Hi-Crew New Haven – When the Wall Came Down
photos and profile by Daniel Shkolnik
On February 3rd, New Haven bulldozers sank their teeth into a 15-year-old oasis of Connecticut street art: Hi-Crew’s Water Street graffiti walls. A few days later, one of the few remaining traces of the U-shaped 4,000 square-foot warehouse was a handful of scattered paint chips. It looked like a rainbow-colored tree had just been put through a wood chipper.
159 Water Street was a relic of a fading era of regional street art during which blight and de-industrialization made much of the industrial northeast a sprawling urban canvas for graffiti artists, or “writers.” But with continuing gentrification of towns like New Haven, vacant buildings like 159 Water Street are becoming more difficult to find. When I spoke with members of Hi-Crew a week after the demolition, there was a sense that a good, perhaps golden era had ended.“I don’t think we’ll ever replace that wall,” says Kevin “Rage3” Clifford, a 20-year member of Hi-Crew. “In some ways it’s almost like losing a family member.”
The Hi-Crew family, full name: High Impact Crew, was formed in Connecticut circa 1994 by graffiti artists “Reo” and “Seme.” Clifford joined two years later, and today the group has over twenty members spread throughout the northeast with some living as far away as Arizona and the UK. The Water Street walls—handed down to Hi-Crew from two previous artists, “Space” and “Spaz”—joined the family in 2001.
Like responsible artists, Hi-Crew maintained their outdoor studio-gallery, picking up trash and pulling weeds. When the walls became overly caked with paint, Reo stripped them; and once he went so far as to re-asphalt part of the property .The owner, Betsy Henley-Cohn, was happy to have Hi-Crew painting and maintaining the derelict property says Josh Philie, a seven-year Hi-Crew member with tattooed knuckles and snake bite lip piercings. Ryan “Arcy” Christenson, who admired Hi-Crew as a teen before joining their ranks in 2008, recalls the nearly surreal freedom with which they painted the walls: “It got to the point where the police would be waving, ‘Awesome job, guys.’”
These privileges, once won, had to be kept.
Early on, Reo became the de facto curator of Water Street and made it clear these were crew walls, not free walls. Writers had to ask Hi-Crew permission to paint; and if a crew member passed by the walls and noticed an alien piece, it would be painted over that same day. Sometimes within hours.
“The spots that become a free-for-all get taken out real fast,” says Clifford. “You have to rule with an iron fist to have a legal wall last for as long as ours did.”
These rigid standards weren’t just for outsiders. Reo expected quality work from the writers in the crew. “We got yelled at [by Reo] every week,” recalls Mike DeAngelo, another member with ink under his skin and paint often on it.Tongue lashings aside, the crew members speak about Reo with the esteem and Christenson credits him with establishing the crew’s high-achieving culture. Hi-Crew hopefuls must pick up on the crew’s standards—and blend well with the members—before Reo will “put down” their names on Hi-Crew’s roster.
Despite Reo’s uncompromising drive, the painting process for multi-person productions remains democratic and—as all good democracies go—reasonably quarrelsome. On one project, DeAngelo recalls how he and Reo ended up yelling at one another in the middle of the street over an aesthetic difference. But even though friction boils their blood frequently, the group’s comradery—a brew made with years of sweat, paint, and a good bit of beer—doesn’t evaporate.“We all argue,” says DeAngelo, “we get mad at each other, but it all works itself out.”
“I don’t think anyone has ever walked away from a wall,” adds Philie.
Often the final product is a negotiated, if hard-fought, compromise among the artistic tastes of the members. And if there are ever rifts during the five- to six-man painting process, the fluidity of the crew’s finished productions belies none of them.
Hi-Crew’s large and smoothly stitched compositions are instantly recognizable throughout Connecticut. Their writing is done almost exclusively in wildstyle, a demanding urban calligraphy in which a writer’s street tag is abstracted into an intensely complex, nearly incomprehensible visual engine designed to generate massive amounts of graphic power.
Hi-Crew’s intense urban lettering usually floats in sprawling landscapes inhabited by both firmly life-like and expressively cartoonish characters. In one, a crusader swings his sword over a medieval battlefield. In another, a jungle’s footpaths crawl with creatures. In a third, an astronaut waves from the rim of a bathtub; and further down the wall, a scuba diver sits atop a desert cliff.
The 159 Water Street was an endless practice arena for these intricate productions. But while Hi-Crew did their best to maintain their beloved walls, the 71-year-old building slowly succumbed to old age.
The roof of the small warehouse had collapsed in five places, and several homeless people had moved into the acrylic-shelled structure. After a small fire earlier in the winter brought city attention to the property, asbestos was discovered inside and prompted city officials to accelerate an already planned demolition of the building.
Although Hi-Crew’s flagship location is gone, the itch for a spray can’s nozzle hasn’t gone out of their forefingers. And as the wall separating street art from public and curated art comes down, they’re finding it easier to come out from grungy alleys and the shadows of warehouses to paint in and for the public eye.
In September of 2014, the crew received nods of approval from both The Arts Council of Greater New Haven and the Department of Transportation to paint the 175-foot I-91 underpass on Humphrey Street as part of the Under-91 Project intended to brighten the grim passage. Shortly after, they painted the Coogan Pavilion skate park on commission from New Haven art nonprofit, Site Projects. And on June 12th, the International Festival of Arts and Ideas commissioned Hi-Crew to run a hands-on community-involving graffiti expo on the New Haven Green.
It seems Hi-Crew’s public stock is on the rise, but even as they begin to score commissioned pieces the crew doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in turning their paint into profit. If someone picks up the paint tab, then great. If people watch as they work, all the better. But for those like Clifford and others in the crew, revenue and renown aren’t the main point of what they do.
“If the computers shut down and the magazines went away,” says Clifford, and the only audience his work ever got was girders and wildflowers, “I’d still be out there doing it.”
Visit Hi-Crew on Facebook here: facebook.com/HI-CREW
Check out the video below by Bill Bowden featuring details of Hi-Crew’s work.