With little training and zero gallery interest, the graffiti writers of the 1970s sprayed their visions across the New York City transit system and into the eyes of millions of captive commuters. Stalking the elevated trains in Astoria and the Bowery tunnels with a can of Rustoleum in one hand and a spliff of Acapulco Gold in the other, DON1 became a master of the genre while still in high school.

Anybody who has ever had even a passing interest in graffiti should check out DON1 -- The King From Queens: The Life and Photos of a NYC Transit Graffiti Master, by Louis “KR.ONE” Gasparro. For Louie (a graffiti artist himself), the enigmatic late-1970s writer Joseph “DON1” Palattella has been something of a lifelong obsession. Since first encountering his work on the rolling steel canvasses that used to be the New York City subway system, it has been Louie’s goal to find and understand this long-lost master. It’s a journey that has taken him several decades.

“I used to do what they call ‘piece-watching,’” Louie told me one recent afternoon in Astoria, Queens, as we tackled a pair of souvlaki platters in one of the neighborhood’s Greek restaurants. “All’s I had to do was take the RR to Queensboro Plaza, and I would be able to piece-watch the 7 trains. Then I would take it one more stop to 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, and I would piece-watch the 4, 5 and 6. Then I would go to 42nd to piece-watch the 1, 2, and 3. So there goes the whole IRT. The BMTs were right in my backyard -- the N, the J, the L. Then the IND -- all’s I had to do was go to Steinway Street, and the G, E and F would be right there. So I really absorbed it all at a young age.”

What is that word they like to use on Wikipedia -- disambiguation? “Piece,” of course, is short for “masterpiece,” as the graffiti writers of the day referred to their work. The single numbers and letters in Louie’s exegesis refer to subway lines. The “RR” that he mentions was the predecessor of the R train, back when they used double letters to distinguish a local train from an express. As I remember, the RR was the most bombed-out train in all of Queens. You couldn’t find two square inches on that thing, inside or out, that wasn’t covered in paint or ink. As for the IRT, BMT and IND, they’re abbreviations for “Interborough Rapid Transit,” “Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit” and “Independent Subway System,” three interconnecting services that date back to the days when private contractors ran the trains. They have all since been bought out by the city.

(And while I’m on this disambiguation kick, I should also mention that Louie and I aren’t exactly strangers to each other -- or to Astoria, Queens, where we’re attempting to swallow tzatziki-covered lamb chunks as we talk. At one point, this neighborhood was central to both our lives -- Louie grew up here and attended Long Island City High School, where my dad was a teacher. Eventually, I would work at that same school -- and I would also run into Louie in Manhattan one day while wearing my “Long Island City High School” T-shirt. He instantly recognized my last name, because he and his siblings had basically driven my father insane back in the ’70s. In fact, Louie and I have figured out that we both met when I was about five years old at a summer program that my father used to run in the neighborhood. So now, every time I see Louie, he tells me to say hello to my pops -- and every time I do, my father half-smiles and shakes his head and goes, “God, the Gasparros …, ” like they are something of a bittersweet memory.)

Fast-forward a few decades, and Louie has turned his youthful juvenile delinquency into a career as a commercial artist with a sideline as a graffiti scholar -- a “graffiti-ologist,” if there is such a thing. When I asked him how graffiti got started in this town, he talked for about 15 minutes straight, laying out a sprawling family tree that began with a young vandal from Philadelphia named Cornbread who scrawled his moniker across the City of Brotherly Love. Following in his wake was Taki 183, a Greek kid from Washington Heights who was the first one to dedicate pretty much his every waking moment to tagging up NYC. But those guys were mostly just writing their names on walls, and it wasn’t until Phase Two from the Bronx began using bubble letters that things got interesting. Suddenly, there were arrows and quotation marks, and kids started putting different nozzles on spray cans and getting these really fat lines, painting whole cars top to bottom -- even the windows. Then Tracy 168 and ChiChi 133 and Flint 707 gave the letters dimension, so they looked like they were popping off the trains. It all reached a climax between 1975 and 1980 with the Wild Style era. The name came from Tracy 168’s crew, who brought the next-level shit, the crazy colors and abstract letters that probably looked like Chinese to the average straphanger, but to young Louie were symbols and code for an elite underground club he would soon join.

In fact, there existed a whole dys-lexicon that was spoken among the initiated.

“It was an underground thing, really,” Louie said. “Besides it being physically underground, it was like a secret society -- it had a secret language that no one understood. Me and my friends would be in a station, and you could be standing next to us and you would have no idea what we were saying. Like, ‘Hey, we just went and racked up and didn’t get scoped out, and now we’re going to the layups to do floaters.’ No one would know what the fuck that meant.”

“What did it mean?” I asked.

“That meant we just stole spray paint, we didn’t get caught, and now we’re going to write graffiti on trains … and we did a lot of that.”

When he wasn’t piece-watching trains, Louie would venture out of Astoria into next-door Long Island City, which, in the late 1970s, was a desolate, industrial, almost post-apocalyptic wasteland that was pretty much begging for a Rustoleum makeover. It was there that Louie discovered the proving ground of the mysterious graffiti writer known as DON1.

“I found the schoolyard for PS 4,” he explained, “which was a ‘600 school,’ a program for troubled kids. DON1 didn’t go there, but he lived right by there, and this was like his headquarters, his practice pad. I saw the whole evolution from when he was beginning to when he got really good.”

“What set DON1 apart?” I asked.

“His overall style was simply nasty. His tag was precise and really artful. His letters and color choices really stood out among all of what seemed dreary in comparison. All the other boroughs had their luminaries—he was ours. His tag name and his crew name were a perfect match: ‘DON1 MAFIA … the Don of the Masters’ Administration for Incredible Artists.’ That sounded so cool to me.”
 Louie found out at the start that DON1 wasn’t like the other graffiti masters of the day. In fact, by the time Louie started looking for him, DON1 had already retired -- not only from graffiti writing, but from the outside world.

