He’d called himself FitzSlay back when he started tagging the side of Fitzgibbon’s Art Supply, a wide canvas that faced onto Broadway at 203rd street, under the IRT tracks. Mr. Fitzgibbon, who’d once accused him of stealing a can of Rust-Oleum Red, whitewashed the building four times before giving up. And soon after, FitzSlay’s bold, funky letters conquered the neighborhood.
From there he’d moved on to daring declarations on the undersides of bridges and full visual narratives that ran the lengths of express trains. Now writing as Slay, he became one of the principals of 70s graffiti—elusive and regal, the stuff of legends. Slay calmly finishing a midnight job on the Whitestone Bridge while NYPD threw trash at his head and waited for him to climb up into their custody. When he disappeared into the East River, the cops assumed he’d died in the water. But, of course, he wasn’t finished. There were those tunnels on Staten Island, done up like cathedrals come to life overnight. And the huge, jeering letters that appeared on the upper tier at Shea the morning of Game Five of the ‘73 World Series.
In clandestine interviews he was cryptic and vaguely superior.
“Yes, anything that anyone ever says about me is true.”
In the 80s when some of the old masters began to make real money, he emerged. Just the right time with just the right representation. He was profiled in toney magazines and celebrated on TV for his upmarket grit. His work went up in pricey galleries and modern art museums. For the next thirty years he lived comfortably in Amsterdam and Nice, where he learned about fine wines and private planes.
When TC Commercial Bank offered him four-and-a-half million dollars to put a mural on a wall that would face their new public atrium, Slay came back to New York for the first time in years. He recreated a 1 train sitting on the elevated tracks above Inwood, circa 1972, loaded from front to back with the story of a young artist. And looming over it all was a kid with a spray can. The graffiti dripped onto the buildings and the streets. It even covered the clouds and the back of the young man’s jacket.
It was unveiled to the familiar sound of men in suits clapping. Then it was written up appreciatively in all the right places. The consensus was that he’d managed to capture the anarchy and the discipline of an essential era. The rough lyricism. The pious vulgarity. Big Apple’s Newest Cultural Landmark? There were metaphors and high-rise parties. Slay lived on champagne and gushing compliments for a few weeks.
The morning he was scheduled to fly back to France, a call came from TC Commercial. The mural had been defaced. They showed Slay the surveillance footage: a man had cut the chain-link fence that connected the atrium to the street. He slid his ladder and his paint through the opening and worked all night, hauling buckets up and down, taking his time with each detail. It was slow going; he wasn’t a young man.
The result was striking. In this version of 1972 Inwood, FitzSlay had been defeated. The trains had all been painted a flinty subway gray. The sides of the buildings and the trestle had been cleaned up, neutralized. The clouds were natural, white puffs, and the kid with the spray can was gone, replaced with blue sky. The desecration was deliberate and total. The whole scene had been de-vandalized. What was illicit in the art had been illegally legitimized.
Slay stared at the screen while the senior vice-president of the world’s fourth largest bank offered his “deepest apologies for this horrific violation.” Then the head of security found a good clear blowup of the criminal’s face. He was worn-out with mustard-colored spots on the top of his bald head, and the uneven scrub of gray beard extended down to his neck. It was Owen Fitzgibbon—Fitzgibbon Art Supply. The store had shut down in 1977. Slay had taken it as a victory—the first of many.
“No, doesn’t look familiar.”