ON THE OCCASION OF HIS FIRST NEW YORK RETROSPECTIVE, NOW OPEN AT RED BULL ARTS NEW YORK, FRANCESCA GAVIN LOOKS BACK TO THE EXPANSIVE ART OF RAMMELLZEE—A CONTEMPORARY OF BASQUIAT WHOSE WORKS IN PAINTING, SCULPTURE AND PERFORMANCE DISPLAYED A SENSATIONALLY INVENTIVE BLEND OF WILDSTYLE AND AFROFUTURISM, REMIXING LINGUISTICS AND MYSTICISM THROUGH THE LENS OF SCIENCE FICTION AND RESISTANCE.
The central characters in Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel The Name of the Rose are monks unpacking a mystery of murder, theology and semiotics set in a labyrinthine library. It is easy to imagine artist, musician and outsider philosopher Rammellzee inhabiting the same disturbing corridors. He was an individual, a character, a mathematical equation. As he once put it, “I’ve got better things to do besides be a part of the populace.”
At the heart of everything Rammellzee made was his self-created philosophy. Unpinning, and understanding the dual ideas of Ikonoklast Panzerism and Gothic Futurism—that the artist laid out in his manifesto-like “Ionic Treatsie Gothic Futurism” (1979)—is not easy. His premise was that medieval monks became increasingly able to make words and language illegible in illuminated manuscripts—which angered the Catholic Church, who imposed Roman letters in an attempt to reduce their ability to shape reality through language. Rammellzee believed that words themselves had the ability to become weapons, liberated from the power structures of reality and opening up cracks between dimensions. Wildstyle writing was a blueprint, a structure for how words could become weapons in an intergalactic war. As Rammellzee wrote, “Piece = Gun Masterpiece = Cannon.” For Ramm, this was not revolution—it was evolution.
Rammellzee’s awareness of the language and its symbolic potential was fascinating. “He felt that even now, if you control the language, you control the discourse, you control the power,” photographer and hip-hop pioneer Henry Chalfant once pointed out. The spikes and arrows in his visual lettering freed them from the tyranny of meaning. The result was an interesting take on the power of semiotics, linguistics and typography. In his approach, letters were stand in for electromagnetic forces and mathematical systems. He wandered close to quantum physics—and was arguably as impenetrable. Rammellzee truly was reconsidering the construction of reality itself from the word up.
His actual biography is hard to piece together. His birth name is unknown. He was born 1960 in Rockaway, Queens, and grew up near JFK airport. He was half-Italian and half-African-American, though which half was which remains unclear. Members of his family were said to have been in the police force, or members of the conspiratorial sect Five-Percent Nation.
He began writing what came to be known as graffiti in the early 1970s, using the monikers HYTE and EG (Evolution Griller). He began to “bomb” trains, influenced by writers PHASE ONE and DONDI, who became mentors to him for a few years. Rammellzee was best known for tagging and painting the A train which went to Queens. “My inspiration was my curiosity of why people wanted to write on trains, the biggest distribution gallery for any art form known to man,” he later recalled.
At this point “bombing was an aesthetic form of urban terrorism,” as writer Greg Tate has noted. Vandalism was central, and was aggressively policed by authorities. The form emerged at a time of serious violent interactions between the American authorities and poor communities in New York; coinciding with the fallout of the Vietnam War, bombing developed as a metaphoric narrative that played out this sense of unrest and anger. Military terminology was part of the formation of the language of graffiti from the start: as Nancy Macdonald points out in The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity and Identity in London and New York (2001), writers “reconstruct this illegal stage into a theatre of war… [in which] writers play the outlaws and the authorities their enemy. Their enemy’s moves are no longer deterrent measure, but rather battle tactics which writers oppose in the hope of claiming victory. The battle centres on a fight for power and control of the subway/underground system… They use their graffiti as a symbol of domination.” In this context, the spray can or the marker pen, the letter or word, becomes a symbolic weapon of war.
It is not surprisingly that Rammellzee developed a narrative of weaponized language, taking things one psychedelic and intense step further. He became particularly interested in the stylistic developments of “wildstyle,” the approach that grew out of the Bronx street gang-turned-graffiti crew that included notable writers such as TAKI 183, DAZED and FUTURA 2000, celebrated in the 1983 movie of the same name. Rammellzee would adopt the barbed forms pioneered by JESTER in particular, with arrow-like shapes and an increasing sense of illegibility.
In 1979, Rammellzee was wrongly imprisoned in Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, for purse snatching. If he hadn’t met Five-Percent Nation members before, he undoubtedly learnt about the sect while in prison. He spent his time reading the dictionary. When he emerged from jail, enrolling in the Fashion Institute Technology on a jewelry-making course, he fused everything together. You can see his “Ionic treatise Gothic Futurism,” written that year, as a combination of the dictionary, ideas of conspiracy and religion from the Five Percenters, the politics of African-American urban experience, and the sense of anger and war-like resistance in graffiti culture.
