The year was 2000. The place was Queens NY. The kid was impressionable, angry, and creative. The kid was me; Paul Cooley. An Irish middle school student in the NYC public school system. I grew up relatively normal. I had lots of friends in school and in my neighborhood. For some reason though, I always felt like an outcast. Little did I know, graffiti was going to play an enormous role in my life.
When I was 12 years old there was something so mysterious about graffiti. Where I grew up I was surrounded by "the writing on the walls", sometimes on highway signs and bridges overhead. How did they get up there? I was awestruck by it all. I not only wanted to know more, I wanted IN. It started in 6th grade. All I knew was that you needed a name. I made one up and I held on to this name for dear life. Later on in my teenage years people would call me by this name. My reputation with this new name would sometimes precede me. That felt so good. What better way for an outcast to feel validated. Like he was a real part of something. Like I had made something that mattered. I created an alter ego.
A kid in my church helped me understand the game early on. He was three years older than me and from the lower east side of Manhattan. Some weekends I would go meet him downtown with my skateboard. He introduced me to refillable shoe polish containers. A tool that I would end up having in my jacket during my first arrest at age 15. He was (and still is) a really good dude. He eventually stopped writing graffiti, got his masters degree and now teaches math. In 2001 he introduced me to "tagmag.com" and showed me some writers who were "up" on the train line roof tops and streets of LES. I didn't ride a ton of above ground trains where I lived, so this little website became a hub of influences for me. I would get home from school and look at writers like Korn1, Fade, and Lefty. I remember sitting at the computer copying Lefty strait letter pieces on a piece of paper every day for a week. Who were these guys? What did they look like? I loved the style, the culture, the mystery, I was absolutely hooked.
As years went on I met writers from queens, mostly dudes who were older than me. As I became submerged in this culture I would sneak out late at night to paint, smoke weed, drink 40s, eat pills, whatever was happening that night, I was down. One night I got chased off a roof top in Bellerose when painting with my homie. We must have ran through 8 or 9 backyards, jumping fence after fence. We hid behind someone's garage barricaded between the fence and some trash cans. It was freezing. I was curled up inside my spider jacket trying not to make a sound. We could see police search lights going through the back yards. We got away that night. This was the ultimate rush.
There were nights when I didn't get away. There were broad daylight arrests too. I wasn't just hooked, I was addicted. I was completely out of control. Building this name and this street credit had become my number one priority. Nothing else mattered. Eventually a queens family court judge was going to send me away. Apparently if I couldn't stop writing graffiti, they had to take me out of my environment. I now started to see all the negative effects of this culture I had become a part of. Soon I lost my girlfriend Leanne, the only thing good in my life. She tried to stick by my side through all of it, but I was now trapped in the legal system and barely got to see her. When she left me I was devastated.
After I turned 18 I maxed out of my family court obligations. I had gotten my GED in the group home I was living in and it was back to queens to live my life. From age 18-21 I didn't write too much graffiti, I turned to other vices. Drinking and drug use took up most of this time. Eventually I found myself addicted to hard drugs. At age 21 I was able to identify myself as an addict. If I found something I liked, or made me feel good, I wanted more. I didn't care how I got it or who got hurt along the way.
At age 21 I had had enough misery. This is when I began my recovery process. I know the story has strayed from graffiti, but don't worry we'll get right back to it.
Fast forward to 2012. One year 7 months and 23 days clean from drugs and alcohol. I had just moved back to NYC from Florida where I had spent a year and a half finding some inner peace. I was in a good place. I was truly happy. Within six months I was renting an apartment in Brooklyn, working part time at a gym, tattooing, and interning part time at a big art studio. One day, one of the owners at my internship gave me an enormous box full of spray paint as a "thank you for all your hard work" tip.
The box sat in my apartment for a few weeks, but the thoughts were already stirring. I was going to start painting the street. The THANKS face had already been born years ago in a sketch book but never painted on walls. Once those two dots connected, I was off to the races.
It wasn't long before I started getting noticed... The face I was painting was different. The way I painted was bold. Plus I had so many more resources now. A car, knowledge of the city, a sharp mind never clouded by drugs or alcohol. My entire approach was different. I felt like superman. The painting itself came second nature. All my artistic roots were graffiti. Although street art was peaking in popularity and some people categorized my work as such, I painted like a graffiti writer. I hit highways, live street spots, roof tops, whatever. I didn't categorize myself as anything, I was just painting. I was back on the wagon.
The inner peace I had found, and even begun to project, slowly began to slip away. All the principles I had worked into my life to find happiness, were being counteracted every time I went out to paint. I slowly became a willful, obsessive, edgy person who acted on impulse 24/7. Ironically the art work I was making was a projection of spiritual principles I was no longer practicing. I had created a facade based on an old version of myself. A peaceful version of myself I had worked so hard to find. A version of myself that was happy. Now I had become miserable. I hadn't relapsed into drug use, but I had relapsed into an old lifestyle. The addiction before the hard drugs.
Had I forgotten all the pain and suffering I went through as a kid? Did I just not care? Was graffiti ever so good to me that it deserved a second chance? Many graffiti writers I had met were egotistical scumbags. Most of the good dudes ended up eventually stopping to peruse meaningful life goals. I met some writers who would leave a wife and young kids at home at 3am to go out painting. Is this the man I wanted to be? Was this obsession for graffiti fame so admirable now that I was an adult? Or was it merely the work of a puffed up ego maniac, chasing a cheap adrenaline rush?
My work began to get crossed out all over queens by graffiti writers who would love me one day and hate me the next. Some writers would ask me to push graffiti crews and get upset when I declined or didn't follow them on Instagram. I had now made a real name for myself in the NYC street art scene and I hated every part of it. The culture I had glamorized as a 12 year old was showing its true colors to me. It was a bunch of grown men with secret names bickering with eachother. It was an oyster that I thought would have A beautiful pearl inside and when I opened it there was nothing but muck. As a kid I suppose just having the oyster was enough, but eventually I saw it was empty.
The things we go through in life make us who we are. I turned my back on graffiti because i see my life as a book. I can not write a book full of the same chapter over and over again. I want to write a masterpiece, and graffiti is already a part of it. Now Its time to write the rest.