White, Dondi 1961–1998
Dondi White 1961–1998
For more than 20 years in New York City, graffiti culture was as pervasive as it was secretive. Scores of underground artists worked in the shadows to create illicit and unconventional masterpieces—colorful and graphic paintings made with aerosol spray paint on New York City subway lines. Graffiti writer Dondi White came up in the 1970s, plastering his name and many aliases on dozens of subway trains. His work and personality stood out in the culture, and he became a star among graffiti writers. As New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) eradicated graffiti writing from its trains, White became one of many graffitists who began to work aboveground. Graffiti-based art was at the heart of New York’s art scene in the 1980s. White put his work on canvas, and exhibited it in art galleries. He was the first graffiti artist to have a one-man show in the Netherlands and Germany, and his work is collected by European museums. After his death in 1998, White’s brother, Michael, and graffiti writer, Andrew “Zephyr” Witten, collaborated on the book Dondi White: Style Master General.
Dondi White was born Donald J. White on April 7, 1961, in Manhattan, New York. He was the youngest of five sons of Italian and African-American parents, and was raised in the mostly white East New York section of Brooklyn. White was a creative child who flew pet pigeons, played stickball and touch football with his brothers, and built go-carts out of milk crates and roller skates. The Whites spent many weekends swimming at Coney Island. Dondi’s parents instilled a strong sense of family morals onto their sons. Talking back to elders, cursing, and disrespect were out of the question. The White boys said their prayers nightly and settled arguments in the backyard of their home, with boxing gloves. Both his childhood tricycle and his Catholic school upbringing would later resurface in his artwork. Religious imagery and religious terms, such as “Anno Domini,” were prevalent in his work. His mother nicknamed him Dondi.
The family moved six blocks away when White was nine years old, and it was in this new neighborhood that his older brother Michael recalled seeing “Dondi” scribbling on streetlights near the house. While White was still a child, his neighborhood began to change. Street gangs and heroin came to East New York, and the
At a Glance…
Born Donald J. White on April 7, 1961, in Manhattan, New York; died October 2, 1998.
Career: Began scribbling on streetlights near his house, c. 1970; tagged using “NACO” and “DONDI,” c. 1976; joined The Odd Partners, 1977; founded Crazy Insides Artists, 1978; worked at Esses Studio, began making large-scale canvasses, 1980-81; became associated with The Soul Artists, 1981; first group gallery show, New York/New Wave, at PS 1 in Queens, 1981; first solo show, Fun Gallery, 1982; featured in the film Wild Style; hired as consultant and artist TV movie Dreams Don’t Die; appeared in “Buffalo Gals” music video; featured in group show at University of California at Santa Cruz, 1982; commissioned to paint Hong Kong nightclub, 1982; toured Europe with the New York City Rap Tour, 1982; became the first graffitist to have a one-man show in the Netherlands and Germany, 1983; featured in Rotterdam’s Boymans-Van Beuningen Museum, 1983; featured in retrospective exhibits of his work at Rempire gallery in Soho and at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, 1992; featured in the Fifteen Years Aboveground exhibit.
boy’s personal safety became an issue. His two older brothers, Albert and Robert, had already grown up and moved out, and his family began to worry that their youngest could be recruited by a gang. But he kept himself busy playing pool and building minibikes, and immersed himself in flying his pigeons, which kept him off the streets and on the roof of his house for hours at a time. By 1976, the Whites had retired and had moved again, and Dondi was the only son left in the house. It was a dream-come-true for Dondi, who was building his reputation as a graffiti writer—the new house was within walking distance of three major New York train yards. He tagged using “NACO” and “DONDI,” and worked on refining his style, gradually moving from simple tagging to building more elaborate pieces.
Anxious to leave high school behind, he earned his GED in 1980, took a job in a government office, and began to indulge his interest in graffiti. His bedroom became a meeting place for graffiti writers, many of whom he met through raising pigeons. A writer called DURO, whom White had met in 1974, became his best friend. The odor of aerosol spray paint was strong in the family basement—it had become his artistic testing ground. While most of the graffiti in White’s neighborhood was gang-related and territorial, White’s approach was founded in artistry.
