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From graffiti to gothic mythology, Rammellzee is remembered in New York
Photo: Lance Brewer, Installation view, RAMMELLZEE: Racing for Thunder. Courtesy of Red Bull Arts New York. © The Rammellzee Estate 2018.

by Thomas Urbain

NEW YORK (AFP).- Nearly a decade after his death, a New York retrospective of the rapper, composer, graffiti artist, painter, sculptor and cosmic theorist Rammellzee hopes to reveal to the world his multifaceted, iconoclastic work.

While street art has worked its way into everyone's living room, and a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat can fetch more that $100 million, Rammellzee, although a key figure of 1980s New York, remains -- as Sotheby's put it -- "perhaps the greatest street artist you've never heard of."

Like many aspiring artists of his time, a teenage Rammellzee in 1970s Queens, New York, started out spraying on subway trains.

But as time passed, his letters transformed into abstract figures -- compositions that by the start of the 1980s could be found in galleries, even Rotterdam's prestigious Boijmans Van Beuningen museum in 1983.

He also rapped -- and Basquiat produced -- his single "Beat Bop," which would go on to be sampled by the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill. Next, he made a stealthy cameo in Jim Jarmusch's cult film "Stranger Than Paradise."

But instead of being propelled to the same heights as Basquiat, Rammellzee changed course -- inventing the concept of gothic futurism, creating his own mythology based on a manifesto.

In his Tribeca studio, he materialized his creation in the form of the "Letter Racers" -- huge letters on skateboards that symbolize the possibility of free language as an emancipation tool.

He also made the "Garbage Gods," figurines made of recyclables -- half the "Recyclers," and half the "Trashers."

From the 1990s, Rammellzee would appear in public disguised in futuristic warrior get-up. Until his death from heart disease at 49, he remained in this imaginary world, current trends far from his mind.

"Our biggest challenge was how to find a way to take such a multi-faceted artist, character, myth and try to create a narrative arch that could convey his intentions," explained Max Wolf of Red Bull Arts New York, which is hosting the retrospective until August 26.

The pieces come from private collections and Rammellzee's family.

"The US doesn't really know a lot of that work, that was created and put into collections in Europe and never seen again," Wolf added. "So it was important that we try to forage all that and present it here."

"He had a purpose. He had a certain body of work that he had to complete, to complete this capsule of gothic futurism. He finished it and he passed away."

© Agence France-Presse

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