A New Exhibit & Documentary Celebrates the Life of the Iconic New York City Artist Rammellzee

Source: Keetja Allard. Courtesy Red Bull Arts New York. Artwork © 2018 The Rammellzee Estate

“I entered the art world not as an artist, but as a gangster.”

This is a quote from the late Rammellzee, one of the most ambitious, adventurous, and prolific artists of the last 50 years. It’s hard to describe Ramm, because, in a 35-year span, the artist did so much. He was a graffiti artist, bombing the A-train with his name, which he stylized RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ. He was also a rapper. In 1983 he collaborated with LES rapper K-Rob for “Beat Bop,” an iconic 10-minute song produced by his (sometimes) friend Jean-Michel Basquiat. The artwork for the 12-inch was done by Basquiat. (It’s considered to be one of the most valuable hip-hop records of all time.)

He was a writer, crafting scripts based on a philosophy he created, called Gothic Futurism. He was sculpture, creating massive pieces of work out of steel and other people’s junk. And, he was a performer; during his career he made over 20 lifesize suits — think Transformers — that he would wear and do performance pieces with. (Ramm had a flair for the dramatic and was regularly late to these events.)

Through it all he was committed to his work. Although his art was not always accessible.

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Earlier in the month, Red Bull Arts New York tried to do the impossible, gather a majority of Ramm’s art and showcase his work in one definite exhibit. They largely accomplished this with the RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: Racing for Thunder exhibit.

“Our research began in a storage unit filled with his artwork and documentation all in boxes,” Max Wolf, a curator for the show, said. “The current estate had no archive of his work, no checklist, no timeline of his life. We had to put that together.” 

Racing for Thunder is overwhelming in scope. There are two floors of Ramm’s work, in all kinds of mediums. There are scripts he wrote, graffiti pieces, jewelry he designed, paintings, footage of the artist, and so much more.

“His music, like his art, wasn’t always approachable. Some of it was really rough. It was tough,” said Wolf. “It’s often more convicted with its message than it’s likeability. It was brutal.”

The downstairs contains some of Ramm’s later works. The space is dark with the only glow being the neon colors of these massive goth figures. These pieces are breathtaking. They were also some of the last pieces he worked on before he died in 2010.

On Thursday, a new documentary was released by Red Bull Arts New York in collaboration with Oscar Boyson / Elara Pictures. The documentary marks the close of the monthlong Red Bull Music Festival New York.

Titled RAMMELLZEE: It’s Not Who But What, the 10-minute documentary takes viewers back to ’80s, showcasing archival footage of the artist, a robotic narrator explaining RAMMΣLLZΣΣ’s and more information about Gothic Futurism. The film includes interviews by DELTA 2, Kool Koor, Toxic, Michael Holman, INK 76, Carlo McCormick, Eszter Balint, and Dave Tompkins.

The movie was written and directed by Oscar Boyson and produced by the Safdie brothers’ production company Elara Pictures. Watch it below. Then check out RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: Racing for Thunder, which is open until August 26, 2018 at the Red Bull Arts in New York.

Dimas Sanfiorenzo

Dimas Sanfiorenzo is the Managing Editor for Okayplayer. He specializes in coverage centered around music, pop culture, and politics. Email:

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Dimas Sanfiorenzo

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