Writing His Future

Vulcan, the erstwhile king of spray can art, wants to leave the streets behind without losing his soul

There's a part of him that plans elements of his artworks for weeks, and another that lets go, allowing his subconscious to move his wrist wherever it decides. After two decades of painting, he's barely able to intellectualize the mechanics of the medium.

"I don't know how a spray can works," he says. "It's magic."


When he was a kid, the words were everywhere — all over the streets, on nearly every gate in East Harlem.

Vulcan’s complex lettering was often unreadable to all but practitioners of the art.
Vulcan’s complex lettering was often unreadable to all but practitioners of the art.
Vulcan helped found Harlem’s Graffiti Hall of Fame.
Ernie Paniccioli
Vulcan helped found Harlem’s Graffiti Hall of Fame.

"Free Huey," they said.

William Crutchfield, the boy who would become Vulcan, had no idea who Huey Newton was, or why the Black Panther co-founder was in jail. But the words became imprinted in his mind.

During grade school in the early 1970s, his family moved from Harlem to downtown New York City, and he took the subway to school every morning. He began to see names written on the trains and to wonder where they came from. Who was doing it, and when, and how did they avoid getting caught?

The boy picked up scraps of knowledge from kids at school and friends of friends, collecting rumors about an underground culture of spray can artists who called themselves "writers" and strange tales of a place up in the Bronx where subway cars went to rest for the night. He took the name Vulcan — not, as is widely assumed, after the home planet of Star Trek's Mr. Spock or the Roman god of fire, but after a model rocket owned by a friend. He started with motion tagging: riding the train for hours after school, marker in hand, looking for empty subway cars in which to write his name. Soon he began painting the insides and outsides of trains with spray cans. His work was fueled not by cravings for fame or money or outlaw status (he says he was never arrested), but by an irrepressible desire to express himself.

"Now it's very popular, kind of 'urban chic' to be a writer," Vulcan remembers, "but back then, it wasn't something you wanted to be. Girls aren't interested, your family's not interested, your friends think you're stupid."

He was a smart kid, an honors student who skipped fifth grade, but he "stopped caring" at age 14 when his father died, and graduated high school as quickly as he could. Around the same time, he quit writing.

As a teen Vulcan bounced from apartment to apartment in New York City, moving through a variety of Renaissance-man adventures. At 15 he became a club DJ, playing after-hours parties downtown. A few years later he bought a dirt bike and created a motocross course on Ward's Island (where city bulldozer workers trained), co-founding a Harlem motorcycle scene that's still vibrant today. He joined a series of funk and metal bands, sometimes playing bass, sometimes singing lead. His family (whom he's wary of discussing) didn't approve: He barely talks to his two siblings, and his mother, who died several years ago, was never interested in his art.

Slowly, writing crept back into his life. At first he just watched, ogling the work of the best street artists. Then he spent months drawing at home, plotting his return. Vulcan would walk the streets of Harlem, fantasizing about the complex murals he'd soon create. Around age 20, he began painting with spray cans again. Compared to most of his fellow writers, he was already an old man.

Within a few years, he was among the top practitioners of the underground (and illegal) art of painting trains and walls. Vulcan's style was different from most of his peers' — more geometric and robotic, with letters so layered and intricate they were frequently unreadable. He often used hundreds of colors in a single piece, though he'd scavenged most of the cans rather than buy them.

"Vulcan was doing pieces in '83, '85 that were so advanced at the time — I don't even know how he got ahold of so many colors back then. He was light-years ahead of his time," says Saber, painter of the largest work of spray can art in the world, a football field-size piece on the cement banks of the Los Angeles River.

Vulcan founded Harlem's renowned Hall of Fame, a place for street artists to show off their best work, which soon attracted art-loving tourists from all over the world. His own paintings appear in dozens of books and magazines from and about the era: He's on the cover of Aerosol Kingdom, the definitive academic work on spray can culture, which is named after one of his murals.

In contrast to the bombastic DJs and rappers around him, Vulcan let his paintings speak for themselves. He was so soft-spoken as to be an almost ghostly presence in any room. Ernie Paniccioli, a well-known hip-hop photographer for three decades, remembers meeting Vulcan on the Lower East Side as he leaned against a painted wall. "He was already a legend, but he was really shy," Paniccioli says. "He was so serene and quiet, not really fitting in ... standing there looking mystical."

As Vulcan came into his own as a writer, hip-hop culture was going mainstream, and artists were cashing in with deals to make T-shirts, clothing lines, and ads.

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