Graffiti Artist ANNA! Takes us into the immersive world of the NYC underground.
Anna, a graffiti artist from Brooklyn, has been in the game since 2016, tagging her infamous “ANNA!” throughout various locations in NYC. To Anna, her art is a way to deal with her emotions; by painting her name in well-known locations, Anna can not only make her mark but also let others know that she is here and here to stay.
JST: Hi Anna, thank you so much for talking with us! NYC’s graffiti scene is so vast it’ll be nice to get a first-hand perspective on it. What is the type of graffiti you typically do?
Anna: I do spray painting tags and roller-paint tags. Usually, on top of buildings, I’ll hang down the tops of the buildings and paint my name huge using a paint roller! When I want my tag to last a while, I’ll use bright colored oil paint. When using neutral acrylic paint, it could easily be washed off or colored by the building, whereas bright-colored oil paints are harder to take off, and the color could be seen through certain paint.
JST: Could you describe how you first got into tagging your name?
Anna: I used to date this other graffiti artist named Cash4. I would watch him roller paint from the bottom up, and I thought it would be easier to do it instead of the top-down, that’s how my style was born. Around the time I turned 23 was when I really got into tagging. It became an outlet to express my anger. I started doing graffiti to ‘exist,’ if I’m not in your range of sight, I don’t exist. Putting my name huge in places I know people will see, will keep me always in your mind.
JST: How did you come up with “ANNA!” for your tag? What is the meaning behind the exclamation point?
Anna: I thought that my name, “Anna” was way too structured, so I decided to add the exclamation point to offset that. Sometimes an exclamation point could be seen as sarcasm; I also wanted something that caught the eye.
JST: I’ve noticed that some of your tags end in “is a toy,” what is the significance of it?
Anna: That’s something I used to tag a lot back when I was first starting out. “Is a toy” is lingo in the graffiti world means an “annoyance/tool/poser” basically someone just starting out. For one thing, I wanted to call myself that before anyone else could. Now, I don’t consider myself a toy, so I don’t tag it. It’s weird because I’m this thin, white-blond girl yet sort of became a “hub of info” for certain corners of the graffiti community. I stick out in a good way, I’m included within the “group,” no longer a poser/toy. People are now coming to me, it’s cool but also frightening. The graffiti community is powerful. We are very charismatic, sensitive criminals.
JST: That’s so interesting! I thought it might have been a way to claim your feminine sexuality in the graffiti community.
Anna: Yea! When I was spray painting “is a toy,” I thought people would take it that way. It’s cool that people interpret my art whichever way they want. “Anna! is a toy” is meant to be provocative, sex toy, barbie doll. I want to tag something that people are gonna say and say it first.
JST: Did you ever experiment with other tags before deciding on “ANNA!”?
Anna: Actually, yes! I used to go around NYC tagging “$ex ¢uren¢¥” but then I got broken up with and wrote “Anna” on the steps of my ex-boyfriend’s apartment, and it was history from there.
JST: I noticed that you cover your face a lot in photos and promo pieces, why? How sacred is anonymity in the graffiti world?
Anna: The name of the game is “no face no case,” also think my art is more than what I look like. I believe that showing my face brings too much attention to what I’m not trying to show. My art is about my art, that’s it.
JST: What was the first/best place you’ve tagged?
Anna: Oh wow, the first things I really used to tag were the inside of bus ad terminals! I used to have a master-key with access to all of the bus ad terminals in Manhattan. The best place is the tunnels. Tagging in the NYC subway tunnels is an insane experience. I was basically taught about the tunnels by the most royal of tunnel vigilante, MrBakerMan (@mr.bakermann). He showed me the ins-and-outs, the dos-and-don’ts of tagging in the subways. Most graffiti artists think it’s a waste of time because no one is gonna see it. To me, it’s freaking exciting! You have to learn how to properly navigate the tunnels, where the exits are when the trains are coming, how to hide! It’s the thrill of the chase.
I also tagged the famous Bowery Wall in broad daylight, which was super fun. Originally it was a mural that said “Lift You Higher” and I thought that it was lame so I wrote my name super big all over the mural. I think that got my name out there a lot more. More people respected me for being so ballsy. Every street artist wants to tag that wall and I just did it. It was only up for a few days but it was awesome.
