the grand pooba of JC street art
Ed Morris aka T.DEE is the mentor of many of Jersey City’s most talented street artists;Clarence Rich, Distort and Mustart all look up to him. That’s how I heard about T.DEE, through all these young talents, they all told me, if you want to know where graffiti and street art began in Jersey City, speak to T.DEE.
One day, on my way to “Yoga in the Heights“, I walked by one of his murals and stopped short. I was so amazed at this piece of work that I fell on the ground (in muddy snow)…. all I remember was standing right back up, as if nothing happened and continued to stare at this wonderful “dream” in front of me. T.DEE is not just a street artist, he is a fine artist, a man with incredible depth and knowledge about the world and life. Meeting him was life changing and eye opening. I am so incredibly lucky to be doing what I am doing, and getting a glimpse into a life of someone who does art not for the glory but for the love of it.
Who is T.DEE? T.DEE is a graffiti writer/artist that started his career in 1987, running around the streets of Jersey City and NYC. I’ve lived in JC all my life, so I’ve always seen graffiti here. I remember one time when I was a kid, I was walking with my mom and I saw someone spraypainted a quick character on a wall and I was amazed! “What is that?! Why is that even there?!” My mom explained to me that in the middle of the night people run around, without permission, doing these drawings on the side of the wall, and it amazed me. I must have been about 7 or 8 years old. I guess ever since then I aspired to do it, so I started drawing graffiti styles on paper, and that’s how T.DEE began.
Why T.DEE? I went through a lot of different names, but I was sitting down one day watching TV, and as different words came across the TV, I tried to do a style for those words. The word “3D” came up, & I think it was probably the best one I had done that day, so for a long period of time I was 3D. Some of the old school cats still know me as 3D. Eventually I changed it to T.DEE.
You’re saying old school cats… so there’s old school graffiti artists? Are they still in Jersey City? Well, if you really wanna go that deep into the history of it, it goes back to the 60s. But yes. Years before I started writing there were certainly people doing graffiti in JC. There were a lot of names out there already, famous people out there on the walls. As far as where they are now I don’t know.
P3, MadOne, Arc/Sug, Love 67, What 4,… these were some of the cats I was looking at years ago when I was starting out. Some of them already had their time and were already retired by the time I started writing. I got to meet some of these guys later on, and experience their history of going to NY for example, and watching the subways go by with graffiti on them in the early 80’s, and things like that.
How old were you when you first tagged your own wall? I was probably in 7th or 8th grade. I had done it on paper for a few years before then though. After high school is when I was really grabbed by it, and I became obsessed with it.
What part of writing graffiti do you love? is it the adrenaline? It probably is, I would love to go to a psychiatrist and find out why. I guess that’s probably a lot of it, the rush, and of course the thrill of walking down the block and seeing your name everywhere.
When I was a young kid, once I started to recognize these names on the walls, as my horizons started expanding, the names were already in places I’d never been to. It occurred to me that these names were famous, and I guess I wanted to be like that myself. As an inner city kid, where it’s so hard to stand out as an individual, I feel there’s a need for people to express themselves, and try to get noticed in any way they can.
Most artists, their intention is to sell their work, so lets rewind a little bit, I heard about you through Clarence & his crew, so can you explain your relationship with them, and how they were influenced by you or vice versa? I’m from a generation prior to them so a lot of the stuff I was doing graffiti-wise, was done even prior to them coming on the scene. I met Clarence & his brother when they were in their mid teens, and I was already about 25 at the time. I took them under my wing and showed them all the graffiti magazines, blackbooks, and sketchbooks that I had, and because of the magazine I produced, I had a drawer full of graffiti photos from all over the world that I was exposing them to as well. I don’t wanna speak for them though. They’ve said in the past that a lot of their influence has come from me showing them a lot of that stuff, and introducing them to this culture.
As far as Clarence Rich, Distort, Mustart…. they’re all great friends of mine, that came onto the scene just as I came off. They’ll tell you that a lot of what they initially did came from what I might have done as a writer and artist. I myself produced a magazine of graffiti art called Under Cover in the mid 90’s, and they grew up seeing the magazine, so I was sort of an influence on them in that way. I don’t wanna speak for them though.
No they told me you are the Grand Pooba of Graffiti. Well, I certainly feel I recieve a lot of respect from my peers in the game, but I’m just a follower of those who came before me.
As a writer in the early 90s, I have to say I felt like it was a fucking embarrassment to say you were from Jersey…especially being so close to NY. Now in 2015 we have this scene going on in Jersey City, and this pride in the art, and the galleries, and all these different murals going up…but it was a fucking embarrassment in my day because you weren’t from NY.
As far as my work, I’ve said this a lot, and I don’t mean this to dictate my life, but I’ve never done anything artistically in my life with the intention of selling it. I’ve just always done it for the sake of doing it.
That’s dope. Personally I do have this inner struggle of an artist who doesn’t know exactly where he fits. As T.DEE I knew who I was more so perhaps than Ed Morris does today, because T.DEE knew he was a fucking graffiti writer, and he was writing on your shit. Ed Morris doesn’t exactly know quite yet, and I dabbled in a lot of different things trying to find that out. That’s the statement above all that I’m trying to make, that I’ve never done anything artistically with the intention of selling it. I don’t know what that means in terms of getting my work out there, all I know is life is too short. I would rather complete a painting just for the sake of completing it than to do it for some grand agenda.
Can you tell me more about the murals you have around Jersey City? A few years ago I starting working with these JC agencies that wanted to do public art works. They’ve allowed me to mostly use my own creative license to do a few pieces that I’ve wanted to do.
