From Tagging To Murals, Graffiti Legend TooFly Still Carries The Torch For Art
TooFly has long carried the torch for female graffiti artists, but with well over 20 years in a male-dominated enterprise, her legacy means so much more. Tagging walls since the '90s, the NYC veteran is one of a handful of women who helped turn the urban art landscape on its head.
Today, she continues to cultivate the movement with YOUNITY, a collective of female artists and practitioners from around the globe. Her organization serves as a networking forum and vehicle for the exchange of ideas, where female prospects get to spotlight their developing styles in a professional manner.
As TooFly evolved through the years, so did her style. With a recent move to her native country of Ecuador, her famous B-girl characters went from rocking door-knocker earrings to sporting feathers and warrior marks.
VIBE Viva caught up with the femme fatale and talked all things graff, from tagging streets in the early days to putting up all-female exhibits for a global audience.
VIBE Viva: Graffiti versus street art. Break it down for me.
TooFly: Graffiti has become a popular word for everything we see out on the street. It’s pretty much all bunched up into this one box, but it’s not. Graffiti is writing on the wall illegally in its essence. Back in the day, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was what we called bombing. Then it grew into something where more and more people started to get permission to paint walls, legally. That’s how 5 Pointz was created. These artists were able to paint in peace a lot more, and develop their aerosol skills without getting harassed by the cops. Graffiti writers became Graffiti artists who were able to develop their letter work, character work, landscape work, and much more and went public with it which made it less, and less illegal.
Now, there’s street art, which most of the time doesn’t have anything to do with the essence of graffiti tags, letters, and street bombing. Street artists use brush, paints, wheatpaste and so on. They’re not necessarily carved out of the same culture where we grew up from, where we went out at night and tagged up walls on some rebel sh–t. We were hip-hop kids who carried around markers and cans in our backpacks. Back in the day, it wasn’t about fame, it wasn’t about Instagram or Facebook. In the beginning, we were just having fun, hanging out in the street late at night. Now, it’s morphed into something completely differently, 20 years later.
When people talk about urban art, it's mostly in reference to aerosol. But with the new millennium came installations, wheatpasting, stencils, stickers, you name it. What brought on that diversity in medium?
Things began to shift when the computer came along. In 2007, I had bought my first computer, which was mad expensive. Technology made artists turn their work into digital pieces. It allowed them to do one thing and then add layers by photoshopping more stuff to it. Next thing you know, you’re thinking in different ways on how to create your piece and make your own stickers, or then even a business card if someone wants to hire you to paint their shop walls. Our street skills then took on a whole ‘nother shape.
Technology is what made it boom. Art Crimes was like the first graffiti website to put up everybody’s work. Lady Pink, all the other famous ‘80s artists and the ones coming up in the ‘90s—we were all put on this list, the ones from New York City. Then other people from other states started to pop up and you realized ‘Oh, sh–t, there’s like a whole culture out there. Ten years later, you have tons of websites, tons of graffiti shops. It was already an international culture. Cult classics like Wild Style and Style Wars introduced graffiti to Europe in the ‘80s but before technology came along, it was always an underground thing. You heard about it through your friend or big brother who breakdanced, deejayed or something like that.
Do you think the Internet hindered the art?
I think the Internet hindered the underground culture. There are only pockets of people who remained purists of the culture. With the Internet, anyone could practically partake in what we had built up from scratch.
Who is Lady Pink?
Lady Pink was like the first female graffiti artist from the scene. She came out around ’79. She was featured in Wild Style and Style Wars and from that, her work started to sell in galleries. Her, Lee Quinones, Futura, Keith Haring, Basquiat, I believe were all in the same kind of cyphers back then, as the downtown art scene was growing in New York. She’s like the godmother of all this, the iconic one. She still paints, after all these years. She’s painting now, right around the block!
The women's street graff who I admired most, whose work I saw out in the street, I never really met until years later. True graffiti bombers like Jakee and Miss Maggs. So I always felt alone, I always felt like the only girl hanging with the guys.
Right. And for decades, graffiti and just the general practice of street art was largely male-dominated. What was that like for you, as a woman?
I was young, so I felt a little uncomfortable. And when you’re young, you want to throw yourself out in the world and just do it. But I couldn’t. There was all these politics, and things I had to take caution on. The rush of it all was that this was a hardcore underground scene in New York, and it was exciting and scary. Everything was beef here, beef there. The energy didn’t feel like how it feels now. Back then it was like you can’t be down with this crew or that crew, because of the wars between them. It was a bunch of crazy dumb graffiti sh–t, but I knew I needed to get out there. I got put on by the guys –– a wall here, a wall there. Little by little, I noticed I was getting only the sh–tty walls or the corner spots and I was over it. I wanted to get better and develop my stuff, I always felt strongly about repping for females. Then that’s when I met Lady Pink and a girl named Muck.
