You may think you don’t know the artwork of Andrew Witten, aka Zephyr. But chances are you’ve seen it, especially if you’ve been to New York City.
Zephyr is one of the most revered old-school American graffiti artists. He’s been in movies about New York 80s hip hop and has written books about the scene.
But where is his art? And why is it so hard to find?
Let’s go underground and find out!
The Story of Andrew Witten
Andrew Witten grew up in Yorkville, Manhattan. Although this is typically considered an upper-class area, we know little about his family background. Was he wealthy or working class?
What we do know, however, is that the street art of underprivileged urban youth inspired Andrew immensely. Graffiti was rebellious, and he wanted to be a part of it. He began tagging his last name, Witten, on the fire stairs of his building in 1973.
By 1975, Andrew was around 15 years old and decided it was time for a new name. The California brand of surfboards, Zephyr, stood for freedom and a wildly free life. Although Andrew didn’t surf, he skateboarded, and the name seemed the perfect fit.
He took a couple more years to perfect his name-tag style. By 1977 he was a part of several graffiti collectives and became a sought-after street artist in the New York scene. He made some income painting skateboards while continuing to tag every moving subway car he could.
By the early 80s, Zephyr held his own exhibitions in art galleries across New York. Thanks to creatives like Patty Astor, owner of Fun Gallery, graffiti went from being seen as an act of vandalism to praiseworthy art of the times.
Although he stopped tagging subway cars in 1984, Zephyr continues to paint walls worldwide. He’s an artist, lecturer, writer, and teacher. His main objective is to keep art accessible to all and not something only the elite enjoy.
What Inspires Zephyr’s Art?
Growing up in the 70s in New York City, Andrew was inspired by the markings of something done exclusively by kids. But graffiti was considered vandalism. Parents didn’t get it, teachers didn’t get it, and New York City cops certainly didn’t get it.
But to Zephyr, the secretive nature of tagging subways and walls was compelling. One had to be sneaky and on the ball.
He started hanging out in Central Park with the other graffiti artist in the mid-70s. It was a scene, something to be a part of and to participate in. And it was subversive. Zephyr enjoyed being a part of a growing art movement unbound by social hierarchy or income.
Who Were the Rolling Thunder Writers?
The Rolling Thunder Writers, or RTW, were one of several graffiti collectives in New York During the 1970s. Local street taggers had plenty of idols at the time. But they didn’t have a crew. That all changed when Bil-Rock formed his Rolling Thunder Crew.
Made up of kids from the Upper West Side, RTW started when Rock braved the cursed Broadway storage tunnel. He flipped a once-feared subway tunnel into a place for graffiti artists to experiment and flourish.
Rock, Zephyr, and the Rolling Thunder Writers developed a distinct, colorful style within a few months. They took to the streets and eventually made it into high-end galleries.
How Have Zephyr’s Walls Evolved Over the Years?
Zephyr breaks his graffiti history into three eras. During the early years, he focused on tagging walls as far away from Manhattan as possible. Tagging in the Bronx was a goal – albeit a risky one! Most of this early work was quick tags of his name with spray paint.
The next phase came in the early 80s. By then, Zephyr was pretty talented with the subway cars. His work involved brighter colors, layering, and drop shadow. He took more significant risks and ventured out onto walls in busier public spaces.
By 1993, in phase three, Zephyr was invited to paint on walls. People would claim to own the wall so that he could take his time. Consequently, his graffiti has a bit more of a polished, clean look. Interestingly, he prefers the days when he had to work quickly, always looking over his shoulder.
What Are Some of Zephyr’s Art Pieces?
Since Andrew is a street artist, his work is mainly found outside on New York City’s streets.
Years after New York City officials cracked down on subway graffiti, artists took to other mediums. The freight yards of Queens became a grand canvas for creatives. Fellow graffiti artist Lady Pink convinced Zephyr to contribute to the growing ‘freight movement’ in the early 90s.
The ridges and hinges were challenging to work with at first. But after some experimenting with latex paint and brushes, he was hooked.
A tag is the most basic form of graffiti. It’s typically the artist’s signature created quickly to mark territory. Zephyr took a couple of years to perfect his signature, and penned most of his with thick black felt tip markers or spray paint.
Zephyr’s tags are hard to find these days. He created most of them in the 70s and 80s, and the city cleaned off the subway cars a long time ago. If you look hard enough, though, you might still find one on a wall.
Where Can I See Zephyr’s Art?
Visiting New York City is the best way to see Andrew’s art. That said, the quest isn’t an easy one. His graffiti is all over the five boroughs of New York, but it’s hard to find. Fans follow his Instagram account for the latest news, appearances, and work.
Zephyr was recently part of an exhibit at 17 Frost Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. An old stomping ground, 17 Frost should be on anyone’s hit list during a treasure hunt for his art. You might also have luck at the Museum of Graffiti in Miami and the Museum of Street Art in New York. You may want to call ahead to confirm.
Witten was also part of two documentaries, Style Wars and Wild Style. Each covers graffiti art and its connection to hip-hop culture.
A Deeper Meaning
Zephyr remains one of the most well-known graffiti artists of our time. Yet very few of his pieces are available in a permanent collection. As an expression born out of subversion, he likes his art to be elusive, keeping the subject about the movement, not him.
His graffiti is a reminder that art can be a powerful tool of expression. In New York during the 70s and 80s, it symbolized the chaos of the times. And that chaos was inescapable. At the same time, those tags brought unity and voice to those who felt they had none.
What do you think? Is graffiti vandalism or street art? Does it bother you or inspire you to learn more about it? Tell us in the comments!
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore more folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!