Eric Felisbret may be better known to some people as DEAL CIA, his tag from his graffiti writing days. For the past ten years, he's been running the old school graffiti site at 149St and now, after thirty years of documenting New York City's graffiti scene, he's put together Graffiti New York, which features over 1,000 images. We spoke to Felisbret about his start in graffiti writing, the recent street art movement, and whether graffiti is art.

You started writing in the middle 70s; how'd you get into it? I grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and first got hip to writing in mid 1972. I'd take the 1 and A lines uptown with my mom to visit friends in Harlem and Washington Heights. It felt like the trains became completely bombed almost instantly because I really did not see that many tags on trains the prior year. To pass the time when I was traveling I began to count the frequency of individual tags. JOE 182 and BABY FACE really stood out. It wasn't until the next year that I really began to get preoccupied with writing.

A representative from the MTA came to our school to give a speech about subway vandalism. It was kind of a "Just say no to drugs" type of thing meant to deter younger kids from writing graffiti. The rep showed us a slide show of subway graffiti and told us about the “juvenile delinquents” who had no respect for authority and risked their personal safety running in subway tunnels. The rep's pitch backfired. Instantly our class had new heroes. Walt Frazier was out and COCO 144 was in. By the time I got into Junior High school my fascination turned into a desire to write myself. I began as most writers do, tagging my local streets, then subway stations, then subways.

I always enjoyed writing, but early on I also began to devote time to document it. Graffiti's ephemeral nature prompted me to photograph it. I hated seeing a beautiful piece once and then have it disappear forever.

Tell us your favorite graffiti war story; what's the craziest thing that ever happened to you while you were writing? A memorable raid was at the Esplanade lay-up in the Bronx in summer of '78. Esplanade is a tunnel where subway trains are parked over the weekend. Part of it is underground in a tunnel and the other section--known as the stick-out--is above ground.

It was a Sunday afternoon when my brother SPAR and I arrived activity was in full swing. There must have been about fifteen writers there. Kids were all over the place; both in the tunnel and on the stick-out. People were writing on everything, inside the trains, outside the trains and on the cement track dividers. It was total anarchy. I don't think we were there for more than fifteen minutes when the raid started. A train pulled into the downtown side of the station loaded with cops. Kids began to scatter all over the place, but the raid was tight and cops were positioned at all exits and even down on the street snatching kids that ran from the stick-out.

Me and SPAR decided not to run and quickly sat on a bench on the station platform and played like we were not part of the scene. Kids ran right by us into the cops’ arms. The cops grabbed us too and we fronted like we were lost on the subway and looking for the Bronx Zoo (which was two stops away.) The uniformed cops that grilled us bought our story and let us go. We were lucky it was not the plain plain clothes officers, 'cause they are not so gullible, they’d have bagged us with the rest of the kids.

You stopped painting in 1980. Why? Do you ever miss it?I wrote very little after 1980 because I didn't find writing as exciting, at least doing it myself. I guess it was because I was a bit more of a fan than a writer. I remained in contact with the graffiti community and continued to photograph it. I’m still fascinated with it as a culture and an art form, so I cannot imagine ever completely separating myself from it.

New York graffiti has changed quite a bit since the 70s; what do you think were the most important developments in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s? The '70s marked the pioneering period where the cultural framework was established. Stylistic standards and behavioral codes were set in place.

The 1980s marked a period of struggle. The city began to increase removal of graffiti on the subways and improve security on train yards. It frustrated a lot of writers, but it also gave birth to a more committed breed of writers. Cats that wouldn't quit at any cost. By the 1990s graffiti on the subway was eliminated from the subway, so the movement had to reinvent itself. Volume-based writing and artist writing became more distinct pursuits. One channel of writers worked on elaborate murals, which were often done with permission, while another channel focused on street bombing. The 2000s was pretty much a continuation of the 1990s , but the movement as a whole became more tightly knit because of the Internet.

Who are your favorite writers of all time? I'm a huge fan of the art so I have many favorites, but I'll give you a short-list of a few that I admire for originality and influence in their field. By far STAY HIGH 149 has the best tag. His style is really funky. I mean it has soul. What I love about it is that it is legible, yet it has an energy and flow that is pure street.

PHASE 2 and RIFF 170 were pacesetters for style. They are responsible for creating styles that did not previously exist. They taught people to rethink the standard alphabet. They were making letters bend fold, interlock and twist. Pretty much everybody in the game has been influenced by them in some respect.
LEE Quinones, aside from his immense talent. I admired his sense of discipline. He painted over 120 entire subway cars.