“I tried to meet him in the ’80s,” Louie recalled, “because it turns out I was playing softball with his younger brother. And I went up and said, ‘Hey, I know who your brother is,’ and he said, ‘Whattaya mean?’ So I’m like, ‘Your brother is DON1!’ and he totally tried to discourage me. He was like, ‘Guy, he’s a space cadet -- stay away from him, he’s an acid freak.’ I’m like, ‘You know what he used to do though, right?’ He’s like, ‘DON1, the RRs -- it’s all a bunch of bullshit.’ And I’m like, ‘Wow, what a dick -- he doesn’t know what his brother did.’”

After some more hounding, Louie got DON1’s phone number and called his idol, suggesting that maybe the two of them get together and do some murals, maybe even get paid.

“He let me talk,” Louie remembers, “and at the end said, ‘You know, you sound like a really nice kid, except I have a degenerative bone disease.’ I remember looking at the phone and grimacing—like, ‘Wow, this sucks.’ So I stopped trying to meet him back then. I found out years later that he was ashamed of what happened, and that was why he lied to me.”

“What happened” is, as it turns out, a complicated story. Basically, DON1 created all those subway pieces that Louie and others used to marvel at while he was still a teenager attending Art and Design High School in Manhattan. Thankfully, for preservation’s sake, DON1 also took photography courses, and so all of the high-quality images in Louie’s book come from the artist’s own collection. Toward the end of high school, DON1 started working in the commercial-art field, doing covers for various skin and bondage and sci-fi magazines. He was one of the first graffiti artists to make that crossover, but before he ever got to enjoy his success, tragedy struck.

“DON1, let’s call him a casual marijuana user,” Louie said. “All his characters have joints in their mouth. All the graffiti writers I knew were smoking herb. Everyone had what they thought was Acapulco Gold, or sinsemilla, or Panama Red. Chocolate Thai was big in this neighborhood. DON1 was not what we would consider a drug dude. In 1977, he did his last piece on the RR, and he’s getting a lot of work now through this company called House of Milan and Platinum Publications. House of Milan dealt with a lot with porno and B&D and bondage magazines and everything, so DON1 would do air-brush logo work, and he was doing really well. They were paying him a lot of money. You know, an 18-year-old kid in 1978 fresh out of the train tunnels … he did Cheri magazine. They were flying him back and forth to LA. The guy was buying clothes at Fiorucci and Jumping Jack Flash -- he was doing great.

“And then that fateful night, man, 1978 -- he’s hanging out with two chicks in an apartment by Madison Square Garden. He thinks he’s going to bang both of these broads, and they’re partying and they’re drinking and they’re smoking weed, and a girl comes out with a mirror. He thought it was coke, but it turned out to be angel dust. Not knowing, he snorted a lot, and it just wrecked him -- just blew his mind out to the point where he developed neuro-psychosis and schizophrenia. And it’s terrible, because it totally extinguished one of the brightest stars that came out of New York City subway-era graffiti.”

Although Louie covered the episode in his book, he didn’t dwell on it, and I commented on the eloquent way he handled this horrific reversal in DON1’s life.

“I could have played it more horrific,” Louie replied, “’cause it actually is more horrific than the way it comes off. The guy suffered from, like, the time he was 19 -- and he’s going to be 55, so he’s been sick longer than he was not sick. There’s a sadness in that. He knows exactly, neurologically, what’s happening to him; he’s a very intelligent guy. And when you know what’s going on with you, it doesn’t make it better -- it makes it more painful.”

“Does DON1 still draw?” I asked.

“Yeah, what he does is, he reworks his drawings. I was about to say ‘bondage drawings,’ but they look like I Dream of Jeannie, beautiful in pencil and airbrush—and you have to look and say, ‘Oh shit, she has a ball in her mouth underneath that veil.’ They’re very delicate; they’re not, like, fucked-up dark S&M.”

“So he still has that creative drive,” I interjected.

“His house … oh, shit, Chris -- his fucking apartment, when you walk in, is 1977! Everything is fucking wrapped, it’s all guinea’d out, it’s all Italian 1977, um … ”

“Like plastic on the furniture … ”

“Yeah, the furniture still has plastic on it, the saints are all out -- you know, it’s like that. The appliances are all like vintage. Then you go in his apartment, and he’s a huge collector of fucking everything -- he has Star Wars, Batman, Star Trek, fucking Planet of the Apes, BB guns, sling shots. Then he does figurative art -- he takes like a toy, like let’s say a machine gun, then he’ll glue another crazy machine gun to that where it becomes this like super-galactic other thing. He still is an artist. He still has hopes and dreams. Like I said in the book, he has a US patent on a ballet slipper that supposedly doesn’t harm a ballerina’s toes -- a pointe shoe, they call it. The schematic for this drawing looks like somebody at NASA drew it. So he still has these hopes and dreams of getting back into that figurative art that he does—it’s just that he can’t really function in society the way you and I do, because he has too many phobias.”  

“And he’s happy about the book?”

“Yeah! He’s got several books in him -- I’m just not sure if I’m going to be the one that writes them,” Louie added with a laugh. “My motivation completely was to get his history on the map, because it affected me and it affected other graffiti writers as well—to the point where, now, they’re all coming out and saying, ‘Oh, I remember him.’ A lot of people are giving me credit, like, ‘Hey, if you didn’t do this, everybody would have forgot about him.’ Well, you know what? I did do it so that people wouldn’t forget about him, because I didn’t forget him.”