Graffiti Writer Duke 9 on Pentagrams, Gentrification and 1980s East Village [INTERVIEW]

Posted on: March 15th, 2022 at 5:02 am by

Photo Courtesy: DUKE 9

What’s up Boogie Readers! You might recall our deep dive into the squats of yesteryear some time ago. You can catch up here for good measure. When you’re done, Boogie contributor, Freddy Alva, rejoins us to interview Duke 9 about Pentagrams versus Gentrification in 1980’s East Village.

(All photos courtesy of DUKE 9 except where notated otherwise; Featured Image courtesy of SMITH)

It seems like a lost world now but there was a time when the East Village was ground zero for Squats, Anarchist book stores, Punk/Industrial noise shows in abandoned buildings where political agitators along with counterculture types of all stripes met to resist Gentrification’s looming shadow and protest the long arm of the law. A strategically placed Pentagram began to pop up in droves during the late-80s/90s all over this contested neighborhood, media outlets assigned an occult meaning to them but I noticed it was all the work of a subway and street graffiti writer named DUKE 9. Events like the Tompkins Square Park riot, Missing Foundation’s sonic and visual agitprop plus a cannibal feeding body parts to homeless in the park; all seemed to be signposts for an Apocalyptic end times like scenario. I asked DUKE 9 his recollections about those whirlwind days, the East Village may be a sanitized made over entity these days but ghosts of its not too distant rebellious past remain, if you know where to look.

Freddy Alva: I know you grew up doing graffiti on trains and the streets of Queens; at what point did you start hanging out and tagging in the East Village?

DUKE 9: I was always quite familiar with the L.E.S. I lived with my uncle in Queens and he had a shop on 29th Street near 8th Ave. On Sundays he would usually take my older sister and I shopping on Delancey St and around the L.E.S. When I first went to Katz Delicatessen I was so small I had to reach up to get a ticket. When I was thirteen I started hitting the Bowery layup and racking paint on the L.E.S., my favorite store was Pearl Paints. I never had any trouble there, and always got what I came for. When I got a little older I would frequent the local punk rock clubs. I used to live to dance all night, wasn’t into hard drugs, but I always smoked lots of weed. Alphabet City was always the best place to cop weed, the quality and quantity was always the best. In 1982 I was still living on the West Side in Greenwich Village, but the rents started to get kind of high so I moved to the L.E.S. First I lived on Stanton Street, met a girl at the Ritz Club one night, and I moved in with her on 3rd Street between Ave B and C, that was the worst block on the L.E.S. in those days. Twenty-four hours a day there were at least 300 junkies and dealers on that block. We were the only white people on the block and it was extremely dangerous, the building next to us was abandoned and we could look right in through the windows and see junkies with candles shooting up. After a while we got sick of it, and just boarded up our window. In January 1984 the police began ‘Operation Pressure Point’. Since E. 4th Street between Avenue B and C was almost completely abandoned; the police decided it was the perfect place for a helipad. So for three months helicopters were landing and taking off by our back window, it was so loud it felt like the helicopter was in our apartment. In those days I was mostly just tagging up DUKE 9 and didn’t start doing the pentacle until 1988.

FA: What are some of your recollections of anti-authoritarian spaces like squats and anarchist enclaves as well as the political vibe on the Lower East Side?

DUKE 9: There were many different spaces that we used to meet, most were squats. Sometimes when we were planning a ‘smoke in’, which was a marijuana rally to protest the government’s persecution of people’s right to smoke weed, we would meet at 9 Bleecker Street. We used to just call it ‘Number 9’, was not a squat, even though it seemed like one. 9 Bleecker was the Yippie Center that had been opened in the 1960s. Yippie stood for ‘The Youth International Party’ founded by Abbie Hoffman, and other political hippies in the 60’s. Dana Beal used to sponsor most of the smoke ins and ran 9 Bleecker. He printed the Yippie Newspaper ‘Overthrow’ out of there, and published several books, among them were ‘Blacklisted News: The Secret History of the Yippies.’ When we were planning the 1988 ‘Halloween Smoke In’ for Washington Square Park we were working mostly out of that place. We would roll joints from some pounds of weed to give out to the attendees. As we would roll the joints, we would be constantly smoking as well, we would talk about politics and life. One of our favorite topics of conversation was the Yippie Magic and The Yippie Curse that would often fall upon people that would persecute us. as with all urban legends, there is always some meaning or truth behind it.

Later on in the evening when we went out postering to advertise for our event; I bought along a can of dayglow orange spray paint to highlight our posters and I thought it would be a good touch to paint some pentacles around our posters as well. I felt it would be a good way to unlock some of that ‘Yippie Magic’. That was the first time I ever painted the pentacles. It definitely helped because the event was a complete success.

FA: What led you to start doing the Pentagrams in that area and was there a particular significance to them?