JST: What draws you so much to tagging the NYC Subway tunnels?
Anna: The tunnels are special. I think in 50 years you won’t be able to go down there. Technology will evolve, cameras and better lights will be put in there, making them virtually impossible to enter without a trespassing charge. People don’t think about time as history unfolding, every day we are witnessing the future unfolds, and the past ends. The tunnels are the last real ‘uncharted’ territory of NYC.
The first time I went down into the tunnels, I went with Aymann, he’s the one that introduced me to them. I was dressed like an angel with wings and boy’s tighty-whities. There was no spray-paint involved. It was UNREAL. Next time I went down in a shitty wedding dress I bought in a Bushwich used-clothes store. We entered at the J train Bowery stop, the tunnel there was a completely unused, clean station. It was cool, scary, but also normal. From then on, I became fascinated by it. It’s crazy to actually walk through the tunnels and know that the people taking the actual subway will never see the tunnels from this perspective; it’s so much different than you’d expect.
JST: Could you give us a crash-course on tagging in the tunnels?
Anna: Definitely. So, usually, the biggest misconception about the tunnels is that they’re unsafe, when in reality, once you’re down there, it’s actually pretty safe! I feel safer in the tunnels than 4 a.m. in Harlem. For beginners, you should start with entering the tunnels at the D or A line between 84th street. Between every station, there is an emergency exit halfway, yellow frames on doorways equal safe zones! To be 100% safe and sneaky, I would wait in these door frames until a train passes, then walk and hit the next door, wait for the train and then repeat until I find a good spot. When you’re tagging in the middle of the railway, remember DON’T TOUCH THE THIRD RAIL! Taking big steps on the track could be a lifesaver. The NYC subway system is electronic, and the third rail houses all that electricity. You can usually hear when the electricity turns on, it’s a loud “clink” noise, but even if you think it’s off don’t touch it or it’s lights out for you. You have to be aware of the light and wind in the tunnels because that are signs that a train is coming. If a train comes, hide behind the divider on the tracks, don’t let the conductor see you because they will honk and get out of the train. One time I was tagging and trains came from both directions of the track, I had to flip between the divider to avoid the conductors!
Basically, the tunnels are almost like the last uncharted area of NYC, there are no cameras. The tunnels remind me a lot of the ocean, and the trains are like whales, don’t get too close to them, respect them, and it’ll be an awesome experience.
JST: I saw you almost got caught by the conductor in your “Anna! in Wonderland” Youtube Video, that was so scary!
Anna: Oh yea it was. It was funny though because RD357 and I saw the train slowing and we dipped, but the conductor didn’t honk or get out of the car because he saw this little girl in an Alice in Wonderland dress and a grown man in a bunny mask, he probably thought it was so weird that he didn’t bother doing anything about it, hahaha.
I actually kind of forced RD357 to direct the video. He had just gotten busted for graffiti and really couldn’t do it anymore because of that. We were sitting and talking about that one day, and I just said, “Alright, you’re a producer now.” and that’s when we filmed the video.
JST: I noticed that your other art, like your canvas pieces, is heavily inspired by graffiti. What does this style of expression mean to you? Why are you so drawn to it?
Anna: For me, graffiti is an outlet for my anger. I’m mad at the world, I’m mad at men, so painting my name super huge is an act of rebellion, I guess. I honestly think that it’s one of the more interesting art movements of all time. I define street art as an advertisement for a person, graffiti is stolen, you can’t find them [the artist] anywhere. Murals are asking for a follow or self-promotion, graffiti does not in that same respect. Yea, you can tag your name and make it “personal” but it’s more for you, and no one else.
I think the reason I’m so drawn to tagging abandoned buildings and hard-to-reach places is probably influenced by my dad’s suicide. When I was 16, he died. 10 years later, that somehow turned into a fascination with abandoned buildings. There is something about infrastructure built for a purpose but now lays empty, I relate to it. We [artists] do all of these scary things because we want to be remembered. An abandoned building is there but often not remembered. Tagging gives us a purpose, I think.
