Alternate Universe

A new show explores the world of the cult figure and pioneering graffiti artist Rammellzee.


In 1960, a boy was born in the far reaches of Queens, New York. His birth name has since been lost to urban myth, but he resurfaced in the mid-seventies, fully formed, as a charismatic figure with the nom de plume Rammellzee. An artist, sculptor, hip-hop original, and graffiti philosopher, the street apostle left his tag on everyone from the Beastie Boys to Jim Jarmusch to his friend and collaborator Jean-Michel Basquiat. He died in 2010, but beginning March 8 (through April 21), “Rammellzee: The Equation,” an exhibition marking the opening of art adviser Suzanne Geiss’s downtown New York gallery, features the graffiti writer’s “alphabet”—a set of harpooned characters painted and spray-painted on canvas.

Rammellzee, circa 1982.

Also on display are his “letter racers,” essentially the alphabet as a platoon of 26 toylike vehicles suspended from the ceiling in attack formation, much as they were in his legendary TriBeCa loft, which was known as the Battle Station. “In Ramm’s view, graffiti artists were waging a war in the subway trains,” Geiss says. And their enemy was, as the artist’s widow, Carmela Zagari Rammellzee, puts it, the written word’s “history of oppression.” Rammellzee created his own universe, which, in his later, reclusive years, he’d inhabit as if it were reality and not its alternate. “It’s as if he glimpsed a whole other world,” Geiss says. “And he spent a lifetime articulating it.”

Rammellzee portrait © Arno Vriends; courtesy of the Estate of Rammellzee and The Suzanne Geiss Company (2).