decide to stop?

Flint Gennari: Life moves on. I stopped writing graffiti in 1976. I started photographing The Etching Room in late 1977 and that was a full-time job.

You lost touch with the graffiti scene for about 20 years. How did you get back into it?

Flint Gennari: I met Hugo Martinez, the founder of United Graffiti Artists, while I was working at B&H Photo. I had written FLINT in a pilot marker behind me, and he recognised it. In 1998, he gave me the second exhibition (after COCO 144) at his brand new gallery in Chelsea. Since then, my photographs have been exhibited in shows such as in Born in the Streets at the Fondation Cartier in Paris.

What's it like reconnecting with writers after all these years? 

Flint Gennari: Very nice, the respect is there. I help my friends out; many have lived in my house for a time.   

The first generation of graffiti writers is such an interesting phenomenon. What's it like knowing that you and your friends were the first people to practice what has become a massive art form?

Flint Gennari: So hard to believe that this is what I am known best for (laughs). I wanted to leave my mark and it looks like I did. 

Find out more on about Flint Gennari here.