Dondi White 1961-1998 Artist

For more than 20 years in New York City, graffiti culture was as pervasive as it was secretive. Scores of underground artists worked in the shadows to create illicit and unconventional masterpieces-colorful and graphic paintings made with aerosol spray paint on New York City subway lines. Graffiti writer Dondi White came up in the 1970s, plastering his name and many aliases on dozens of subway trains. His work and personality stood out in the culture, and he became a star among graffiti writers. As New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) eradicated graffiti writing from its trains, White became one of many graffitists who began to work aboveground. Graffiti-based art was at the heart of New York’s art scene in the 1980s. White put his work on canvas and exhibited it in art galleries. He was the first graffiti artist to have a one-man show in the Netherlands and Germany, and his work is collected by European museums. After his death in 1998, White’s brother Michael, and graffiti writer Andrew “Zephyr” Witten, collaborated on the book Dondi White: Style Master General, The Life of Graffiti Artist Dondi White, Regan Books 2001.

Dondi White was born Donald J. White on April 7, 1961, in Manhattan, New York. He was the youngest of five sons of Italian and African-American
parents, and was raised in the mostly white East New York section of Brooklyn. Dondi was a creative child who flew pet pigeons, played stickball and touch football with his brothers, and built go-carts out of milk crates and roller skates. The Whites spent many weekends swimming at Coney Island. Dondi’s parents instilled a strong sense of family morals onto their sons. Talking back to elders, cursing, and disrespect were out of the question. The White boys said their prayers nightly and settled arguments in the backyard of their home with boxing gloves. Both his childhood tricycle and his Catholic school upbringing would later resurface in his artwork. Religious imagery and religious terms, such as “Anno Domini,” were prevalent in his work. His mother nicknamed him Dondi.

Built a Crew and His Rep
The family moved six blocks away when White was nine years old, and it was in this new neighborhood that his older brother Michael recalled seeing “Dondi” scribbling on streetlights near the house. While White was still a child, his neighborhood began to change. Street gangs and heroin came to East New York, and the boy’s personal safety became an issue. His two older brothers, Albert and Robert, had already grown up and moved out, and his family began to worry that their youngest could be recruited by a gang. But he kept himself busy playing pool and building minibikes, and immersed himself in flying his pigeons, which kept him off the streets and on the roof of his house for hours at a time. By 1976, the Whites had retired and had moved again, and Dondi was the only son left in the house. It was a dream-come-true for Dondi, who was building his reputation as a graffiti writer-the new house was within walking distance of three major New York train yards. He tagged using “NACO” and “DONDI,”and worked on refining his style, gradually moving from simple tagging to building more elaborate pieces.
Anxious to leave high school behind, he earned his GED in 1980, took a job in a government office, and began to indulge his interest in graffiti. His bedroom became a meeting place for graffiti writers, many of whom he met through raising pigeons. A writer called Duro, whom White had met in 1974, became his best friend. The odor of aerosol spray paint was strong in the family basement-it had become his artistic testing ground. While most of the graffiti in White’s neighborhood was gang-related and territorial, White’s approach was founded in artistry.
In 1977 White joined with fellow graffiti writers in the exclusive Brooklyn graffiti crew The Odd Partners, known as TOP. Dondi often cited senior TOP members, JEE 2, MICKEY, HURST, SLAVE, and NOC 167 as “major influences in his development as a graffiti artist,” fellow graffiti writer Zephyr wrote online at the Art Crimes Website. TOP evolved into White founding his own crew, Crazy Insides Artists, or CIA, in 1978. CIA continued where TOP left off, that is wreaking havoc on the BMT, or Brooklyn Manhattan Transit lines. White proved to be an able mentor to the young graffiti writers of CIA. He passed along his skills and helped them execute their pieces. Even though he was a member of a crew, White’s personality stood out from those of the other writers. While most writers go to great lengths to keep their identities a secret, White painted a giant “DONDI” piece on the roof of his home, in clear view of the Number Two train that passed by. As White’s work began to make it around Manhattan and the Bronx-considered “ground zero” for graffiti culture, according to Style Master General-veteran graffiti writers were taking notice of this talented up-and-comer. In addition to “DONDI,” White’s graffiti aliases included BUS 129, Mr. White, PRE, POSE, ROLL, 2 MANY, and ASIA. 

