Note from the editor: Just want to say thanks to my friend Jay “J.SON” Edlin (author of Graffiti 365) for writing this book review on a topic that he’s much better educated on than I. – RJ
Both Don 1 (born Joseph Palattella) and Louie Gasparro (a.k.a. The Original KR-1) are Italian- Americans who grew up in Astoria, Queens and participated in the graffiti movement. A decade older, Don 1 attended The High School of Art and Design in the early to mid seventies while Gasparro attended Long Island City High in the early 80’s but hung out regularly at Art and Design, forming allegiances with many of the artists from the Subway Art / Style Wars generation.
Don1, the King from Queens: The Life and Photos of a NYC Transit Graffiti Master is Gasparro’s poignant homage to his childhood hero. The book contains rough grammar, some off angle and at times duplicative photos of Don’s and others’ pieces, as well as quotes from several writers seldom referenced in other books or article on graffiti. Conspicuously absent are any mention of Hip Hop (seems Don 1 dug rock ’n roll and disco), comments from neo-experts and the ruminations of out-of-the-loop journalists who love to bandy about social theories defining the method to graffiti’s madness—perfectly imperfect. Present are highlights from Don1’s mid-70’s photo archive shot with a 35 millimeter camera at a time when Kodak instamatics ruled the day. Early LEE TF5 burners from the BMT’s made my eyes water as did Dean and Jester’s work from the RR’s. Don’s own black book sketches show the work of a master light years ahead of his time, but it was the Billy 167, Butch 2, Kase 2, Aztec and Padre drawings made my purist heart sing.
Although Don 1 influenced some pretty famous writers whose names start with the letter D (Daze, Dondi and Dime 139), his reputation has been that of a graffiti writer’s trade secret. Perhaps this book will change that. Even as a self-professed graff know-it-all, I must confess to being completely schooled by Gasparro on Don 1’s place in history, having never seen his name run and learning what little I knew from Daze, who penned the book’s foreword, and Gasparro himself.
Written by KR 1, about Don 1 and using the Don’s material for the visuals, the book oozes graffiti from top to bottom.
Don 1 wrote for a couple of years, mainly on the somewhat obscure RR line. Historically, Queens and The BMT’s in general get too little attention from documenters, and this book kills those two birds with one stone. Don 1’s innate artistic abilities drew him to Art and Design High School. Graffiti quickly found him and he learned the craft with alacrity. Al Diaz aka Bomb 1, a fellow A and D student who would become one half of the SAMO team along with Jean Michel Basquiat, took Don 1 to his first lay-up.
Don 1 rose to the top of the heap in a very brief time. Though his meteoric ascent to style master, first in the black books of the Art and Design cafeteria and ultimately on the insides and outsides of the RR subway cars, subsided when he began getting paid illustration jobs from magazines and hitting the disco dance floors with the ladies, Don’s potential seemed limitless.
Tragically, Don 1’s promising future died on the night he snorted some white crystalline powder he mistook for cocaine. Unfortunately, the powder he mistook for cocaine proved to be PCP. The mix-up instantly transformed Don’s life into a living hell, one that he could never recover from. The drug took not only his sanity, but his artistic abilities as well. Don 1 would have languished in obscurity, had it not been for Gasparro’s Columbo-like persistence in tracking him down and gaining his trust.
Don 1 had once been a snazzy dresser, a ladies man and president of MAFIA (Master Administration For Incredible Artists), a crew he founded with a name befitting of a Don. Post-PCP Don 1 became a recluse, rejecting the outside world, perhaps because he knew how great he once had been and preferred to be remembered that way or better yet completely forgotten.
I don’t know what’s more amazing, the fact that Louie Gasparro was able to coax Don 1 into meeting with him or that Don 1 had meticulously preserved his black book and subway photo archive from his peak years despite the nightmarish turn his life took.
In the past few years, legendary 70’s graffiti writers have been dying off at an alarming rate, gone and forgotten too soon, their stories often left untold. Gasparro’s book is a labor of love, marking the long overdue resurrection of Don 1.
Gasparro’s moving profile of The Don evokes bittersweet memories of a time when you could enter a train yard or subway tunnel with a few cans of paint and leave with a crown.
Don1, the King from Queens: The Life and Photos of a NYC Transit Graffiti Master is available now on Amazon.com
Photos from Don 1’s archive, courtesy of Louie Gasparro