Iz the Wiz
Michael Martin, who has died aged 49, was better known as the graffiti artist Iz the Wiz, who decorated – some would say vandalised – dozens of trains on the New York subway system during a career which occupied him from his early teens.
Modern graffiti was born in New York, where it was associated with the emergence of hip hop culture. Iz the Wiz was among its most prolific practitioners, making his name among the "writers" (as graffiti artists call themselves) during the 1970s and 1980s. He began his career – or, as he called it, "street-taggin' " – in 1972, when he was only 14.
Iz the Wiz
Born on November 30 1958, Michael Martin grew up in the Queens district of New York. He later recalled: "I wanted to do something with myself and be a part of something. The neighbourhood I was in – it was either become a gangster, a drug addict, a musician or – here's something new. It was creative, it was secretive, it was a secret society."
Line by line, Iz took over the city's subway system, sometimes executing 100 "throw-ups" (one-colour outlines with one-colour fill-ins) in a single night. He was also known for his larger, much more elaborate pieces (or "burners").
The New York writers devised an entire lexicon to describe their art. A "whole car", for example, was a work that covered the entire visible surface of a subway car. When Iz was asked how many whole cars he had produced, he replied: "You mean, like, burner top-to-bottom jammies? Oh I don't know, I never counted but I know in the years '81-'82 I did no less than 25, and that was just in that time period."
They also created alter egos. Among Iz's writing partners were Epic 1 and 2; FI 1; Vinny; Evil 13; and Jester. "We were the diehards," Iz declared. "We kept on bombing [painting multiple surfaces] till there was no more paint."
Iz the Wiz's style was wild, psychedelic and always idiosyncratic. At one stage he was president of the graffiti group (or "crew") the Master Blasters and of the Queens division of Prisoners Of Graffiti. He also painted for The Odd Partners, The Crew and The Three Yard Boys.
One of the attractions for the subway writer was that his creations moved constantly around the city, thus reaching a wide audience – "a way of getting your name from Point A to Point B", as Iz put it. A fellow graffiti artist, Asis, said: "I remember riding the trains and walking the tunnels through Queens when I was a kid.
"All I saw was Iz everywhere I turned. He had tags [signatures] and throw-ups in the wildest places in every tunnel through Queens and Brooklyn. The coolest thing I remember was that Iz was a legend and I was just starting out and he made me feel like we were one and the same. That's rare to find, writers are egotistical beasts and Iz and his crew were as down-to-earth as they come even though they were true master blasters."
Iz himself said: "What I was doing was for fun. What it turned out to be was an added plus. It was an art form developed by kids to have fun, it was an escape. A 'king' [a respected graffiti artist] is someone you want to write with or fight with. The object of being a king is to have more [graffiti] than everyone else. Not the biggest, or the most beautiful – but more."
By the mid-1980s the authorities in New York were beginning to eliminate graffiti from the city's subway system, thanks principally to the introduction of much-improved security. Iz diversified, painting freight trains and walls in Queens, and in the 1990s was instrumental in the development of the Phun factory as a place where writers could paint legally, allowing many writers to emerge from retirement.
Iz the Wiz appeared in a documentary film, Style Wars, and in the early hip hop film Wild Style, and his work has been displayed in galleries throughout the world.
For the past decade Michael Martin had suffered from kidney problems, and many believed that his illness derived from his years inhaling toxic paint fumes and dust from the subway tunnels.
He had moved to Florida and had been in financial difficulties, lacking enough money to pay his rent and fund his medical care. He said recently of the fame he had achieved: "I would trade it all back for perfect health."
Published June 23 2009 @telegraph.co.uk