DUKE 9: After I painted the first pentacles during the 1988 smoke in, I came up with another idea: One very cold winter night, when we finished our posters I had a can of black spray paint that I was tagging with, on a local grocery store someone tagged ‘Mug a Yuppie.” I thought it was kind of funny so I wrote it on Avenue A by 6th Street on the electric company wall, after I wrote the phrase I drew a pentagram next to it. The next day a lot of people were talking about the tag and liked it. The Village Voice, and The East Villager both wrote about it. I thought about how I did whole cars on the trains and no one ever mentioned it but other writers, now I take this silly tag that was just an afterthought and it got in the newspapers. Even my closer comrades began calling me ‘Mug a Yuppie’ for a nickname. In 2019 the CNN TV Series ‘Anthony Bourdain’ was filmed on the L.E.S. and featured my ‘Mug a Yuppie’ tag with the pentagram. Unfortunately it turned out to be his last episode. I am very sorry to say Anthony Bourdain committed suicide before it was aired..

FA: Did you put aside your chosen Graffiti name (DUKE 9) and lean more towards doing the Pentagrams or did they go up simultaneously?

DUKE 9: At that point there was a large group of us that were putting up various symbols and postering. Our goal was not to make things look pretty, it was quite the opposite. I was always a big fan of The Clash and was inspired by them to choose the Circle Star since it was their symbol and since I had already established tagging it; I would piece it right-side up, upside down, or sideways, whatever was my mood. I could always keep it spinning. I felt a passion to contribute my graffiti expertise to a tag that would help our anti-gentrification cause, so I put my DUKE 9 tag on the back burner. Photographer Clayton Patterson called my Circle Star ‘the ultimate combat graffiti’.

Photo Courtesy: SMITH

FA: How did you link up with downtown visual agitators like Peter Missing and recall any memorable joint tagging missions?

DUKE 9: September 1989: There was a radical priest named Frank Morales who lived in our squat on 6th Street. People used to just call him Father Frank. He was born and raised on The L.E.S. One day he bought Peter Missing over because he was going to give Peter his apartment. Father Frank introduced us because he knew we both liked to do graffiti. One of the first questions I asked Peter was if he ever got caught writing, he answered no, so I felt we could work together. About a month later when the city decided to close an abandoned school house that we reopened as a community center, on E.4th Street between Avenue B and C, another riot broke out. I got arrested in the afternoon for allegedly throwing an egg at a cop. When they brought me in, they just gave me a desk appearance ticket and let me go, so I went straight back to the riot. By this time it was night and things degenerated quite a bit since the afternoon. Police and protesters had both been badly injured and hospitalized, there was a large bonfire in the middle of the street and the police were charging the crowd with their riot shields, helmets, and batons.

LES Amphitheater (now demolished)

I saw Peter and said; ‘maybe we should go before we are arrested’. He agreed and pulled out a can of black spray paint and said; ‘let’s go tagging’. So we started walking up to Avenue A tagging everything along the way. There were still so many police cars with their sirens making their way to 4th Street. When we got to 6th St and Avenue A, we could see yuppies sitting in the outdoor cafe, eating their hamburgers and drinking their drinks without a care in the world. This really irritated Peter and he began spray painting the food and drinks that was in their hands that they were trying to eat. After that we started walking down 6th Street to go home and watch what was happening on the news. When we got to our building we noticed that some hapless fool parked his police cruiser right in front of our squat. There were many bricks on top of the roof of the building and about 50 were dropped down from the building roof onto the cruiser. It looked like King Kong came walking by and stepped on it. We laughed but our laughter soon turned to terror as we saw from the window a line of riot cops with shields coming down the block toward our building. We turned off the lights and waited to see the outcome, when the police got to the door, our squat mate Kenny was just getting home. He told the cops that some kids got on the roof, threw down the bricks, and ran down the back fire escape. This explanation satisfied the riot cops and they left.
Another night Peter and I were out very late with our bikes carrying our paint cans and going piecing. We ran into an acquaintance from the park that told us he left a rather large firecracker by the window of a newly established yuppie business by 2nd Avenue. He said he lit the fuse but it never went off. So Peter and I rode our bikes down the street to have a look see. When we got there we saw the firecracker sitting on the window sill, we went up close to look and the large firecracker blew up in our faces. The shattered glass came showering down like a waterfall. Peter left NYC and moved to Berlin in 1993. When he would come back to NYC sometimes he would stay at my apartment. In 2005, when Peter was staying at my apartment, he told me he had the perfect girl for me: her name was Cynthia and that he would bring her over to meet me. A few days later he brought her over, when I told Cynthia I was DUKE, she said she would be DUCCHES. (Cynthia and I had a baby born on 16 June ’06 or 1 6-6-6.)

FA: What do you recall about the reaction to the infamous ‘Cult of Rage’ news segment about Missing Foundation?

DUKE 9: Peter Missing was very upset about Mike Taibbi’s report. He felt deeply betrayed, and mischaracterized and Mike Taibbi interviewing Daniel Rakowitz for the report only made him like it less.

FA: Was there a concerted effort between you and other like-minded artists to use your street markings as a form of protest against the sweeping signs of gentrification sweeping the neighborhood?

