As a teenager in New York City in the 1970s, Steven BLADE Ogburn would stand on his roof and watch the subway trains rolling past on the elevated tracks common to his native Bronx. The trains were his canvas, the tracks were his gallery, and his public were the millions of people who saw his work as it sped past them or halted in front of them every day.
Using the name BLADE, Steven began writing graffiti in the early 1970s, during the infancy of what would grow to be a worldwide art movement. Prior to 1972 he mainly produced ‘single hits’ on walls and the inside of trains. These simple tags evolved into more elaborate early pieces, but it was when he began painting the outsides of trains that BLADE found his medium. Over 5000 trains bore his name between 1972 and 1984, earning him the title ‘King of Trains’ among his friends and contemporaries.
As part of graffiti crew ‘TC5′ (The Crazy 5) BLADE reigned over the 2 and 5 subway lines. To reach the trains, he risked both encounters with police and dangerous accidents, often climbing support beams in the middle of the night with a bag of spray cans clenched between his teeth. There was never any doubt in his mind that the risks were worth it: the 2 and 5 lines span New York from the Bronx to Brooklyn, bracketing Manhattan and Central Park en route, carrying his name across the city.
Evolution of graffiti styles
BLADE’s talents kept pace with his exposure and he is credited with developing several classic styles of graffiti during this time, including ‘Overlapping Three - Dimensional Letter’ in 1974 and ‘Three – Dimensional Blockbuster Style’ in 1977. Both these styles can be seen as precursors and building blocks of ‘Wild Style’, which over 30 years later is still one of the most popular, difficult, and intricate graffiti styles. In 1980 he invented the ‘Blockbuster’ with fellow writer COMET 1. This style of very large, square letters and words was ideal for covering large areas on train cars and was highly legible, even from a long distance away: “I wanted to make sure you could see a train from five blocks away and you could read it”.
‘Wild Style’ and ‘Style Wars’
In 1981 the P.S.1 Gallery in New York held the now legendary New York/New Wave exhibition which showed the the works of graffiti artists, including BLADE, DONDI, SEEN, and LEE, and the graffiti – influenced Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. BLADE also exhibited at the Fun Gallery in Manhattan, co-founded by Patti Astor. Astor went on to produce and star in ‘Wild Style’, a 1982 movie which used the underground graffiti and hiphop culture in the city as the basis for the plot. BLADE and his train masterpieces are featured in the movie, and his name appears in the credits. In the same year came the seminal documentary ‘Style Wars’, a faithful and in-depth exploration of the authentic heroes, new-comers and originators of the New York street art, music and break-dancing scene. Film – maker Tony Silver got to know BLADE during the filming and described him as ‘someone who stood out’, who already had ‘ambitions to become a studio artist’. A photo of BLADE loading canvas into his car appears in Martha Cooper’s book ‘The Hip Hop Files’, and her photos of his train pieces are in the book ‘Subway Art’.
‘Style Wars’ went on to win the Grand Prize for Documentaries at the Sundance Festival in 1984. In 2003 the documentary and a new companion film, ‘Style Wars: Revisited’ received further acclaim at international film festivals. ‘Revisited’ features a lively interview with BLADE as he reminisces about the beginnings of his career as an artist.
From metal to canvas
By the early 80s the uptown art community of New York was beginning to recognise the authenticity of graffiti as an art form. BLADE was part of the first gallery exhibitions of street art, and like many of his contemporaries he had no trouble switching from metal to canvas. The exhibitions met with commercial success (though critical reviews were mixed as the art world, yet again, reeled from the shock of the new) and helped launch BLADE into the world of serious art collectors. In 1984 he showed his first exhibition in Amsterdam and further shows, both solo and with other contemporary artists, followed throughout Europe and America. His reputation and skill continued to grow and in 2000 the Guernsey’s Auction, a prominent auction of graffiti art, featured his works (one of which was bought by Paul McCartney). In 2003 a BLADE canvas was on the cover of the Sotheby’s art auction catalogue for ‘The Writing On The Wall’ group exhibition. In 2004 he exhibited in Australia and New Zealand, before returning to the USA for more exhibitions in New York and California over the next few years. In 2007 he also participated in three exhibitions in Paris and one in Copenhagen. More recently BLADE’s work has been included in a major retrospective entitled ‘Art In The Streets’ shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Brooklyn Museum.