Risky Documentation Set Dondi Apart
White’s artwork may have been the result of his personal methodical approach as much as it was because of his talent. He planned every aspect of a piece before painting it. He filled volumes of sketchbooks with highly detailed outlines and renditions of his work. He worked tirelessly to perfect his work before ever executing it.
Much of White’s work after 1979 is well documented, owing to his friendships with photographer Martha Cooper. A year before they met, Cooper had inadvertently snapped a piece of White’s work that appeared in the background of a New York Post cover she photographed. The two were an unorthodox pair; White, as with his rooftop piece, was defying the secrecy normally involved with graffiti by exposing his life and work to a media-savvy photographer. Cooper captured White’s “Children of the Grave” trains, which “are considered among the most famous and iconic ever painted by any writer: in New York, according to Style Master General. Her photos of his work appear in the seminal book Subway Art, which was published in 1984. The book documented the life and art of the graffiti writers, but was also controversial. While important to the history of graffiti, it also risked exposing the secret world of its subjects.
White recreated “Children of the Grave” legally in 1986, when he was commissioned by the Art Train project. Twelve graffiti writers were flown into an Amtrak train yard in Michigan to paint trains. In 1980 art patron Sam Esses funded a project called “Esses Studio” to take the art that was happening on the streets into the art studio. Esses was appalled that the MTA’s sole policy in regards to graffiti was to remove it. The “Graffiti 1980 Studio” did much to bolster graffiti writers’ solidarity. In the studio, writers came together and formed new bonds, and a tighter-knit culture among writers in the 1980s resulted.
Graffiti for the Masses
The studio pushed White in a different direction. During 1980 and 1981, he was creating some of his best train paintings, but also began working on canvas. It was at Esses Studio that he created his first large-scale canvases with spray paint. He became associated with The Soul Artists, or SA, a group of graffitists who were working legitimately in the art world. The creative camaraderie and competition between the artists resulted in inspired work from all of them. As a result, White became part of the celebrated East Village art explosion of the early 1980s. The Monday-night meetings at SA’s workshop became social happenings that attracted a diverts group of New York’s hottest filmmakers, activists, musicians, and artists. Journalists capitalized on having so many members of New York counterculture gathered together regularly in one convenient location. The SA artists became popular fixtures at Manhattan nightclubs, including the Roxy, Negril, Danceteria, and the Peppermint Lounge. White’s first gallery show was the New York/New Wave group show at the PS 1 artspace in Queens, New York, in 1981. He participated in several group shows before his first one-man show in 1982 at the Fun Gallery, which also exhibited the likes of FUTURA, CRASH, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fab-Five Freddy, and Kenny Scharf. “The media was looking around for the next ‘cool’ thing, and they chose graffiti,” Zephyr is quoted as saying in Style Master General. Fictional graffitists appeared in urban-culture movies like Beat Street, and Dreams Don’t Die. Both White and his art work were featured in a film about hip-hop culture called Wild Style. He was hired as a consultant and artist for the TV movie about graffiti life Dreams Don’t Die.
 For the film, the MTA provided a freshly painted train specifically for his use. Not long after, the MTA reconsidered its contradictory policy and ceased providing such assistance to film productions.

A then-upstart venture called MTV used graffiti in its original set designs. Many European graffiti writers credits.

White’s work in a hip-hop music video called “Buffalo Gals” as their first exposure to graffiti.
If the graffiti artists were considered criminals by New York’s MTA, they were practically celebrities in California. White, Futura, and Zephyr were flown to a 1982 show at the University of California at Santa Cruz featuring 25 canvases from the Esses Studio. Santa Cruz’s transit authority actually gave the artists a bus to paint. Three months later the three were in Hong Kong to paint 10,000 square feet of wall space at a new nightclub there. White’s first trip to Europe was in 1982 with the New York City Rap Tour, which featured break dancers, rappers, and graffiti writers performing together. The two-week tour featured DJ Afrika Bambaataa, Rammellzee, the Rock Steady Crew, Grandmixer D.ST, the Double Dutch Girls, Phase 2, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, and White. 

Beyond Legitimate in European Museums
The growing popularity of graffiti-based art in the New York art scene and in popular American culture drew the attention of European gallery owners and collectors. White became the first graffitist to have a one-man show in the Netherlands in 1983, which was a sellout success. He was represented by the Dutch art dealer Yaki Kornblit. He also was the first graffitist to have a solo show in Germany, and went on to exhibit in subsequent European shows in 1983.