DUKE 9: There was a large group of anarchists, squatters, punks and activists that all united around our cause. We knew that graffiti and postering were great weapons to have in our arsenal. When we would go out at night postering and writing, we would often stop off at different people’s apartments to meet up with more friends, sometimes we would stop off at Al Diaz (aka BOMB 1 aka SAMO’s) apartment to meet up. Sometimes we would have so many people we would have to split off into two or three groups, and have each group go off in a different direction. The area around the park was always hot. The cops were aware of us and looking to catch us, even so, we always made sure that area was fully covered.

FA: Tell us about your involvement in the Tompkins Sq Park riot of 1988.

DUKE 9: I read in the newspapers the week before (the 8/6/88 Police Riot) about a small riot that broke out in Tompkins Square Park to protest the new ‘curfew’ while Missing Foundation was performing. I felt glad that some people finally stood up. I heard there was to be another protest against the curfew the following Saturday night so I was definitely going. When I got there, there were police vehicles parked all around the park, about 200 people showed up to protest. There was a lot of anger that had built up over the new curfew and also the harassment and police brutality that was routine in those days. First we marched around the park; some people were lighting large firecrackers and throwing them. After that I stayed near the entrance of the park.

There were 100 cops and 200 protesters. Right at midnight when the curfew was to start, the police began beating people with their night sticks, that night people had enough. What happens when 100 people fight 200 people? The 100 people get fucked up. And that is what happened. The cops were not prepared for the level of rage from the protesters and were badly beaten back. Next the cops called the emergency code 1085 which means police are down and all available cops in the city are to come and help. Cop cars were arriving at the park from all over the city. Cops were (allegedly) taking off their badges or covering them and beating anyone they saw, mostly they were beating innocent bystanders because they didn’t run. I saw a punk rocker with a large green mohawk getting badly beaten right by the 7A outdoor cafe. I couldn’t believe how the yuppies could just sit there eating, and drinking like nothing was going on, so I started grabbing their drinks out of their hands and throwing them to distract the cops that were beating the punk rocker. The cops stopped beating him, pointed at me and started to come after me. I took off and the cops went into the restaurant, grabbed the manager by her hair, dragged her out and beat her. The city ended up giving her a $200K settlement over that, every time she saw me after that she always smiled.

The crowd swelled to over 1000 as the night went on. The riot began at 12am and raged until the police left at 6am, when the curfew was over. During the whole night not one news van showed up, no ABC/NBC, no CBS. A NY Post and a NY Times reporter showed up and both were beaten by the cops. Clayton Patterson was there with his wife, he used to film slam pits at CBGB’s so he was fully prepared. He calmly, meticulously and bravely filmed each beating. Another amateur photographer tried to film, but was beaten and had his camera broken. I stayed the whole night until the cops left at 6am. The last of us marched through the park, and went to the Christodora House, that had been a big symbol of the gentrification around the park. We Smashed the windows with a police barricade, ripped out the phone and sent the doorman running. We also removed a tree from the lobby and planted it in the park. In the end 50 cops and 100 protesters were hospitalized, many with serious head wounds. The next day I checked the newspapers and the TV News, but there wasn’t the slightest mention of what happened. I wondered how such an event in the middle of Manhattan could go completely unreported. The protest began on Saturday August 6th but was not mentioned by the news until the following Monday. Then it was the top headline on all the news. That date was 8/8/88.

This story has multiple pages:

Recent Stories

Chinatown Garment Industry Hanging by a Thread

Once a hub of manufacturing for the city’s garment industry, there are only a few remaining factories in Chinatown from a peak in the hundreds. The localized industry, which once employed thousands of immigrant women and men, sparked an area restaurant boom in the 1970s. Yet, began to decline in the late 1980s when manufacturers started […]

Residents Unite Against Developer Plans to Swap Park for Parking on LES Waterfront

Residents on the Lower East Side waterfront may soon lose more publicly accessible outdoor space. The developer of a new super-tall plans to reduce a children’s playground to a parking lot. As excavation work commences on Chetrit Group’s 70-story, twin-towered development at 265 South Street, tenants in the adjacent building – Lands End II – […]

Chinatown Homeless Murder Suspect Still Awaiting Trial

More than two years since the horrific murder of four homeless men in Chinatown, the suspect has yet to be held accountable for the crimes. In the early morning hours of October 5, 2019 Randy Santos stalked, then allegedly bludgeoned to death Cheun Kwok, Anthony Manson, Florencio Moran and Nazario Vasqez-Villegas while asleep on the streets. In […]

Excavation Begins for 70-Story South Street Towers

Cranes, and plywood, and pile-drivers, oh my! Such is the story down on the Lower East Side waterfront. Department of Buildings on April 12 issued official approval to the Chetrit Group to begin foundation activities for its dual 70-story tower at 265 South. A month later, the big trucks are mobilized. While excavation is now […]

For 7th Year Running, Greek Jewish Festival Returns to Broome Street this Weekend

After a more subdued outing last year, the Greek Jewish Festival this spring is on the rebound, pulling out the stops. It returns on Sunday for another go-round. Founded by Kehila Kedosha Janina on Broome Street seven years ago, the event celebrates the culture and traditions of the Greek Jewish community. Years past saw crowds […]