“Wild Style, woo-woo!!” That’s how subway graffiti pioneer and lovable lunatic TRACY 168 would announce himself to me—and everyone else—when he’d visit. He used to stop into the gallery I used to run in the early 2000’s, to talk shit about the scene and and bless me with quickly drawn canvasses and hit the in-house blackbooks. Born in February of 1958 in the Bronx, Michael Tracy was funny and eccentric; he was one of those loud-mouthed, old school writers who was by no means humble or shy about his contributions to the culture. And he could back it up, establishing himself as one of the most influential graffiti artists to ever pick up a spray can and make his mark, literally, on NYC history.
TRACY painted with the most notable practitioners in the game over the course of his career. “We turned dark gloomy trains into rolling rainbows,” he once said. TRACY started writing early in the late 1960s and was part of that first generation of writers responsible for advancing the underground art form considerably and making that transition into the gallery world less than a decade later. He was widely recognized for being proficient early on with color and design and of course, his iconic TRACY-face character.
TRACY coined “wild style,” and used it to describe the kinetic style of lettering he developed, the legendary crew he founded, and the way he lived. In a 2006 New York Magazine article, here’s how TRACY contextualized the iconic phrase: “I started wild style. Wild means untamed, and style means I have class. So I was like an animal but with respect. And they used that word for the hip-hop movie. They thought it was a saying that was all over the street, but it was just the way we lived.”
He was referring to the cult classic film of the same namesake that director Charlie Ahearn ran with as a title, and that eventually became cemented into the graffiti lexicon. That always bugged the shit out of TRACY, since he was never compensated for its use and then watched as it grew into a popular expression wholly divorced from its original author—that’s why he liked to remind everyone whenever he could.
Plus, TRACY lived a hard life in his later years, battling all sorts of demons and cash flow issues, despite having been one of the architects of an internationally recognized and respected art form. Most importantly though, TRACY was keenly aware that the real ones in the graffiti community knew he was the originator and no one could ever take that from him. Wild Style will always be his legacy. It was written… RIP Graffiti King TRACY 168! 👑