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 March 26, 2014.   0 Comment
A short Greek-American kid named Demetrius who lived on West 183rd Street in the late 1960s was by no means the first teenager to think of writing something in indelible ink on someone else’s property. He never considered himself an artist, and his illicit career of leaving his name and street number on hundreds, maybe thousands, of surfaces throughout the five boroughs of New York City ended after only a couple of years, when he put aside his Magic Marker and went off dutifully to college.

But the sheer ubiquity of his neatly written signature — TAKI 183 — andan article about him in The New York Times in the summer of 1971 combined to transform him into a kind of shadowy folk hero, inspiring hundreds of emulators and, by general agreement among urban historians, making him responsible for starting the modern graffiti movement.

Viewed in some circles as an American art form on a par with jazz and Abstract Expressionism and in others as vandalism, pure and simple, the movement has gained momentum ever since and has spread around the world.

Its pioneer, meanwhile, has been out of sight, absent from the celebrations and exhibitions of old-school graffiti now taking place with increasing regularity. But on Thursday night at a signing party for “The History of American Graffiti,” an ambitious new survey of the movement written by Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon and published this spring by HarperCollins, a short Greek-American man named Demetrius, now 57, with glasses and a bush of salt-and-pepper hair, arrived, took up a marker and began to sign his name again, this time legally, on frontispieces of the books.

“What does he look like?” a HarperCollins publicist had asked Mr. Gastman earlier in the afternoon, before the arrival of the near-mythical guest of honor.

“He looks like somebody’s dad,” Mr. Gastman replied.

Indeed, Demetrius — who declines to provide his last name, still wary after all these years — is a dad, of two children now in college, who have only recently become aware of the extent of their father’s historical significance. For many years he worked as a draftsman of control panels for nuclear power plants, and after being laid off in the mid-1980s he opened an automotive shop in Yonkers, where he restores classic cars. When he arrived at the Hole gallery on the Bowery on Thursday evening, mobbed by photographers and young graffiti artists, he was wearing a pair of khaki cargo shorts, a T-shirt and sports sandals, looking like someone prepared to man a suburban barbecue grill.

“I live a pretty regular life, I guess, but I like it,” he said in an interview before the event, at a nearby bar. Of his decision throughout most of his life not to come forward and claim the mantle of graffiti forebear, he said simply, “It always seemed to me like the past was the past.”

But two years ago Mr. Gastman tracked him down and persuaded him to write a foreword for the book and to set up a Web site for himself, where he now tells his story and sells limited-edition prints for $75 apiece. He traveled recently to Los Angeles, to see and be seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Art in the Streets” show about the history of graffiti, and even a few of his automotive customers now come into his shop, he said, and say, “Hey, I can’t believe you’re that guy!”

Of his role as the movement’s Magellan, he is exceedingly humble, an exceedingly rare thing in the graffiti world. While the 1971 Times article quoted him as justifying his tagging by pointing out that political campaigns frequently plastered his neighborhood with posters and stickers, he smirked on Thursday evening and said: “That was just a rationalization. I wasn’t very politically aware. We did it because there was nothing else to do, and it was easy to do it. We were just killing time.”

He borrowed the form, he said, from an even earlier tagger on the streets, JULIO 124, whose identity now seems to be lost to history. “I had a job as a messenger, and I could get all over the city,” Demetrius said, “and so I wrote all over the city.”

He added, in a partial nod to critics of his legacy: “I think a lot of what the graffiti movement spawned, early on, was just vandalism and defacement. But later on real artists started doing it, and it did become a true art form.”

As he sat at a table on Thursday evening, surveying a long line of sweaty, admiring 20-somethings anxiously awaiting his signature, he was asked what he thought of the spectacle he had helped to create. “What?” he said, smiling wryly and shrugging his shoulders. “This is how I spend all my Thursday evenings.”

[SreK Zypher]

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