In the fall of 1983, American graffiti had reached its pinnacle-graffiti was being celebrated in European museums. White’s work was featured in a group show, called Graffiti, in Rotterdam’s Boymans-Van Beuningen Museum. The exhibit traveled to three other museums that year. By the time he was 22, White had exhibited seven solo shows, and his work was held by European museums. “Writing on the subway was a good way to communicate the ideas I had,” he is quoted as saying in Style Master General. “Moving into the gallery, I had a whole other audience I had to communicate with which was good, because it made my work evolve.” One of his many enamel spray paint-on-canvas paintings during this time featured a funky figure and the passage, “Dear-Dark continent of kings continue the battle aboveground…Yours Truly.”

In 1984, burned out by the nonstop travel and painting, White went into semi-retirement. “Perhaps it was too much too fast, perhaps he simply ran out of steam,” as written in Style Master General. “But at the height of his success, Dondi walked away. Now, all it seemed Dondi wanted was a simpler, more ‘normal’ life. He was sick and tired of the pressure to produce.” The break ultimately was good for his work-his drawings made during this time are considered some of his best work. He began to work in collage, working mainly with blueprints, to combine with exacting pencil and ink drawings. The result was a series of highly technical pieces, each of which took months to complete. By 1989, the MTA had “won” its war on graffiti. It instituted a program in which painted trains are immediately pulled from the line and cleaned.

By 1992 White had started to build that more normal life. He was living with a girlfriend, and had taken a part-time job at an upscale men’s clothing shop. That spring, his work was featured in retrospective exhibits of his work at The Rempire gallery in Soho and at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. In 1995 he was featured in the Fifteen Years Aboveground exhibit organized by graffitist CRASH. After a long illness, White died October 2, 1998 from complications from AIDS.
At a Glance…
Born Donald J. White on April 7, 1961, in Manhattan, New York; died October 2, 1998.
Began scribbling on streetlights near his house, c. 1970; tagged using “NACO” and “DONDI,” c. 1976; joined The Odd Partners, 1977; founded Crazy Insides Artists, 1978; worked at Esses Studio, began making large-scale canvasses, 1980-81; became associated with the Soul Artists, in 1981; first group gallery show, New York/New Wave, at PS 1 in Queens, 1981; first solo show, Fun Gallery, 1982; featured in the film Wild Style; hired as consultant and artist TV movie Dreams Don’t Die; appeared in “Buffalo Gals: music video; featured in group show at University of California at Santa Cruz, 1982; commissioned to paint Hong Kong night club, 1982; toured Europe with the New York City Rap Tour, 1982; became the first graffitist to have a one-man show in the Netherlands and Germany, 1983; featured in retrospective exhibits of his work at Rempire gallery in Soho and at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, 1992; featured in the Fifteen Years Aboveground exhibit.
Sanchez, Brenna, Dondi White: Contemporary Black Biography Vol. 34 Gale Group 2002 pg.165-168.
photo credits:
Ricky Powell, Martha Cooper

 Eulogy: DONDI 1961-1998
by Michael A. White N.Y.C.

"The information our government gives us concerning AIDS. I like to think of in terms of a bikini. What it reveals is suggestive. What it conceals is vital."
DONDI, Interview Magazine March 1992
The world lost a great artist and I lost my younger brother. Born and baptized Donald Joseph White, Dondi was a nick-name given to him by our parents. Growing up in East New York Brooklyn during the '60s playing stoop ball, ring-o-levio. Going to Highland Park, Betsy Head Pool and Coney Island. Dondi was the youngest, "take your brother" my mother would yell as we ran out the door. Fond memories that I will cherish forever.
Dondi knew there was a killer on the loose. It is ironic and sad that in the prime of his life, Dondi would become one of it's victims. There is no cure and silence still equals death. Over the last year Dondi fought a valiant fight to live and end his life on his terms. Dondi accomplished this, passing away at home with his family and friends. A special Thank You to Dr. Lopez and Village Health Care. to Zephyr, Doc,Edlin,Karen co-workers Bicycle Renaissance and Deirdre. For helping Dondi live and end his life with Dignity.
Dondi and I talked about the three things he stilll wanted to do. See his 37'th birthday, take a long ride on his bicyle, and see the year 2000 the new millennium. God granted his first wish.........
A final quote:
"Asia Africa Tokoyo went to the places,the places they told us not to go. Peace 2 Da Godz. Peace 2 the Earths. Peace B wit U....4 what ever its worth. Still BRAN NUBIAN. Home of the Godz ......Krooklyn NY DONDI"
Dondi, I will miss you very much and forever. I will see you in my dreams. "DeeDee"
Michael A. White N.Y.C.