I love the artistic aspects of the movement, but bombers are what first endeared me to the culture. Favorite bombers are. SUPER KOOL 223, BARBARA 62, EVA 62, IZ THE WIZ (RIP), IN, JESTER, TO 729, FDT 56, VINNY, QUIK, NE, SACH, SANE (RIP) SMITH, EASY, JOZ (RIP), JA, SKUF and VFR. These folks were really passionate and set the bar high for bombing.

In the last several years, a lot has been written about the street art movement—stencils, stickers, sculpture work. What do you think of these youngsters? I'm kind of on the fence about street art. Some of it is exciting, but today a lot of it feels unoriginal. There is so much of it that few artists really stand out. Also it seems its motivation is questionable. Art school kids and hipsters trying to be the flavor of the month—marketing themselves for galleries.

I'm dating myself a bit, but I favor the era of Richard Hambleton and Dan Witz. What really impressed me was the strategic placement of their work. On more than one occasion I was spooked late at night seeing a Hambleton silhouette in an alleyway, or perplexed by seeing a Witz humming bird on a warehouse door. I also like the second wave before street art exploded, artists like Shepard Fairey and Michael DeFeo. They put in a lot of hard work posting original art on the streets. Today I dig Swoon. Her work is very unique and stands out. She also bombs. I've really seen her up-- Prague, Venice, all over. Ellis Gallagher is cool. His work makes me stop in my tracks. I do not dislike street art-- I'm just a bit picky.

@149 Street has been running online for more than ten year; how has the Internet changed the way graffiti works? A lot of writers criticize the Internet because it allows people to circumvent the traditional path to fame. You can post photos of your work and people all over the city and the world can see your work. Where as in the old days you had to put in some hard work on the streets to make a name.

With that aside I'd have to say that overall the Internet has had a very positive impact on writing. It has not really changed the way graffiti works, it has just been integrated into long held practices.There is a long-standing tradition of writers observing and critiquing each other’s work and trying to improve upon each other’s ideas. It is how style evolved. When graffiti was centralized on New York’s subway system writers would meet at subway stations known as writers’ benches where they would network and hold informal critiques. Writers from different parts of the city would meet, form alliances and inspire each other. Now the Internet fills the void, but on a global level. The opportunity for to network and share new ideas is infinite.

Graffiti is a controversial subject on our site. What do you have to say to people that dismiss it as nothing more than property crime and bad art? My personal opinion is that it is an art, but I will not argue that there are instances when it is a crime. I rarely invest time in debating the topic, because I often feel it's critics know little about it. One of the things I've tried to do with my book Graffiti New York, is to provide readers with a detailed picture of the movement as a whole. To reveal its richness and its complexity. Perhaps it will provide a framework from which people can make informed evaluations of graffiti.

The Giuliani administration was pretty tough on graffiti. How has graffiti been doing under Bloomberg? I always laugh when I hear the Giuliani thing, 'cause it’s a bit of a myth. It’s spin. People credit him with cleaning the subway, but our subway was cleaned up during the tail end of the Koch administration. Prior to '89 the bulk of graffiti was concentrated on the subway, afterward it was just dispersed across the city.

Today the subway and most heavily touristy areas of New York are fairly graffiti-free, but I think most New Yorkers will tell you we have a substantial amount of graffiti. I don’t know that Bloomberg is much more effective in controlling graffiti than previous administrations. We have yet to have a mayor who can control it. Even with laws enabling courts to charge writers with felonies today, graffiti remains pervasive in our city.

You've spent more than thirty years thinking about graffiti: where do you think it's going next? What I see happening now is countries across the world working with the stylistic foundation that New York provided and making the art their own. The work form Brazil’s Os Gemeos is especially impressive. There are parallels with the New York school, yet their work is uniquely Brazilian. I see it splintering into many distinct genres.

There are many times I thought the movement would die. Especially with so many instances of mainstream acceptance --art galleries, ad agencies, clothing lines and such. I thought overexposure would exhaust its freshness and street cred, yet it survives. It is a unique and original art form with universal appeal. It may seem a bit ironic, but I think we can thank opponents like Peter Vallone and his international counterparts for vilifying it, 'cause that just fuels the true rebels that drive the art form.