In the early 1970’s, a teenager from Plimpton Street in the South Bronx was burning down the IRT, pushing writing styles forward and adapting themes from comic books and commercials to take letters and train pieces to another level. Using numerous aliases, the elusive Riff 170 eschewed fame in favor of style, and left the competitive street art scene in 1976, just as the commercial opportunities for artists began to materialize. Reemerging in New York in recent years, Riff 170 connected with graffiti artist, author and editor Alain “Ket” Mariduena of Stress magazine fame. When Ket received the disturbing news last month that a series of events had left the veteran painter without a home, he began to put together an online campaign to allow Riff to get off the streets.
For graf afficionados, Riff 170’s contributions read like a style manual; cracking and crunched letters, interconnected arrows, metallic imaging. His Solid-Bot-Don-Riff piece (above)–a tribute to his friend, the fallen artist Solid—is, to many writers, the most important full-train piece ever done. His early partner and friend, the influential Bronx-based writer Phase 2, has said of the early seventies: “Me and RIFF 170 were really the two people who had the most ideas.” As a young African-American in a hostile New York City just a few years after the civil rights movement, Riff used art and his love of comic books to respond to the society he found himself in. Many of his aliases—Dove (like the soap), Conan, Cash, Riff (from the “Reading Is Fundamental” PSAs)—co-opted phrases from the mainstream, reinterpreting them through color, lettering and context.
Riff was evicted from his childhood home when his mother became ill and relocated down south–and has been without a place to sleep since this past October. The online campaign seeks to raise $4000 to assist him in getting back into an apartment for at least three months while he stabilizes. “Riff has been reluctant to talk about his situation” said Ket. “But we eventually convinced him to share a piece of his story, so the community can step up and support this legend.” In pulling together this effort, Ket, author of Rockin’ It Suckers: New York’s Most Wanted Graffiti Vandals (Dokument Press, 2011) drew on his own experience raising money from the art and hip-hop community when faced with charges of vandalism.
“My team has some experience in this area, so we’ve been able to respond fairly quickly,” Ket said. To incentivize donors, the campaign is offering a variety of Riff 170 pieces, from personalized tags to an entire freight truck painted by the artist himself. It hopes to exceed the amount requested, and any amount raised, whether or not the goal is reached, will go towards housing Riff 170, and enabling him to restart his life.