Lady Pink started to organize women walls. That’s when I realized that there’s a real chance here for me to continue what I was doing, because all that beef sh–t was wack. I just wanted to paint and make beautiful work. When she started the walls, a space was carved out for me and for other young artists. I left that underground graffiti world, full of egotistical men, always paranoid. I couldn’t [stay].
When there was a good number of us, three or four girls, we started taking trips and painting at hip-hop events, doing murals. Then I was the one who started to organize these women-based walls.
Is that how Younity came about?
Yeah, pretty much. That’s how it started. Little by little, the hip-hop events became ‘Women in Hip-Hop’ events. And naturally, they’d hit up people like me, along with other women artists. Then all of a sudden, I started meeting all these girls and it was like 20 of us. And we’re like, ‘Oh sh–t, we should do an exhibit!’ The guys were already doing it, but we never got invited, except for maybe one or two girls. We wanted to do an all-female thing. Everything became these female-based projects. And now, that’s pretty much what I focus on.
Graffiti is often perceived as something dangerous and illegal. Have you ever had any encounters with the police?
You know, when I first started to do this, I was maybe 15, 16 years old. I quickly learned, in like three missions, that this was not what I wanted to do. I climbed over fences and got cuts on my hands. I was chased by dogs once, and I remember hiding from cops under some train tracks in Queens. I had to sit on top of the guys’ shoulders to paint to get high spots. I always had to be on the lookout. I thought to myself I wasn’t really feeling this. I knew that graffiti was the world I wanted to get into, but back then it was nothing like it is now. But I still had to find my way somehow. My mom would even drive me at 3 a.m. in the morning just so that I wouldn’t have to come back with the guys so late. She would let me tag around. She broke into a rooftop once, so that I could paint my first character. We snuck in—we freaking trespassed a building!
Wow, that's ill. So your mom supported you and the art?
She supported it, she supported me. She knew it was illegal, but my mom is an artist, too. I think she understood it when she saw that I was happy. But knowing that and having her support, I also felt I couldn’t risk getting into serious trouble with the cops and have her being worried all the time. Back then, if cops caught you with paint, they’d spray your face with it or rag your clothes.
There were a lot of Italians in my neighborhood, and lot of racial tension back then with Latinos. I grew up in Corona [Queens] near Spaghetti Park. If Italians caught you doing something on their property, they would chase you down and beat you with bats and sh–t. It was not a joke. There was a graffiti writer in my neighborhood that was murdered because of this. He was Latino. Manny Mayi, I believe was his goverment name. There were stories like that all around the city. I think at that time, I stopped. There was a big period where I kinda just stopped doing all that graffiti sh–t. That was the transition for me. I never went back to the underground. It wasn’t worth it.
Your characters are all over the city. Who is she?
Back in the day, I was inspired by a graffiti friend who tagged the walls and tables at school with his character. It was a really dope illustration to me. I felt impacted by it, and it made me want to make my own mark. I wanted to become the female version of that. I knew I could do it, because I could draw really well. That’s when I started drawing my female character and using it as my tag or aka. She developed over time and has changed a lot since. Back then, she was this hip-hop girl, rocking door knocker earrings. Today, she has feathers in her hair, warrior paint marks, and wears native cultural patterns. I think it’s the influence of moving back to my country and connecting with my roots that has brought about the change. She still she got that style though, ya know. [Laughs]
How does being Ecuadorian and a New York native play a role in your art?
Well, now I live there most of the time. I come [to New York] for a few months in the summer and a few months in the fall. But down the line, it’ll turn into half the year here and half the year there, because there’s a lot more work for me in New York still. Over there, I relax and work in my studio without any distractions.
Are you working on your art over there?
Right now, I’m organizing an all-female urban arts event called "WARMI PAINT" with a crew in Quito at the CAC, which is contemporary museum. That’s never been done before. I’m also painting some Quito transportation buses when I get back in July, during skate day which is a youth street sports event. I’m pretty much situated now, it’s just a matter of getting funding to take ideas to the next level.
Is there a difference between the work you create here and the work you create back in Ecuador?
It’s deeper. I’m older now, and I’m beginning to understand what it truly means to come here as an immigrant from another country. A lot’s been happening to me, personally, in the understanding of it all. Now, when I create, there’s a story, there’s meaning, there’s purpose. Hopefully, one day, I’ll be able to exhibit these ideas and share them with everyone.