Obituary and Biography
by Zephyr New York City October 8, 1998
The graffiti community has recently lost one of its most influential and respected members. It is with deep regret that we announce the passing of Dondi.
Born Donald J. White, to Italian and African-American parents, Dondi was the youngest of five sons. He was born April 7th, 1961 in Manhattan and was raised in the East New York section of Brooklyn. As a youngster he attended Catholic school, the influence of which subsequently emerged in his paintings.
He was a highly creative child and pursued an array of interesting hobbies including maintaining and flying pet pigeons. In the early '70s he began his graffiti career as NACO, a member of a Brooklyn-based crew known as "The Odd Partners," which included MICKEY 729 (aka TO), MOVIN' (aka TI 149), HURST (aka OI), JEE 2 (aka JAMES), IK (aka HULK), DIKE and UPS 2, among others. The Odd Partners dominated the M, J and LL lines in the mid-seventies. Dondi often cited MICKEY, HURST, SLAVE and NOC 167 as major influences in his development as a graffiti artist.
In 1977 he created his own graffiti clique, CIA, an abbreviation for CRAZY INSIDES ARTIST. Consisting of those members of TOP still active and some newer recruits, the CIA crew continued TOP's tradition of BMT domination but began to focus its attentions on the Number 2 IRT line as well. A short list of some of CIA's members in the late seventies includes: SID, KIST, DURO, LOVIN 2 (aka AERON), PETE, ERIC (aka DEAL), Z-RO, GREG 167, RASTA CIA and KID 56, among others.
Dondi subscribed whole-heartedly to the apprenticeship system common in graffiti society. He was quick to provide guidance and advice to friends and cohorts. He crafted outlines for his fellow crew-members and often aided them in the execution of their pieces. Over the years he helped foster the talents of countless graffitists, many of whom made their own significant contributions to the culture.
In 1979, Dondi befriended the noted photographer Martha Cooper. She began photographing his work and went on to document his painting of the whole car entitled Children of the Grave Part 3 in the New Lots train yard on May 31, 1980. These photos, which appeared in the now legendary book Subway Art (Thames & Hudson, 1984), were the first to feature a graffitist "behind enemy lines" and represented a huge risk by exposing the writers' secret world. Although controversial, they were beautiful and important shots which sucessfully revealed much of the mystery surrounding train painting in a most elegant manner.
In the summer of 1980, Dondi participated in a project called "Esses Studio." It was a two-month endeavor in which the top artists of the time were invited to paint canvases in a studio setting. The project was funded by an art patron named Sam Esses. The concept of the project was simple: to preserve the amazing work being done on the subways. Soon after he discovered graffiti art, Esses was appalled to learn that the work was being systematically removed by the MTA. Subsequently, through the urging of his friend KEL139, DONDI came and painted at the studio. The New York graffiti culture at that time was somewhat fragmented and writers were isolated from one another. Interborough alliances were rare as many old rivalries persisted. With 20/20 hindsight It becomes clear that the "Graffiti 1980 Studio" catalyzed the graffiti renaissance of the '80s; in part because it functioned as a massive networking convention from which new energies, alliances and focuses sprung forth. In two short months, a great deal of the isolation felt by the different writing factions was erased.
Dondi emerged from the studio with a new direction. Two specific groups at the time, "The Soul Artists" and "Fashion Moda," were involved in moving graffiti into the galleries. Dondi did much of his very finest train paintings in this period (late 1980 and '81); but also focused his attention on creating his first canvases. Through his association with The Soul Artists, he became part of the celebrated East Village art explosion of the early to mid '80s. He exhibited at a variety of small East Village galleries, most significantly "The Fun Gallery," which also exhibited the likes of FUTURA, CRASH, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fab-Five Freddie and Kenny Scharf.
His paintings and drawings are meticulously rendered works, often featuring "studies" of letters, figures and symbolic icons such as StayHigh 149's {saintly} stick figure. He described his own plight through inscriptions on his canvases (e.g.: "Gladiators of a dark continent continue to battle above ground until cure for blindness"). He recalled childhood memories through images of tricycles and penny-farthings. He was inspired by the work of Leonardo DaVinci and was apt to "reference" DaVinci's work amidst his own.
Dondi was also a regular on the downtown club scene, frequenting "The Roxy" and "Negril," the first clubs to introduce hip-hop music to down-towners. He did art for the Rock Steady Crew in their early years and did the album cover for Malcolm McClaren's sojourn into hip-hop, Buffalo Gals. He was featured in all the "action" sequences in the film Wild Style, posing as ZORO, the main character, when LEE opted to lay low. He also painted the "ZORO" train featured in the film. The Cooper series previously mentioned, as well as Henry Chalfant's photos of his whole-cars, were featured in Subway Art. Although these whole cars have come to represent him, it was actually his work in redefining "wild style" lettering where Dondi White made his most significant contributions to the culture.
Working with a seemingly endless list of pseudonyms, DONDI reappraised the notions of style. Some of the names he used on the trains included: BUS 129, MR. WHITE, PRE, POSE, ROLL, 2 MANY, and ASIA. His work emphasized the dynamics of lettering and its forms over meaning, focusing on shape and juxtaposition. Dondi was lovingly referred to as "The Style Master General," as it was commonly accepted that he was the artist who set the standards for graffiti art in his time. He crafted letters that were both acrobatic and aerodynamic in nature and commited them to metal with remarkable precision.
By 1983, Dondi was showing his canvases regularly in Europe. He was represented by the Dutch art dealer, Yaki Kornblit, for a number of years and went on to exhibit his paintings throughout Europe for much of the eighties. In May 1992, he was featured in "The Legacy," a retrospective exhibit at The Rempire gallery in Soho and later the same year was honored by the "Groninger Museum" in Groningen, Holland in a ten-year retrospective. In 1995, he was part of the "Fifteen Years Aboveground" print portfolio and exhibit organized by CRASH. Over the last few years, Dondi created collages, pain-stakingly detailed works that combined his beautiful pencil drawings with blueprints of the subway system. He spent months on each, and the results were spectacular.
Dondi was the best and was loved by many. He touched so many of us with his life, his love and his fantastic art work. Part of his legacy is the wonderful artwork left for us to enjoy and to learn from. Dondi White left us Friday October 2nd. He died at home in the company of family and friends, after a long illness.
ZEPHYR New York City October 8, 1998

