On a recent Friday night, at the corner of West Broadway and Canal Street, Robert McDermott, a graffiti artist known by the tag “Orbit,” stood with $6 clenched in his fist. The Harlem resident needed a favor. At 15, he can’t legally buy spray paint, so he was stopping almost every adult stranger, pointing to a store up the block, and asking, “Could you go in there and buy me paint?”
McDermott’s target, Scrap Yard at 300 West Broadway, may be a haven for graffiti artists but its straight-faced clerk, Giovanni, is known for IDing anyone looking to buy spray paint in his store.
After a two-hour wait, McDermott finally found a willing participant and eventually got what he came for — one can of silver spray paint.
“Graffiti is pretty much my life,” he said. “I’d buy that whole store if I could.”
For 16 years, Scrap Yard, a walk-in-closet sized shop at the edge of SoHo has quietly catered to local and international graffiti writers, selling spray paint, markers, stickers and magazines. While the presence of graffiti in New York City has ebbed and flowed over the years, the passion of its followers has remained constant, keeping Scrap Yard in business and making it a landmark stop for graffiti artists and those who appreciate the urban art form.
“Thank God this place still exists,” said Tommy T., 43, a mechanic for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Tommy, who had just bought two books on graffiti’s history at Scrap Yard, refused to give his last name because, “My boss is a pretty well documented graffiti opponent,” he said, referring to the war the MTA declared — and won — on subway graffiti in the 1980s.
Still, the Jamaica, Queens resident, dressed in his work-issued tan overalls said his employment with the MTA never stopped him from making monthly trips to Scrap Yard or even hanging out in it when he was younger.
“I used to be in SoHo all the time,” he said. “It was a writer’s paradise. Tags were on every wall, nothing was safe. That was when New York City was raw and real. Now city life is too regimental. Now you just have brainwashed latte sippers on every corner. When I’m in this neighborhood, I’m the one who feels out of place…. At least the [Scrap] Yard hasn’t succumbed.”
Walking into the store, wallpapered with tagged NYC subway maps, is like entering a graffiti writer’s Nirvana. Spray paint cans are stacked toward the ceiling behind one of three glass counters, all of which are filled with graffiti supplies or merchandise. Another counter features dozens of white aerosol caps, neatly organized in several compartments. Caps are critical to graffiti writers, because they control the consistency of the paint coming out of the aerosol can. Underneath the caps are scores of paint markers used to draw on any surface, and next to those, graffiti magazines chronicling the subculture.
“Sometimes some of our more younger writers walk in here and go gaga when they see how much merchandise we’ve got,” said Giovanni, who’s run the store for several years with his friend Kasem. Giovanni hinted at his writing, or having written, graffiti.
“I was a customer here,” Giovanni said. “And now I run the place. That’s all I’m saying.”
Scrap Yard’s owner is entrepreneur Mark Awfe, who declined an interview for this story. Awfe’s connection to the graffiti subculture is merely circumstantial, according to those at the store. He never wrote graffiti and never intended on having a shop catering to graffiti artists. In the late 80s, he opened a gallery/head shop, the SoHo Zat, across the street from where Scrap Yard now stands. The SoHo Zat began its gradual evolution after some graffiti writers entered the gallery and asked for caps, according to Awfe’s cousin, who works at Scrap Yard on Sundays, but declined to give his name.
“My cousin thought it would be a good idea to buy the caps,” Awfe’s cousin said. “Once we had them, the writers wanted markers. When we got those, they wanted spray cans and shirts and magazines. It snowballed.”
Eventually SoHo Zat changed its name to Bomb the System, the name by which most still know it. However, after the September 11 attacks, Awfe changed it to Scrap Yard. Giovanni said that ever since the store opened, it has for the most part been successful. And while the location is slightly tucked away on West Broadway, there’s still plenty of foot traffic, he said.
