With Charlie Brown, his large, lovable black lab leading the way, Mike-171 heads toward his museum.
A big guy with close-cropped reddish hair and bright blue eyes, Mike-171 climbs the front steps of his fourth-floor walkup at a cardio-pumping clip.
“It’s better than going to the gym,” he says, pausing only long enough to point out the art along the way.
In the entry, there are a pair of landscapes in gilded plaster frames that are original to the building, which was erected in the early 1900s.
On the first floor, there’s a bright mural of a polychrome toucan by the Mexico City-based artist Senu.
The second floor is defined by an eye-popping mesmerizing maze painted on the wall by Heart 1 of Jersey City.
Up until recently, the hallway walls of the eight-unit building were standard-issue apartment white, but they needed to be painted so Mike-171 is filling them, floor by floor, with street graffiti art he’s commissioning from around the world.
“I told the landlord I would paint the walls, but I didn’t tell him with what,” he says, grinning unapologetically. “The people who live here like them – they put people in a good mood, and they allow them to leave their troubles behind when they walk into the building.”
When he reaches his top-floor apartment, he ascends a final set of steps and flings open the black metal door.
Welcome to the Rooftop Graffititeria, Mike-171’s own personal 5Pointz.
“This is my office,” he says, waving his arm toward a space defined by a square of artificial turf, a bright blue kiddie pool where he and Charlie Brown cool their feet, a half-dozen folding chairs and tiny green twinkling lights shaped like cacti. “It’s a sanctuary where artists can express themselves without being harassed.”
The Rooftop Graffititeria came into being spontaneously five years ago when one of Mike-171’s friends needed a place to paint.
The word got out, and the walls got tagged.
Mike-171 – that’s the graffiti tag he’s been using since he was 12 – was born Mike Hughes (“H-u-g-h-e-s like Howard Hughes, but I don’t have his money but I’m rich in my heart,” he says).
The 171 refers to the street in Washington Heights where he was born, bred and raised and where he picked up his first bottle of white shoe polish and used it to mark out his territory for all the city to see.
Later he switched to colored markers then traded them for cans of spray paint.
“My father had just died, and I had taken a job as a delivery boy for an A&P grocery store,” he says, adding that he had been hustling to make money since he was about 10, doing things like selling lemonade in the neighborhood.
Graffiti, he says, gave him an identity.
“It was by kids for kids; it was our own underground culture,” he says. “The streets became my family.”
It was a tumultuous time, even for children lucky enough to be raised by two parents.
The Vietnam War was in full swing, and the city was infamous the world over for drugs, gangs and cop corruption.
There was a lot to rebel against.
Mike-171 and his pioneering graffiti buddies “declared war on New York City Transit; we used to be in the subway tunnels from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m. Our graffiti brought them to life – it was like a rolling gallery of art.”
After being expelled from George Washington High School, Mike-171 had a friend forge his birth certificate, adding a year to his age so he could join the Marines at 16.
“But they caught me – they literally grabbed me by the neck as I was about to get on the bus that was taking us to boot camp,” he says. “They told me I had to wait until I was 17.”
He and his tag waited, impatiently it should be noted.
A year later, he joined the Navy and was assigned to an aircraft carrier.
He never got to Vietnam, but he did tour Europe – “yes, I left my tag in several cities” – and after a series of hair-raising events, including one where shipmates tried to throw him overboard, he was honorably discharged, having served a year and a half.
When he came back home, he started painting.
But there’s nothing artistic about brushing colors on the interiors and exteriors of homes, so he searched for more engaging employment.
Through the years, he held several different types of jobs that ranged from driving a limo to laying bricks.
Ultimately, he settled on construction work as a career.
In 1993, he and his wife moved into the three-bedroom apartment they and 9-year-old Charlie Brown occupy.
Mike-171 temporarily retired his tag while he was busy working and raising his two children there but revived it after seeing his friends’ work at art galleries.
“We had the basement and the back yard,” he says. “So I had room to work. I’m now the super of my building and the two next to it, and the landlords allow me to put up the murals. I saw the rooftop as a blank canvas. The artists come from all over – Paris, London, Japan, Puerto Rico, Florida and even Queens.”
Aside from graffiti art, 9/11 was the other defining factor in Mike-171’s life.
A volunteer with the New York City Citizens Police Academy, a civilian training program, Mike-171 raced to Ground Zero right after the first tower fell.
“I was standing on the sidewalk outside the second tower when it was hit,” he says. “I was a first responder and a survivor.”
An associate producer of the 2016 documentary Wall Writers, Mike-171 is devoting himself to telling the story of the city’s graffiti artists, a task that will be much easier now that he has retired.
He’s also writing a book about the Washington Heights he knew during the 1950s through the 1970s.
It’s a project he started all the way back in 1996 and is based on the journals he has been keeping.
“We old-time graffiti artists still get together and do a lot of legal walls with landlords’ permission,” he says, adding that it’s imperative “to keep graffiti art alive because a lot of us are dying.”
Graffiti art got Mike-171 through some tough times, and he’d like to use it to help other troubled teens.
“I’m still that 12-year-old kid with fire burning in my heart,” he says as he sits sunning himself in his office. “I want to keep the flame burning and pass it along to the next generation.”
Copyright 2021 by Nancy A. Ruhling