In 1980, he moved from Queens to the East Village and stopped painting trains. It was around this period that he met Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the early ‘80s, Basquiat was very conscious of his rising success. His home became a hang out for writers. Al Diaz, who was Basquiat’s friend and tagger-collaborator on his early street works as SAMO between 1977 and 1980, later recalled Jean-Michel’s Crosby Street apartment: “I think it was an identity thing for him to have all these guys around. Some of them, his relationship with them would burn out after a point, but it was mostly a party. A lot of coke, a lot of drinking, a lot of getting high and hanging around.”
Basquiat was likely introduced to Rammellzee through the iconic hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy. When the pair met, Jean-Michel arrogantly claimed he could out-rap, out-dance and out-paint anybody. When Rammellzee challenged him to prove it, Basquiat booked a studio and brought musicians together to create a track, including Diaz and a young 15-year-old MC from the Lower East Side called K Rob. Basquiat originally intended the track to be a battle rap between himself and Rammellzee. However, when the artist presented the two MCs with a lyric sheet, they laughed in his face, crumpled it up and threw it back at him. For much of the recording, Jean-Michel allegedly sat glumly in the corner, rocking back and forth.
Rammellzee and K Rob decided on the spot to freestyle. That spontaneity and confidence in the word seemed to define Rammellzee. He performed as the “gangster duck”, a “pimp in the corner” character the artist later called Barshaw. The result was a ten-minute track entitled “Beat Bop.” It was released in 1983 and sold at Marian Goodman gallery (without the knowledge of Rammellzee) under Tartown, a label that was probably fictional and created by Basquiat, who had also designed the cover. While the initial run was of only 500 copies, the track would go on to sell more than 150,000 when it was re-pressed, though Rammellzee never saw the profits. He once said, “I never made a dime of that damn record. I still haven’t made a dime off that record.” The influence of the track was huge. The test pressing was featured in the graffiti documentary Style Wars and included in the seminal British compilation Street Sounds Electro 2 (both 1983).
Around the time of the recording, the two artists were friendlier. Basquiat brought Rammellzee out to Los Angeles, putting him up at the Chateau Marmont, and tried to persuade Larry Gagosian and Bruno Bishofberger to represent him. “Rammellzee was extremely ambitious, super talented, crazy, brilliant, and I think very competitive with Jean, and in many ways jealous,” filmmaker Michael Holman considers. “Jean really admired Rammellzee, thought the world of him and was so impressed with his poetry, philosophy as art, everything. Ramm was far more connected to a street art or graffiti art milieu, and I think he didn’t want to be stuck there. He wanted to be respected and recognized in a fine art context. The more it was happening for Jean, and the less it was happening for him, I think the more bitter he became. Posthumously, he tore him down—maybe not in public, but to me, to friends, he let us know how he felt about Basquiat, and it wasn’t pretty.”
By this time, Ramm was also showing in a gallery context. He had exhibited alongside Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf in the “Beyond Words” show at the Mudd Club in 1981. The following year, he started making his first works on canvas, selling early paintings to European collectors such as Dia Art Foundation co-founder Heiner Friedrich. At this point, graffiti became an obsession with collectors, and was quickly exploited. Richard Flood, then working at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, later remembered, “collectors were in such a frenzy to buy graffiti… that it almost felt perverse.” Commercialism destroyed the scene, and many writers stopped. Haring and Basquiat took inspiration and shared the illegal locations that writing had pioneered. Criminality gave their work an edge that appealed to the art world—but when police arrested writers and destroyed their work, the establishment took little action.
In 1983, Artforum published an issue on the future that included an interview with Rammellzee, providing many readers their first awareness of the artist and his philosophy of writing’s military function, electromagnetism, biochemistry and mysticism. He quickly gained a serious reputation; as artist and filmmaker Michael Holman recalls, “All the art writers like Edit DeAk were talking about him and raving about him, and just captivated by this young black kid from Brooklyn from Far Rockaway who had developed this whole philosophy about text having a reality beyond just ink on a page.” The fervor for writers in New York may have waned, but throughout the decade Rammellzee exhibited in Berlin, Bologna, Sao Paulo, Naples, Madrid, Rotterdam and London. His work appeared in serious galleries, including the 1986 exhibition “Surrealismo” at Barbara Braathen Gallery, curated by Leo Castelli and Patti Astor.
“His hand was precise. His line was just exact. His color was sensational. His handling of his materials—spray paint, can, marker—was exceptional. His handle on material was simply superb, and that’s what I was drawn to: the formal qualities of the work, initially,” Braathen recalls. “You knew he was talking about something deep and important and big, but to put your finger on it and grasp it exactly was a task.” Later, he performed at The Kitchen in NYC and exhibited and performed at the Whitney. He was a face on the East Village scene, starring as a cameo in Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise. He had his first retrospective in 1987 at the Museum Helmond in the Netherlands. In 1994, he was the first artist to collaborate with Supreme at their first store, making hand-painted trucker hats.
