KEL / Photograph by Henry Chalfant
Randy “KEL1ST” Rodriguez is an original, a pioneer, an innovator from the old school. He began writing his name on the trains before mastering the letterform and transforming two dimensions into three, as he has created KEL1ST Jewels: Custom Like You, a line of jewelry and accessories that use the letterform as artwork. His clients include everyone from Madonna and Mariah Carey to Debi Mazar and Afrika Bambaataa.
Born and raised in New York City, KEL1ST was one of the masters of the “Wild Style” lettering of graffiti of the late 1970s. Featured in the cult classic film “Style Wars,” KEL’s work became a part of the cityscape, as his whole train masterpieces ran along the sides of MTA subway cars from 1977-1987.
At the same time. KEL exhibited his work in some of the most historic galleries of the period including at OK Harris (1979), Fun (1980), Sidney Janis (1982), all in New York, as well as Joy Horwich (1983), Chicago. His work is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. KEL takes time to speak with The Chic about his love for the letterform.
KEL1ST recalls, “The motion of 'writing your name’ was an early introduction for me to what later became the world of graffiti. My mother taught me to write my name as early as 4 years old, using pencil at first, like most children but the curiosity of writing with other tools was inherently there. I used to look at everything around me that had a printed word and wondered, ‘How did they do that?’ I would then try to recreate the letters I saw either on my cereal box or the packaging from my groceries, usually these were the closest things to me. I then began to trace the shapes and learned how to spell and read…this began my fascination with letters and words. It also taught about composition, the words had taken the form of logos (Kelloggs and Goya are two favorites).
“This opened up my eyes to the world of commercial design I learned that logos were fun and interesting for me. A ‘natural’ progression to graffiti as I viewed it through the same lens, logos and packaging with messages. There was a seed planted in me with the logos I saw and mimicked as I developed my interest in graffiti. The flow of letters were exciting they had ‘life’ and a meaning to them, even more when I used a brush. The texture that a brush rendered was a fascinating visual it seemed to give it the ‘life’ and emotion I was moved by. This emotion lit the fire that drove my desires to practice, practice and practice some more my letters, and words taking every opportunity to draw a letter or a whole word as ‘fancy’ as I could.
“When I first observed graffiti on the trains the very first thing that caught my eye was…the elaborate tags by notable writers IZ THE WIZ, SLY 108, BOX-TOP ll, KINDO ll, DEAN 1. This sparked a tremendous desire to learn more about the tags and who were these people doing this. In my travels through the city I paid extra attention to ads, billboards, packaging, signage you name it everything that had a printed letters and words were an instant eye catcher for me. But graffiti held the biggest interest, it wasn’t on something you bought or on TV, it was raw and had more ‘life’.
“I developed my handstyle interest around the tags I saw, the way it was rendered in different markers, colors of ink. Oh, yes the ink was a huge attraction, they mixed various colors to create even more texture and emotion. In graffiti it all starts with your tag, that’s your brand, and you build from there. The more elaborate the more it stood out from your peers, of course it didn’t mean everyone could read it. The legibility aspect of it to me was important, I wanted people to read my tag up close and from far away. But my fascination with the fancy swirls and arrows was equally important, I wanted to have that ‘style’ factor associated with my brand.
“The ‘style’ element developed over time as I gained more control or had access to the different types of markers that were used in the early tags that sparked my interest in graffiti. The ultra wide (Uni-Wide) and medium wide (Mini-Y) markers gave me that flair I was after and still allowed for a clear rendition of my tag. Evidence of this can be seen in the jewelry I created, I used these markers exclusively to tag the pieces I created. The jewelry had to have the same ‘life’ and style that you would have seen tagged on train. The people wearing it had that personal style factor so it was a natural combination, they weren’t after the ‘typical’ rendition of the letter or word as typeset in Helvetica or Times. They wanted style, a handstyle that appeared to be something you would see tagged by a graffiti writer.”