On a recent visit to the store, Giovanni’s assessment seemed accurate. About every 20 minutes another group of wide-eyed teenagers would walk in. Two such teenagers, in sagging jeans and backpacks covered in graffiti, stood at a glass counter and peered down at the array of markers and ink pens displayed inside. When debating what to buy, they spoke in hushed tones, as if simply browsing meant breaking the law.
“You got Krink in blue?” asked a young man with a Yankees baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, referring to a high quality, broad-tip paint marker sold at Scrap Yard.
“Nah, we’re out,” Giovanni said, somewhat impatiently because the young man in the Yankees cap looked younger than 18, the legal age for buying broad-tip markers in New York State.
Giovanni said Scrap Yard wasn’t liable for what its customers do with the products outside, but he and those at the store wanted to make sure they obeyed the laws inside. That means Scrap Yard doesn’t sell to anyone under the legal age and they don’t carry etching acid, a substance often used to indelibly engrave glass and plastic windows with graffiti tags.
“We’re serious about not breaking the rules here,” he said, breaking into a half smile.
Despite the abundance of novices that entered the store, Scrap Yard has seen its share of major players.
“If you’re anybody in the graffiti world, you have passed through these doors,” Giovanni said.
One well-known graffiti writer who passed through Scrap Yard’s doors last week was Tony Brush. The 39-year-old graffiti veteran, donning a turquoise jump suit and mirrored aviator glasses, said he has fond memories of the store, but is “too old to hang out here anymore.”
The Brooklyn native, whose tag is “Sage,” went commercial with his graffiti and paints murals for private companies. He also sells his work in galleries at prices ranging from $300 and $5,000, he said. Brush came to the store last week, and continues to come, because it’s one of the only places in New York that sells Montana spray paint, considered ideal for doing graffiti.
Brush, who illegally painted MTA subway cars in the 80s, said he also come to the store for the sense of nostalgia.
“If you’re from New York City,” Brush said, “graffiti is part of your heritage, period. It’s part of the energy, and I think it captures the essence of the city…. It’s sad we [writers] can no longer just bomb, what with the city’s video camera campaign. They’ve made it impossible,” he said, as he pointed out a video camera attached to a store’s awning down the block. The camera was trained on Scrap Yard’s front entrance.
Since former Mayor Rudy Giuliani made eradicating graffiti one of his top priorities, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg followed suit, cameras have been effectively used to nab graffiti writers. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said that the NYPD has also experimented with infrared cameras to catch vandals in the dark.
While technology has given police the upper hand, one NYPD officer in the department’s vandal squad, who refused to give her name, said she was “quite familiar” with Scrap Yard, and added that despite those advancements in technology, the NYPD still catches writers the old fashion way: by stakeout.
And the vandal squad has staked out Scrap Yard many times, she said.
“We’ll sit in front of the place in an unmarked car,” said the officer, who’s been on the squad for nine years.
After the graffiti writers buy the merchandise, she said, “We follow them to see what their next moves are. If they’re dumb enough to start tagging at, say, a nearby train station, Boom! we move in. It’s been very successful. We’ve gotten many arrests like that.”
But many graffiti writers at Scrap Yard said they weren’t concerned about getting caught near the location because, they said, they wouldn’t vandalize SoHo – at least during the day.
They did, however, express another kind of concern: that Scrap Yard’s chances of surviving in pricey SoHo might be growing slimmer.
Ten years ago, an empty lot with graffiti covered walls stood across the street from Scrap Yard. That space is now a luxury condominium. The store’s neighbor to the north, once an abandoned building, is now the SoHo Grand Hotel, which charges upwards of $500 a night.
Still, the interest in graffiti remains strong, keeping Scrap Yard soundly in business for now.
“These guys were the pioneers of the graffiti movement,” said John Taylor, a 62-year-old designer from London and a Scrap Yard customer. He said losing the store would be a loss to the neighborhood and rejected the idea.
“I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere,” he said. “Let’s face it, if you’ve survived down here for 16 years, you’ve pretty much become part of SoHo’s fabric. And how colorful it is.”