Looking at Rammellzee’s work today, one is still struck by how inventive it is. His wall pieces had a space-age aesthetic, like the sensation of Funkadelic cover artist Pedro Bell through the eyes of Japanese artist Tetsumi Kudo. There was often a feeling of depth in his work: neon paint drops floating in layers of resin; fragments of plastic toys embedded in warscapes. His lines were jagged, sword- or scimitar-like. Objects seemed to cut through space. There was something innately violent in them, yet in an otherworldly, imaginative, at times childlike way.
His most iconic piece was probably his home/studio, nicknamed the Battle Station. He moved in the 2000-square-foot loft on Laight Street in Tribeca in 1991, at a time when the area was unpopular. The result was an ever-evolving, ever-expanding psychedelic mess of found objects, toys, garbage, works on carpet, canvas, spray-painted skateboards, epoxy and resin. It was an intense space. As Michael Holman puts it, it was as if “you decided to set up your apartment inside this giant can of glue.” It was here he would make costumes and masks for his performances. From 1993 to 2000, his focus was the creation three-dimensional alphabets he entitled “Letter Racers,” which looked like futuristic Japanese manga war vessels. The typography of these ceiling-hung object-sculptures was increasingly obtuse; they resembled a miniature plastic army, somewhere between Gundam and wildstyle.
Though a complete outsider, Rammellzee was also a perfect example of the manifestation of Afrofuturism. Seeing possible futures for Black experience through the lens of science fantasy or fiction was something central to his aesthetic and philosophy. Writer Ytasha L. Womack defines Afrofuturism as “an intersection of imagination, technology, the future and liberation.” Ramm’s influences were varied: African masks, medieval calligraphy, Gothic typefaces, ancient Greek alphabets, Japanese suits of armour, Asian toy culture.
Like the musician Sun Ra, Rammellzee was fascinated by the appropriation of references in the creation of his philosophy. Both were innately theatrical and unorthodox: Sun Ra sent an artist-in-residence request to NASA and was rejected; Rammellzee approached the military to suggest having his letters made into weapons. Both artists had a connection to outer space, with Ra claiming Saturn as his mythical home, while Rammellzee was more a samurai monk in war with other planets. Sun Ra was also famously fascinated with Ancient Egypt, an interest he seemed to share with Ramm, who had a four-foot gold sculpture of an Egyptian Ankh in his Battle Station. “The antiquity of Egyptian civilization proved a strategic advantage to a black radicalism that took culture for its means of social transformation,” Paul Youngquist writes in A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism. “Egypt was much older than Greece, and its rational philosophy older than Israel and its jealous God. Sun Ra found in ancient Egypt a precedent for social stability and spiritual prowess.”
Like Ramm, Sun Ra was also drawn to mathematics as model for a poetic narrative (and his case approach to music). Here, the typographic rebels Williams S. Burroughs and Bryon Gysin make an interesting point of comparison. Burroughs and Gysin’s experimental collaged texts (most notably the “Cut Outs”) allowed them to “read between the lines.” As Jon Savage puts it, “This was not just a literary/artistic technique, but a mode of perception.” One finds in their “psycho-sensory process” a similar unveiling of the true meaning of language as in Rammellzee’s take on words. They shared a desire to decode the information, language and media of the contemporary landscape. As Burroughs explained, “From the newspaper and from items people send me, I get intersections between all sorts of things. They all tie up; there are connections, intersections. If people keep their eyes open, they’ll notice these peripheral things around them.”
Rammellzee described his approach to performance as part-kabuki, part-electric boogaloo. His music itself veered from nasal rap to metal to funk to horror. It wasn’t easy listening. Stuart Argabright, who was in charge of musical production for Rammellzee’s “Gothic Sermon” performance at the Venice Biennale in 2005, enthuses about his sense of freedom. “Ramm came in and just freestyled his way right through the whole thing. And at the end of the takes, he’d be like, ‘Hey Boss, how was that?’ And we’d be like, ‘Cut!’,” Argabright remembers. “Ramm just took those little cues, and totally went off in his own way, and just brought us into his world, with our music being an accompaniment really.”
Rammellzee died in 2010, aged 40. He never used a mask when making his works, and the ingestion of toxic materials in his work—resin, glue and epoxy—coupled with decades of serious alcoholism had taken their toll. He’d had suffered a seizure two years before and refused to see a doctor, becoming increasingly reclusive. Liver cancer and cirrhosis claimed his life, but his sense of rebellion and originality has made him a continued cult figure. Bootsy Collins put it this way: “Rammellzee is on purpose. He is a speck of magic galaxy dust from another time.”
From 3 May – 26 August, Red Bull Arts New York hosts “Racing for Thunder,” Rammellzee’s largest retrospective to date.
Images in order of appearance: Portrait by Angela Boatwright; Red Shot Recision Hypha, 1983; Gulfwar, 1991; Rammellzee, ©Mimmo Laera; Knotted Minds, 1989; Rammellzee as Destin, ©Keetja Allard, 2002; Photo by Angela Boatwright. All images © 2018 The Rammellzee Estate