Each graffiti writer takes a name that they will write as their own. That name can be anything that allows them the space to exhibit their style in letterform. But the name is also a word, and that word shows us once again that the sum is greater than the whole of its parts. KEL observes, “The ‘word’ was so many emotions in life, it can make you feel, sad, cause wars, laugh your ass off, cry in happiness…but most of all it has the power to move you!
“The ‘word’ creates the emotions and ‘images’ in your mind that you would tend to relate to a product, service or message. It does have a tremendous impact on how we perceive things, people and situations around us. The word becomes ‘an object’ unto itself, from thin air you can create something with just a single word. This very powerful when used in conjunction with messages that are expected to ‘move’ people in a direction to either buy something, align themselves with cause or reject an idealism. Words are very powerful they are the reason we have wars in the history of mankind, someone along the way pissed someone else off and boom!
“The notion that the word has an inherent personality to its character is what drives graffiti. It is what makes our personal brand special. They come from everyday life, in some cases the dictionary, yes my favorite place to learn about words, meanings and discovered the next amazing tag to do a masterpiece with! But not every graffiti writer uses it for inspiration or their next tag, but it does play a role in the lives on a subconscious level.
“The word by itself already ‘paints’ an image that we tend to build our own interpretations for, an example of this is the word/color pink. It is a color, but we tend to come to our own conclusion of what type of pink it is, the hue or value is associated with our own experience of it. It is this powerful way of thinking about words that makes my world an interesting place to be in. I love the ideas that the word can bring to life. In our everyday life we take for granted this unique and commonly used tool of communication. It lives in our subconscious as we go about the day and make purchases, based…on words. There is a place for pictures as well, but it is the word that ultimately is more universal in communication. You can draw a word to communicate fairly easier than you could draw a picture. Most people can do this with absolutely no training other than the academic skills they already have.
“For me what sets graffiti apart from other mediums is that it is not limited to just a canvas, or a can of spray paint, we have so many ways to create a message or expand our brand. This is the most exciting because just as we can use any type marker, brush, etc, we have the internet to share and ‘meet’ other writers from far off countries that otherwise we probably otherwise would not be able to meet. It has no limits or boundaries, such as fine art, where the still life is just that still. There is a beauty in the ‘still’ life, a complex discipline but it’s not as spontaneous as graffiti. This is what may give graffiti its ‘youthfulness’ in contrast to the age-old techniques of still life.
“For me the transition from painting to metalwork was a natural one. I saw the pieces I created on the train as three dimensional and animated, granted that was all in my thought process. But it was the energy that fueled my creations and later found a home among the metals I used for the jewelry I designed.
“There is a real challenge in the translation of two dimensional to three dimensional form, you have to consider a space physically….the negative space. This something that didn’t exist in tangible form on the train. You have to readjust your thinking creatively to work in a reverse manner to ‘see’ what you expect to receive when working with metal, or any medium that requires a sculptor’s hand. Certainly not a task many have ventured deep into for obvious reasons such as costs, space (in some cases) and the thinking is just not there. It is far easier to stay within a comfort zone than to venture out and explore.
“My favorite and exciting part about creating graffiti inspired jewelry is that it is ‘alive’ and ‘moving’ about in the world just as the trains did. It will go everywhere and be ‘up’ as tags were on trains. They take on a new experience whether it’s a necklace or a buckle, it will give the owner a special feeling of being one in a million! That energy of being a one of a kind is priceless, doesn’t everyone want to have something that no one else has? But at the same time fit within a certain look or culture?
“To me, chic is style, although the word in itself can conjure up some opinions of ‘temporary’ Kool factor…but it is more than that. Style is a hard thing to have, some think you can buy a bottle of it or get ‘that’ outfit and instantly become it. Sadly it is not, what it is, is something you have in your soul, it is born with you and you nurture it as you do your education and how you live. So you say what is it? It’s how you do what is you and no one else can do.”
KEL CRASH / Photograph by Henry Chalfant
KEL FUTURA / Photograph by Henry Chalfant