In 1977 White joined with fellow graffiti writers in the exclusive Brooklyn graffiti crew The Odd Partners, known as TOP. Dondi often cited senior TOP members JEE 2, MICKEY, HURST, SLAVE, and NOC 167 as “major influences in his development as a graffiti artist,” fellow graffiti writer Zephyr wrote online at the Art Crimes Website. TOP evolved into White founding his own crew, Crazy Insides Artists, or CIA, in 1978. CIA continued where TOP left off, that is wreaking havoc on the BMT, or Brooklyn Manhattan Transit lines. White proved to be an able mentor to the young graffiti writers of CIA. He passed along his skills and helped them execute their pieces. Even though he was a member of a crew, White’s personality stood out from those of the other writers. While most writers go to great lengths to keep their identities a secret, White painted a giant “DONDI” piece on the roof of his home, in clear view of the Number Two train that passed by. As White’s work began to make it around Manhattan and the Bronx—considered “ground zero” for graffiti culture, according to Style Master General —veteran graffiti writers were taking notice of this talented up-and-comer. In addition to “DONDI,” White’s graffiti aliases included BUS 129, MR. WHITE, PRE, POSE, ROLL, 2 MANY, and ASIA.
White’s artwork may have been the result of his personal methodical approach as much as it was because of his talent. He planned every aspect of a piece before painting it. He filled volumes of sketchbooks with highly detailed outlines and renditions of his work. He worked tirelessly to perfect his work before ever executing it.
Much of White’s work after 1979 is well documented, owing to his friendship with photographer Martha Cooper. A year before they met, Cooper had inadvertently snapped a piece of White’s work that appeared in the background of a New York Post cover she photographed. The two were an unorthodox pair; White, as with his rooftop piece, was defying the secrecy normally involved with graffiti by exposing his life and work to a media-Sawy photographer. Cooper captured White’s “Children of the Grave” trains, which “are considered among the most famous and iconic ever painled by any writer” in New York, according to Style Master General. Her photos of his work appear in the seminal book Subway Art, which was published in 1984. The book documented the life and art of the graffiti writers, but was also controversial. While important to the history of graffiti, it also risked exposing the secret world of its subjects.
White recreated “Children of the Grave” legally in 1986, when he was commissioned by the Art Train project. Twelve graffiti writers were flown into an Amtrak train yard in Michigan to paint trains. In 1980 art patron Sam Esses funded a project called “Esses Studio” to take the art that was happening on the streets into the art studio. Esses was appalled that the MTA’s sole policy in regards to graffiti was to remove it. The “Graffiti 1980 Studio” did much to bolster graffiti writers’ solidarity. In the studio, writers came together and formed new bonds, and a tighter-knit culture among writers in the 1980s resulted.
The studio pushed White in a different direction. During 1980 and 1981, he was creating some of his best train paintings, but also began working on canvas. It was at Esses Studio that he created his first large-scale canvases with spray paint. He became associated with The Soul Artists, or SA, a group of graffitists who were working legitimately in the art world. The creative camaraderie and competition between the artists resulted in inspired work from all of them. As a result, White became part of the celebrated East Village art explosion of the early 1980s. The Monday-night meetings at SA’s workshop became social happenings that attracted a diverse group of New York’s hottest filmmakers, activists, musicians, and artists. Journalists capitalized on having so many members of New York counterculture gathered together regularly in one convenient location. The SA artists became popular fixtures at Manhattan nightclubs, including the Roxy, Negril, Danceteria, and the Peppermint Lounge.
White’s first gallery show was the New York/New Wave group show at the PS 1 artspace in Queens, New York, in 1981. He participated in several group shows before his first one-man show in 1982 at the Fun Gallery, which also exhibited the likes of FUTURA, CRASH, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fab-Five Freddy, and Kenny Scharf. “The media was looking around for the next ‘cool’ thing, and they chose graffiti,” Zephyr is quoted as saying in Style Master General. Fictional graffitists appeared in urban-culture movies like Beat Street, and Dreams Don’t Die. Both White and his artwork were featured in a film about hip-hop culture called Wild Style. He was hired as consultant and artist for the TV movie about graffiti life Dreams Don’t Die. For the film, the MTA provided a freshly painted train specifically for his use. Not long after, the MTA reconsidered its contradictory policy and ceased providing such assistance to film productions. A then-upstart venture called MTV used graffiti in its original set designs. Many European graffiti writers credit White’s work in a hip-hop music video called “Buffalo Gals” as their first exposure to graffiti.