A note from Art Crimes...

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time Art Crimes has been asked to make some tribute pages for a deceased writer. But this is the first time that we have put together a section memorializing a writer.
We started getting email about Dondi's death the day after his passing on October 2, 1998. Because of the worldwide outcry at the loss of one of the best-loved and most famous writers, we realized that we had to provide a space for people to mourn and show their respect for one of the Biggest, Baddest and Boldest Kings of All Time.
Dondi was one of the writers whose legacy can't be ignored. As you'll see in the images and text, he was not only one of the most original style masters on the trains, but he translated that talent onto canvas in a way that few others have done. If his styles and concepts came out today, he'd still be burning the competition.
Everyone who has come together to bring you this memorial: Zephyr, Dondi's brother Michael White, Jim Prigoff, Martha Cooper, Henry Chalfant and the others who have images or text on the way, have been showing the strength of the community through their unselfishness in sharing their important memories and materials. Please show respect to these folks and what they've preserved for you by not taking their images and text to use for something else, without getting their permission. As with all our pages, it is okay to link to this section or to use some materials as part of your school work, but please let us know how you'll be using them. If you create your own memorial page for Dondi, please let us know so we can link to it, and please use your own material for it.
This memorial is a work in progress. There will be more images of Dondi's work coming as contributors dig them out of photo albums. There will be more words as friends find the strength to write them. There will be memorial pieces when writers get enough paint together and a wall or piece of steel suitable for Dondi's memory. We will not be able to accept all contributions, as we want the quality of this section to stand the test of time, as Dondi's work has.
Peace and much respect to Dondi CIA 1961-1998

Susan and Brett

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