Beauty in New York's Urban and Natural Spaces with KEO of the X-MEN

We teamed up with the legendary graffiti writer KEO of the X-MEN to create a Hatchet Supply Nalgene bottle that represents New York City's unique fusion of what is human-made by humans and what is not. We spoke with KEO about his experiences growing up in the City, his relationship with City Parks, and his inspiration for our Nalgene bottle. 

Growing up, did you spend time in City Parks?

I grew up in downtown Brooklyn. I was born in 1967. On Dean Street. It’s a very different neighborhood than it is right now. I went to public school, and there was very little green space. Our playgrounds looked like concrete squares with chain link fences and broken glass everywhere. It wasn't very friendly. They've since upgraded a lot of these things and put in astroturf and soccer fields. But at that time, during the ‘70s, New York City was broke. There was very little budget for infrastructure or for any kind of recreational repairs of the basketball rims. It never happened.

The nearest green space was either Fort Greene Park, which is beautiful, has a hill. It was a little dangerous back then - or it seemed dangerous to a kid going into unfamiliar territory. It seemed like there were a lot of gangs and strong arm guys looking to take whatever you had in your pockets, but that's where we went. Or we went to Prospect Park to find green space. Also, down under the Brooklyn Bridge and in Farragut along the waterfront. It wasn't necessarily park land; there, it was more industrial. We played down there a lot. There was all kinds of things you could climb on and, you know, go right down to the waterfront. So, my experience with the outdoors was limited to the small squares of green space within the city.

Were there any parks where you would write or meet up with others to write?

My crew was called the X-MEN. And they started in 1979. A lot of them went to Brooklyn Tech High School, 1980-1981. So, we used to meet at the top of Fort Greene park where the monument is. A lot of us lived in downtown Brooklyn. There was a film by Spike Lee, She's Gotta Have It. In fact, it was his breakout, his first feature length film, and it was shot entirely in black and white. Except for one magical scene where it turns color. That's at the base of the monument, the top of Fort Greene Park. Of course, all our X-MEN tags are right there. So, we came out in this movie, we were real happy about that. And it's almost like the Wizard of Oz where it turns color. This magical place.

Parks are as much a part of the city as graffiti. Do you see any parallels?

Yes, 100%. When I was a kid in the '70s, the city was bankrupt. The federal government told us to drop dead. Gerald Ford, right. So, the school yards and playgrounds were falling apart; they were crumbling and neglected. There were these big handball walls, and older graffiti writers would paint them. When I'm a little kid, you know, you go to school on Monday, and there's a brand new painting with cartoon characters, and there's Mickey Mouse, and it brightens up your entire day, right? We saw ourselves as being able to contribute to our own environment.

We weren't going to wait for the infrastructure to repaint. We weren't going to wait for them to give us some new playground equipment because it wasn't happening. If we wanted it repainted, we had to do it ourselves. It felt like something by the community for the community.

The green spaces in New York, we left those alone. There were kind of unwritten rules to graffiti. You didn't hit somebody's personal house or their car. We hit on city municipalities, which again - the subways, the buses - they were falling apart. The graffiti was probably the cleanest thing on them, but you would never write on a tree. That was considered ‘toy,’ which meant you're an amateur and a knucklehead. Other graffiti writers would want to beat you up if you did some dumb shit like that, wrote on a church, or a park, a beautiful space. Even as young kids, we had an idea, “Am I adding to this? Am I adding on? Am I beautifying? Am I bringing something to it? Or am I destroying? Am I vandalizing? Am I taking something away?”

Do you spend time at NYC parks now? 

As I got older, I began to realize I needed to make some changes. The things that felt good when I was a kid: smoking Newports and drinking all malt liquor and getting high all day and eating Twinkies and fucking potato chips, it didn't necessarily feel good as an older man. I had to change some things. Breathing spray paint fumes all day, breathing the exhaust. Just living in the city, you're in a toxic environment; you're bombarded by radio waves and exhaust fumes and toxins.

So, as I began to make some changes - I quit smoking, I quit drinking, I began to work out - I began to be more drawn to the green spaces in the city. I realized that there was value in getting out into the park every day. I take my shoes off and make contact with the earth.

What do you want people to feel when they see the design you made for the bottle?

This lettering style is traditional New York City, what we call a throw up. Most people would call it a bubble letter, you know; they were to be rendered quickly. Two colors to get your name up very quickly. You want to cover a lot of space, right? You could do 300 of these in a night. So I wanted to bring that traditional New York City urban lettering to this kind of, you know, it says “outdoors,” right? So, it's a juxtaposition between these two differences. They're not necessarily opposing lifestyles that I'm trying to integrate now. The gritty urban subway system: spray paint, dirt, fumes, and the beautiful park is right across the street from each other. Look at where we are right now. Our train runs on Fourth Avenue, and you get out and you run up the hill into Sunset Park. So these things are not all mutually exclusive. So this design was a way to tie these two elements of my life together. Because I don't abandon one. I still see the value in it. I spent my entire life working in a certain style, and it still has value. It's just how to incorporate it into the next chapter.

Shop the Hatchet Supply Nalgene bottle here.

Interview & Production: Michael Stewart
Video: Zach Han