“The Headless Horsemen”
February 6, 1995
This is just wonderful,” he says, pointing at a Lower East Side wall layered with decades of graffiti. “Cy Twombly, Franz Kline, this shames them. Just the mess, the space.” As Dan Witz points out Chinese characters here, Hebrew lettering there, the eye is drawn to the top of the collage, a poster of a figure in a hooded sweatshirt, seemingly applying sticker to a wall looking down but without a face. “Some people think the Hoodys are about AIDS,” Witz says. “Some think they’re muggers. But dope is the thing down here.”
Witz and his jittery mixed breed, Camille, continue their walk down Allen Street; at every block, the 37 year-old artist points out another of the 75 Hoodys he has plastered on abandoned buildings and other heroin hot spots between 14th and Canal Streets.
Wheat pasted across from shooting galleries and methadone clinics, the Hoodys preside over dismal stoops where flesh-and-blood dealers in real hooded sweatshirts coolly call out the latest brands: Hellraiser, Looney Tunes, D-Nitro, and Gucci. “But it’s public art,” Witz emphasizes, pausing in a light rain at Norfolk Street to light up another Barclays cigarette. “It’s not meant to police anything.”
During the day, Witz, a graduate of Cooper Union as well as of the early eighties East Village punk scene, paints in oils; his recent gallery work includes chiaroscuro renderings of a woman using eyedrops and a ring of lawyers doing handstands. His first foray into street art was sixteen years ago, when he peppered downtown buildings with a widely noted but discreet series of small acrylics of hummingbirds.
About three years ago, Witz began noticing the sudden demise of cocaine and explosion of heroin in his circle. Fashionable sculptors, bass players, grunge kids, all started talking about “chasing the dragon.” Many copped in his Ludlow Street neighborhood. Three friends contracted HIV from needles, another died from an overdose. “I don’t write. I don’t march,” Witz says. Instead, last summer he took a black and white photograph, made it into a silk screen, and retouched it with some printers ink. From the start, the missions required military-style reconnaissance. “I hear things from a friend who works at a needle exchange, or from people in the art world,” Witz says. “Sometimes I just ride around on my motorcycle looking for dealers. They’re not that hard to spot.” On a wall in his studio, Witz keeps a map marked with Hoody pins.
On his chosen nights, he straps a sixteen-foot ladder to the roof of his 1962 Plymouth Valiant. Around 2 a.m., he skulks out (sometimes with a friend). He can finish a job in 60 seconds. “You just hope people don’t look out and wonder why you’re climbing up to the second story in the middle of the night.”
Witz and Camille pause near the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue A. Three hoodys emerge from the visual chaos, one over the doorway of an unmarked methadone clinic. “This is ground zero,” he says. “On the border of the East Village scene and the Lower East Side Supply.” The rain increases. Witz calls off the rest of the tour.
“There’s no public awareness of heroin,” he says before departing. “It’s cold now, and I haven’t been going out, so even I forget it’s out here. But my friend died, and he was a great guy.”