Dondi White, born Donald Joseph White in 1961, is one of the true street art legends of the original New York graffiti scene, often considered as one of the most influential graffiti writers in the scene. Dondi developed his unique and bold way of writing in the 1970’s, which saw him using the tags NACO and DONDI. 1977 saw him join the TOP crew (The Odd Partners) before starting his own crew in 1978, CIA (Crazy Inside Artists), which included names like Doc, Mare139, Kid56, Kel139 and Duro, while their friends Crash and Rasta joined in later as well. Dondi was quite unique in his approach to graffiti writing, often planning in great detail the pieces he was going to go and paint out in the street, practicing several times in sketch books before creating the final piece. Although Dondi was capable of producing the classic wildstyle form of graffiti writing, he preferred and developed his original large block style, which has remained influential to this day, allowing people to be able to read the text and also enabled Dondi to create patterns within the letters. 1980 saw Dondi become involved with the Esses Studio project, aimed at preserving subway art, during which he started to produce artworks on canvas, before becoming associated with the Soul Artists crew, formed by Marc André Edmonds aka ALI. The association with Soul Artists saw Dondi rubbing shoulders with graffiti creators such as Futura 2000, Keith Haring, Eric Haze, Lee Quiñones, Zephyr and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Later artworks saw Dondi moving away from street graffiti to produce collages and drawings. Unfortunately, Dondi White passed away from AIDS in New York, 1998, aged just 37. Catch up with our street art legends series by reading Street Art Legends: The Best of Basquiat Art and Street Art Legends: King Robbo Graffiti, about the work of King Robbo.
Photos of Dondi White by Martha Cooper.
Between 1978 and 1980, Dondi White created one of his most iconic pieces, Children of The Grave, painted over three whole cars on the New York City Subway. Children of the Grave was inspired by a Black Sabbath song, which is quite ironic when you consider that much of the graffiti from that classic era was associated with hip-hop rather than heavy metal, take a look at our Street Art & Music: Who Likes What? article. The images of part two and three were famously captured by Martha Cooper, but even she didn't see this photo of part one, taken by Francisco Reyes II, until thirty years later when she came across it in an exhibition.
Photo by Francisco Reyes II.
Children of the Grave part two is classic Dondi White graffiti writing, his distinctive bold style covering one complete car of the train. Created in 1980, this second part of Children of the Grave features his name, but sees the artist evolving his way of incorporating patterns into the letters and with a large hand looming in from the left hand side. Martha Cooper, famous for capturing much of the scene in New York with her photographs, later realised that this whole car piece of artwork from Dondi White, was the first whole car graffiti piece that she had photographed. Read more about the development of graffiti in 20th Century & the Rise of Graffiti.
This image captured by Martha Cooper is perhaps one of the most iconic and recognisable images of not just Dondi White, but also of the history of graffiti. The artist painted Children of the Grave part three during 1980 at New Lots Yards, accompanied by Martha Cooper who recorded the creation of the iconic graffiti work. The distinctive Children of the Grave part three saw White incorporate cartoon characters by the underground cartoonist and illustrator Vaughn Bodē, who had a big following among graffiti artists. See more classic train graffiti in the Big Subway Archive by Henry Chalfant
Dondi and fellow graffiti artist Zephyr were good friends and regularly painted trains together. One of their unique collaborations was this hard hitting Heroin Kills piece, taking up another whole car on a train. Apparently Dondi White and Zephyr were quite brazen in their approach to creating this piece of classic graffiti, attacking the train in broad daylight. It didn't quite go to plan though, with the train pulling out before they could put on the outlines, luckily they had plenty of paint left, so produced a second finished Heroin Kills train! It is a classic piece also featuring a little devil and syringe to get their important message across.
After becoming involved with the Esses Studio project and coming into contact with Soul Artists crew, Dondi White began to explore the idea of working on canvas and taking his graffiti art into galleries, leading to him being one of the first graffiti artists to have solo exhibitions in Holland and Germany. Born Again, painted in 1986, shows Dondi creating work that attempts to combine street art with fine art in his unique way, using graffiti writing, stick men and symbolic icons. He had come into contact with artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and seemed set to follow their path with a successful entry into galleries. However, Dondi White regularly struggled with being an artist and even the process of creating was a heavy burden on him sometimes, which led him away from painting and graffiti.
Another classic example of a painting on canvas by Dondi White, this one making an appearance at the Art in The Streets group exhibition at MOCA in 2011. The exhibition also included works by Blade, Crash, Invader, Kaws and JR to name just a few. The manner in which the painting was done, once again shows the unique approach of Dondi White, once more using his stick figures, graffiti writing and a simple stencil like face in the middle of the painting. Perhaps these paintings are not considered classic Dondi White creations, sometimes lacking the impact of his early works on the trains and walls of New York, but they do reflect an artist in transition. See more images in this Dondi Graffiti video.
Although Dondi White moved away from both graffiti writing and painting, he still produced stunning drawings and graphic based works, leaving behind hundreds of drawings when he died in 1998. Even in his early days of graffiti writing, White had meticulously planned his artworks in sketchbooks, often drawing the pieces several times before committing them to trains and walls. Here we can see the fine draughtsman style that Dondi possessed, often using elements from his graffiti writing days, on top of blueprints, which were sometimes plans of the subways.
Images via Dirty Pilot
SM General Notes is one of a number of fantastic mixed media pieces that Dondi White created around 1989, showcasing his wonderful ability to produce graphic images. This particular piece combines his classic approach to graffiti writing laid over architectural plans on brown paper, which adds a nice dynamic to the collage. SM General Notes also includes some rather fine architectural drawing by Dondi White himself in the bottom right hand corner and an unusual flying skeletal creature, that goes back to his love of comic style figures that appeared in his train graffiti.
Image via Dirty Pilot.
Rain Proof Dance, created by Dondi White in 1992 and which was also produced as a print in 2007, again shows the excellent graphic skills of Dondi. We once again find him merging his unique graffiti writing with wonderful drawings, including a church, small puppet like figure and an animal skull. The words STYLE MUTANT GOTHIC appear to the left, written on the distinctive brown paper containing more architectural plans, cut into a semi-circle so it looks as if it is a sun rising or setting behind the imagery of Dondi White.
Image via art and fashion salon.blogspot.com
To end this run through of images from Street Art Legends: Dondi White, we go back to an untitled sketch from 1983 to demonstrate how the artist loved to create many drawings in preparation for his final works. The simple design is produced on a scrap of paper from the Stanpat Supply Company, perhaps capturing Dondi at his best, just working out ideas for future artworks. As one would expect, it features the classic Dondi letter D amongst some graphic elements and a figure, possible Dondi White himself, lurking on the right hand side. Despite his death at just 37, Dondi White left a unique legacy of work that will ensure he remains one of the true street art legends and who will continue to inspire future generations.
Image courtesy of Museum of the City of New York