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, The Life of Graffiti
Artist Dondi White, Regan Books 2001.
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
and was raised in the mostly white East New York section of Brooklyn.
Dondi 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.
a Crew and His Rep
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 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.