If the graffiti artists were considered criminals by New York’s MTA, they were practically celebrities in California. White, Futura, and Zephyr were flown to a 1982 show at the University of California at Santa Cruz featuring 25 canvases from the Esses Studio. Santa Cruz’s transit authority actually gave the artists a bus to paint. Three months later the three were in Hong Kong to paint 10,000 square feet of wall space at a new nightclub there. White’s first trip to Europe was in 1982 with the New York City Rap Tour, which featured break dancers, rappers, and graffiti writers performing together. The two-week tour featured DJ Afrika Bambaataa, Rammellzee, the Rock Steady Crew, Grandmixer D.ST, the Double Dutch Girls, PHASE 2, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, and White.
The growing popularity of graffiti-based art in the New York art scene and in popular American culture drew the attention of European gallery owners and collectors. White became the first graffitist to have a one-man show in the Netherlands in 1983, which was a sellout success. He was represented by the Dutch art dealer Yaki Kornblit. He also was the first graffitist to have a solo show in Germany, and went on to exhibit in subsequent European shows in 1983.
In the fall of 1983, American graffiti had reached its pinnacle—graffiti was being celebrated in European museums. White’s work was featured in a group show, called Graffiti, in Rotterdam’s Boymans-Van Beuningen Museum. The exhibit traveled to three other museums that year. By the time he was 22, White had exhibited seven solo shows, and his work was held by European museums. “Writing on the subway was a good way to communicate the ideas I had,” he is quoted as saying in Style Master General. “Moving into the gallery, I had a whole other audience I had to communicated with which was good, because it made my work evolve.” One of his many enamel spraypainton-canvas paintings during this time featured a funky figure and the passage, “Dear-Dark continent of kings continue the battle aboveground…Yours Truly.”
In 1984, burned out by the nonstop travel and painting, White went into semi-retirement. “Perhaps it was too much too fast, perhaps he simply ran out of steam,” as is written in Style Master General. “But at the height of his success, Dondi walked away. Now, all it seemed Dondi wanted was a simpler, more ‘normal’ life. He was sick and tired of the pressure to produce.” The break ultimately was good for his work—his drawings made during this time are considered some of his best work. He began to work in collage, working mainly with blueprints, to combine with exacting pencil and ink drawings. The result was a series of highly technical pieces, each of which took months to complete. By 1989, the MTA had “won” its war on graffiti. It instituted a program in which painted trains are immediately pulled from the line and cleaned.
By 1992 White had started to build that more normal life. He was living with a girlfriend, and had taken a part-time job at an upscale men’s clothing shop. That Spring, his work was featured in retrospective exhibits of his work at The Rempire gallery in Soho and at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. In 1995 he was featured in the Fifteen Years Aboveground exhibit organized by graffitist CRASH. After a long illness, White died October 2, 1998 from complications from AIDS.
Witten, Andrew “Zephyr” and White, Michael, Dondi White: Style Master General, The Life of Graffiti Artist Dondi White, ReganBooks, 2001.
While You Were Sleeping online, http://whileyou weresleeping.com/issuearchive/issue5/dondi.asp(March 13, 2002).
Art Crimes: The Writing on the Wall online, http://www.graffiti.org/dondi/prigoff.html (March 13, 2002); http://www.graffiti.org/dondi/statement92.html (March 13, 2002); http://www.graffiti.org/dondi/eulogy.html (March 13, 2002); http://www.graffiti.org/dondi/ac/html (March 13, 2002); http://www.graffiti.org/dondi/zeph.html (March 13, 2002).
New York City Graffiti @ 149st, http://www.atl49st.com/dondi.html (March 13, 2002).
Additional material was provided by Michael White.
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