My approach to murals is that they have to be done for the public, not for the ego of the artist. I quickly understood a while ago that the murals I produce, once I start putting them up, aren’t mine anymore. I’m just delivering them to the public. It’s their mural, and thank god most of the stuff I’ve done has been well respected and appreciated by the people of all the communities I’ve worked in.
The one off Central Ave, “The Dream” is absolutely gorgeous, can you tell me your idea behind this mural? The idea behind the Dream mural… I worked with the Central Avenue Special Improvements District, headed at the time by Councilman Michael Yun, and he had a vision for this wall located on Lincoln Street on the side of the Rite Aid. He wanted to see something done in the Trompe l’oeil style, which is French for ‘fooling the eye’, so the theme came out of this idea with my take on it.
What I tried to create was this dreamscape where sections of the drab brown wall were broken out, and these beautiful women floated in from another reality, with butterflies and flowers spilling out onto the city street.
Another aspect of the mural fooling your eye is that throughout the painting there appears to be these little kids actually painting the mural itself. Many people tell me how they’ve been fooled into thinking there are actually kids standing in front of the piece painting on the wall, and in at least one case, they’ve yelled at them in the middle of the night to stop.
Speaking again about how I do these works specifically with the public in mind, & how deeply they sometimes come to “own” it themselves, there was this old woman who would walk up and down the block while I was painting, and she never would make eye contact with me… never really spoke to me. Finally one day she stops and says to me “You’re doing a really good job, it’s beautiful.” She said she was married for 40 plus years and her husband had just passed away. She told me how she would walk up and down Central Ave, not knowing what to do with herself, just trying to take her mind off her husband… but “at least now I have something beautiful to look at”.
That’s really nice. It made me realize how important my work can be for the people in the community. To see something of beauty in their daily lives. Once I start these murals they’re not for me any more. They’re for the people that have to live with them, and see them everyday.
All of your stuff is very different I noticed, can you elaborate? I feel it comes from when I was a graffiti writer, and I didn’t want to keep taking the same stuff out in public, because it can be very judgmental. Especially your peer base. “Look at this guy doing the same stuff over and over again!” I wanted to flip it up every time I did something. I wanted to reinvent myself every time I did something, so that you couldn’t come to the wall and say this was the same thing I did last time, because I knew people like that. Every time certain people did something, it was the same thing, and I think that’s transitioned over to the work I do lately.
I’m very proud of the fact that my work isn’t something that’s stagnant, but is something that constantly changes.
Where is your artwork displayed right now? In my living room!
Do you sell it? I have sold some pieces in the past, but I have a hard time sometimes parting with my work because each one is a baby of mine, and how do you part with what you’ve created?
What do you do to pay the bills? Well, for a long time I didn’t do anything, as a matter of fact. Part of who I am today comes from who I was as this frustrated artist working a 9-5, miserable with what I was doing, but making a decent wage. “You get a job and then the job gets you”, I always say. After a while you have a hard time getting away from that lifestyle. I was a printer and hated it. I lost that job in 2009, but in the meantime I was doing paintings, and was doing shows, and decided I wasn’t going back to printing. I was out of work for nearly 5 years. Half a fucking decade, I had practically zero income, but I stayed that way because I knew something better was going to come along.
I currently work freelance for a company that does sets and stages for the fashion and entertainment industries. It pays the bills while allowing me enough time off to persue my own work.
What inspires you? What makes you create? That’s a good question, because a lot of times thats a struggle with me. I’m not a very prolific artist. I do what I do when I do it. I get these spurts where its like “why haven’t I produced anything in the past 10 months?”, and then I explode and I do a bunch of new things. But I dunno. I’ve always said that being an artist is a blessing for the talents that I have, but it’s a bit of fucking curse too in a lot of ways. You struggle with yourself to produce something new and to produce something grand, and a lot of times just to produce anything at all. So for me, it’s a struggle, and franklly I don’t know what it is that drives me to do it at all sometimes.
How do you think graffiti has changed over the past couple of years? Well, I suppose I don’t follow it as closly as I once did, so I may not have the best opinion on things, but in some aspects I feel like it’s a little less pure. Now a days, everybody has a fucking Instagram, & Twitter account & there might not be the need to “pay your dues” to the game perhaps in ways that writers from an earlier day might have. You can argue that the internet is simply another tool for spreading your name & your work to an audience, but it also makes it perhaps a little easier to pile on the likes, the followers, & the views.
There are still purists to the art, which there will always be, but theres also the ones using the limited time they spent out in the streets to add that street credibility mystique to their names in the galleries, & the fine arts world.
Whether or not that’s good, you cant stop what’s coming, and it certainly doesn’t matter whether I care for it or not.
Thankfully graffiti has been accepted into the mural world, and the galleries, and the fine arts world, but when does it change so much that it’s not graffiti anymore?
You’ve lived in JC your whole life? Yes. My whole life.
How do you feel its changed in the past couple years? It’s great to see that the city is changing in some cases for the better, but there’s a real frustrated side to me when I see the place changing to resemble every other gentrified, young urban profgessional town. If you meet lifelong residents of the place, you soon realize that Jersey City has a style and culture all it’s own, & in my opinion many of the changes I see simply end up eroding that. Forcing the “old” JC out to make way for the new, so to speak. There have been some great advancements like the art scene that exists here that was barley noticable when I started. The bottom line most of all, is that this is my town and I’m proud to be a part of the things going on here.
Any last words? Life is a journey. There’s no final destination I excpect to arrive at where I stop learning or trying to experience different things. I’ve worn many different hats throughout my life. I was a skater, a singer, an artist, I ride a motorcycle… you go through so many different stages trying to experience all life has to offer and I suppose I never want to stop at just one. I’m always going to be an artist and someone who trys to express a deeper side of myself, but I don’t know if it’s going to be the end all of who I am. I want to experience a lot of different things while I still have the time.