Olivia Monahan, Class of 2017
Subway terminals are like wind tunnels and the train was flying. The train would stop, he would spray another line, anxious for when the train would take off again. The train lept into motion once more and despite his firm grasp on the handle, he felt himself slipping. Perspiring from the nervousness of being arrested, his hand slipped from the back of the subway car. He felt the back of his head hit the bare subway tracks and a sudden flash of light.
“It’s experiences like these that make you a graffiti writer,” Chester Wallnuts described, seemingly shaken from reliving the past. “I would have died if it wasn’t for one of my friends that was tagging too. But it was something that made people take me seriously.”
Chester Wallnuts was a teenager when he fell off the back of that subway car. Now 44, he is a well-established graffiti writer who is part of a global graffiti crew.
“I started in Queens, where I was born and raised. A lot of us were from Queens and we had been friends before we started doing any of that stuff,” Chester explained. “We did it for the same reason everyone else was doing it: we wanted to see our names everywhere.”
Chester is from Sunnyside, a quaint neighborhood on the west side of Queens. The early years of his life were spent with his father, mother, and younger brother. When Chester was 12, his mother and younger brother picked up and moved to California.
“I was more confused than angry. I was young so I couldn’t understand why the f-ck they left us. I was lonely, I was angry, and I was bored. My friends and going out to tag buildings was an escape for me.”
Chester’s father, now in his late 70s, still travels throughout the country on a motorcycle. A Queen’s native, he still lives in the same two-story home in Sunnyside.
“I remember [Chester] never wanted to be in the house,” his father said. “He was always looking for an adventure. I guess he gets that from me.”
The Wallnuts Crew, the collective that Chester Wallnuts helped create, was the second group that he was apart of. He originally was apart of GadZooks, GZ for short. GZ was comprised of writers local to the Queens area that would tag all around Manhattan.
“GadZooks was more about graffiti writing. We were throwing up our names everywhere and that’s how people came to know us so well. The Wallnuts was kind of a break away from GZ because we wanted to go bigger. We wanted to start painting freight trains and huge walls instead of throwing our names up everywhere. I guess you could say we wanted to get a little bit more creative.”
Graffiti is typically defined as writings or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place. Graffiti, as well as street art, are still illegal. However, many graffiti writers are often times commissioned to create elaborate works of art.
“I remember the first time someone asked to commission us. It was me and Muse, another artist in the Wallnuts Crew, and I remember him saying that he was expecting 50 bucks,” Chester laughed and then scoffed, thinking about the prices they charge now. “When we went to go meet with the owner of the building, they offered us $300. It was like we just hit the lottery.”
Art on walls today is much different than it was when Chester was younger. Now, people travel great distances to see art from Shepard Fairey, Banksy, and Invader. The real difference, is how the art is created.
“To be considered a real graffiti writer, there is like a code of ethics.” The rules, Chester explained, include that you couldn’t buy your own paint, all of the work you created had to be done using spray paint, and you couldn’t tell anyone about what you were doing.
“I’ve never gotten arrested for tagging but I have gotten arrested for shoplifting. But those were the rules and I wanted to be taken seriously. Now these people can just make “art” and call themselves street artists. We never considered ourselves street artists, we are graffiti writers.”
In his youth and early 20s, graffiti writing was his only passion. Chester describes being fearless and risking his life to throw his name up on a high bridge or the side of a building.
“Once I got married to my wife, my entire life changed. I moved from Queens and I started my life wherever she wanted to go.”
His wife is tall with dark features, a seemingly perfect counterpart to Chester’s light skin and Irish traits. The two are complete opposites: Chester is very lax and understanding while his wife is very rigid and authoritarian.
“[Chester] was the one that wanted to move,” his wife said. “He told me that he would do anything to protect his family and living in Queens compromised that. But, graffiti still holds a significant part of his life.”
Chester’s children have also grown accustomed to their father’s work and have taken inspiration from him for their own art. His eldest son is 18, close to the age when Chester was nearing his prime in the graffiti community. He is just starting to learn some of the mechanics of graffiti writing.
“My dad is trying to teach me how to use a spray can but it’s surprisingly really hard. I draw a lot, mostly using pencils and charcoal, which comes to me pretty easily. I think it’s really amazing that my dad is able to create really elaborate pieces of art using something so hard to control.”
Much like gang wars, graffiti “beefs” happened frequently (and still do) within the community. An attack on another writer could include anything from tagging over someone’s piece or causing an unnecessary rift in the group.
“Our community is small so when somebody upsets someone else, things kind of blow up. One guy who used to be in our crew f–ked around and now we don’t even associate ourselves with him anymore. I didn’t want my family to have to be apart of something like that if it were to ever happen again.”
Well into his 40s, Chester has taken a more relaxed view of what being a graffiti writer means. Alongside of being a graffiti writer, he also works as a teacher in a public elementary school.
“It’s more about having fun with my friends now. I love teaching kids and that and my family are my passion. I would much rather see graffiti writers and artists working together and enjoying themselves than in this competitive bullsh-t. I’m too old for that now. Let the young kids try to do as much as I did.”
Chester and the Wallnuts crew still continue to do commissioned work around the greater New York area and some parts of New Jersey. You can find some of their work on their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/The-Wallnuts-Crew-Graffiti-Artists-104064389658129/.