After college, I worked on a film in New York. It was the early 80s, and there was graffiti everywhere. You'd see a new Basquiat poem on a wall one day, and within week later other artists had added to it. Until then I had thought of painting as being rather static and dead, but this kind of painting was alive and metamorphosing every day.
One day on the film set, I had to keep a crowd at bay inside the entrance of the 34th Street subway station. Keith Haring appeared and started drawing on a poster and we struck up a conversation. I told him that his job looked a lot more fun than mine. He invited me to have a go, but I said that I didn't think I could paint over his work. Later, we went to a party together, and he encouraged me to buy some spray paint and find myself an empty wall.
I knew about a building on West 56th Street and 7th Avenue that was empty and condemned to be torn down. My boss had just moved out but I still had the keys. One weekend I bought spray paint and covered some walls in abstract graffiti. I passed out because I wasn't wearing a mask. Upon awakening, I blew my nose and colors came out. I looked around and saw that the room was filled with images from my imagination.
Over the next year I covered all the rooms with paintings and even painted the roof, but the city kept putting large locks on the door and signs saying, 'KEEP OUT GRAFFITI ARTIST.' Behind my empty building, the fire escape was only a couple of feet from the fire escape of the Hotel Wellington. I spied a dark room that was full of rolled carpets and furniture. I climbed up and found the window open. The bathroom had running water. That 7th floor room became the entrance to my studio.
English art dealer Robert Fraser came to New York looking for graffiti artists for an exhibition called "Paris/New York." I took his assistant to the Hotel Wellington on 7th Avenue. By then, the hotel staff thought that I lived there. I bought a newspaper, as I did every day, and the bellboy said, "Good morning Mr. Elwes." We took an elevator to the 7th floor. I opened the door to the room with a credit card and we stepped out of the window and climbed across to the fire escape of "my" building. Fraser liked my paintings and invited me to be a part of an exhibition with Basquiat and Haring.
Robert wanted me to stay in London and do a solo show on Cork Street. He said, "You know that you are the only English graffiti artist?" He took me to meet Basquiat. We had a great connection, but I wanted to go to Paris and learn how to paint with a brush. Robert was still interested in a show and asked to see my Paris paintings in six months. Sadly, he became very ill and succumbed to Aids. He was one of the great art dealers, and I was amazed and grateful that he had shown such belief in me.
I painted graffiti at night but police often followed me around. After painting "Fish" I decided to only paint on dilapidated or temporary walls.
Back in London I started painting graffiti in the streets. I searched for interesting walls that could frame and be a part of potential paintings. My brothers and I had grown up in London in the sixties, and bomb sites (left over from the war) had been our playgrounds.
I painted graffiti at night but police often followed me around. This was an empty building on the corner of the Kings Road opposite Safeway. No one ever knew that I was painting graffiti on the streets because it was safer to just keep quiet about it.