Tracy 168 was an architect of the graffiti movement.
He was there almost from the very beginning in 1970, until the last days of his life. His influence was felt by multiple generations, and his impact on style can be seen in some of the most famous writers in the world.
Michael Tracy was born February 14, 1958, in the Bronx. As a kid he spent three days a week in Manhattan with his Puerto Rican grandfather, and four days with his Irish mother in the Bronx. His father had left the family early on. Tracy roamed the Bronx fearlessly, at night he broke into the Bronx Zoo to play with the animals, and drive the carts around.
As the graffiti movement blossomed around him in the early '70s, he started writing with a group of kids from his school, Sacred Heart. Those kids would turn into some of the most talented writers of the 1970s.
In 1974, he officially named the group Wanted. He quickly turned over the presidency of the crew to his right hand man, Chi-Chi 133.
In 1975, he started a newer group with limited membership called Wild Style. To Tracy, wild style was more than just a style, it was a way of life, as he said in a recent interview. “To me it’s almost like a religion or way of life, but it started as a series of interlocking mechanical letters that we did our pieces with. So people would see a TRACY 168, or a PNUT 2 piece and they’d have a little WS inside them and whether they could read them or not they’d say “Yo, WILD STYLE!“ So it was not only a crew but it was also the type of style we represented.”
To later generations it would always be the title of the Hip-Hop film by Charlie Ahearn.
The bulk of Tracy’s work was done on the trains from 1972 to 1976. His earlier pieces were just outlines of his eponymous tag. By 1973, he started to blossom, adding his innate artistic ability into his works.
In 1974, he painted a perfect rendering of Yosemite Sam on the side of the trains. Cartoons were fairly new at the time, and his rendering was highly sophisticated.
In 1975, he painted a rocket going sideways, the flames shooting out and enveloping his name, taking a great concept and rendering it perfectly. At the same time as doing these elaborate pieces, he continued to blanket the lines with his name, and painted in billboard letters with silver and black in under ten minutes. His speed and efficiency were so great that he could do twenty of these in a night.
As 1977 rolled around, Tracy was done. He made a huge media splash when he invited a reporter to photograph him painting a train in the middle of the day. He told the journalist that he would paint anyone’s name for $25 dollars and a picture of the piece. It was audacious, and the Daily News printed it.
Tracy would be in and out of the media spotlight for the rest of his life.
A whole new generation of writers were coming up, and Tracy was there to mentor them.
T-Kid 170 had this to say about Tracy’s influence: “ He mentored me man, he taught me everything from balance in painting, to how to use characters in a piece. He taught me how to steal, how to distract the store owners. He taught me all about the art world, and how you put your heart and soul into something and never get it back. He taught me how to live. One thing he always said was wild style’s not a style of letters, it’s a way of life.”
Most writers left graffiti and never looked back, but Tracy was so talented that in the late '70s he began painting store gates — a career he pursued off and on for the next thirty years.
During that time he was in and out of the art world, showing at different galleries. The art world couldn’t contain Tracy, if they asked him to do Tracy pieces he did portraits, if they asked him to paint portraits he did graffiti, he couldn’t stand being told what to do, and his rebellious nature made him a fly in the ointment.
During his final years he encountered health problems, and was shuttled back and forth to different facilities. When I saw him last, he had a room filled with new works, and canvasses and paint to work with. This was last year, and he was still selling to collectors. His health declined rapidly this year and Michael Tracy died of a heart attack on September 3rd.
Graffiti legend Lee Quinones, star of the movie Wild Style had this to say about his passing: "The WILD CHILD himself phrased it all correctly back in the mid '70's. He found himself to be dismissed by society for being WILD around the edges, but he shrugged it all off his shoulders and only became more bolder within a society of artists that were hammering out a STYLE of their own.
Long live the poets and word smith's of our generation, long live the WILDness in a kid with STYLE"
Rest in Peace Mike.