I’m an adrenaline fiend. Tagging is a way to recreate the trauma I experienced, in order to understand it. Perhaps to recreate the sensation to make it not as significant/ controllable. That’s how I think of it when I think about why I do this.
JST: I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s awful to lose a parent that young.
Anna: It definitely molded me. But, I think that almost everyone in the graffiti community can relate to that. Someone has lost someone really important to them, and that’s what fuels their drive to tag and create graffiti. Everyone is either angry or sad with something/someone. Graffiti is an important outlet for all of us.
JST: Being a woman in the graffiti community, do you see any gender differences in the field?
Anna: 100%. I feel like I’m one of the few girls that take risks. Since I do this to deal with my anger/emotions, I tend to do kind of ridiculous things. I think that most girls are scared to do what I do. It’s dangerous, it’s loud, and it’s oftentimes scary but so rewarding. Usually, I don’t paint anywhere that I don’t think will last for 10 years, that means making it huge, and getting into a situation to make it harder to clean up.
I also think that guys see graffiti as a competition, almost like a sport. Guys tend to follow the graffiti rules from the 80s, which is a big reason why I don’t typically spray paint. There’s no innovation with that mode of art. I’m so drawn to roller paint because it’s different, new, and you can literally reach new heights of tagging with it. Honestly, I kind of see men being like primates. It’s funny, I wanna test them at their own game, in the only game where I won’t be judged by my face or voice. It’s paint or paint only. In my “Anna! In Wonderland” video, I took what’s been happening for 25 years and made it look easy, AND I showed my face! People were pissed! Not only was I not playing by the old-school rules of graffiti, but I was endorsed by graffiti royalty, RD357.
JST: Besides your mode of creation, what other ways does your style differ from other graffiti artists?
Anna: In general, graffiti writers write for other graffiti writers, that’s why it’s not legible to most people. I used to get paid to make murals in Times Square. I think of graffiti as free advertising. Think about it, how much money does Chanel pay a month to be in the NYC bus ad shelters? Whatever that is, I take them out, put “ANNA!” on them, and put them back in. Chanel essentially paid for my advertising. That’s what I think sets me apart from other artists. I want people to see these recognizable ads completely covered in my name and be confused by it. The “subliminal advertising” is important. I always make sure to make my tags low because no one looks up anymore, we’re all on our phones. If it’s not on a rooftop, it means nothing to me, it was either random or totally not planned out. Right now, street spots are finite, getting my name out there is hard. I need to be strategic in my tagging. I like to think I’m smart about where I place my tags when I plan them.
JST: I saw on your Instagram that you’ve had a recent collaboration with other graffiti artists. Could you discuss your collabs?
Anna: I had a clothing collaboration with my friend Merk in April! We had this whole event in Manhattan, which was really cool. Merk is actually a really good friend of mine, we tag together a lot. When we go out together, we make such an ill-duo. The world opens up when we go out with our paint stuff.
Funny story actually, one time me, Merk, and another artist Lucid went to tag this building right across from Port Authority. The tag had been there for 4 years, one day we went back and these two other artists tagged over both Merk and Lucid’s name TWICE but not mine! I found that hilarious; I don’t really know why they kept my name up; maybe a sign of respect hahaha, I don’t know.
JST: How has COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests affected the normalcy with your tagging? Has there been an uptick in police presence since the protests?
Anna: Honestly, neither have affected my work much. There’s a saying in the graffiti community, “don’t even breathe wrong towards the end of the month,” because no matter what you do, cops are ticket-happy; they need to meet their quota. Right now, I live in the hood, and a police van chills across the street. The rules are sort of open-ended. In my mind, if I don’t see police, they’re not there.
JST: What life lessons have the graffiti community taught you?
Anna: Never look over your shoulder! If you don’t want to look like you’re doing something wrong, never look over your shoulder before you do it, it makes you look so much more suspicious. Also, that life keeps getting weirder and weirder, there’s no end to it.
There was one time I was in an abandoned 10 story building in Brooklyn, once I made it to the top it was like one of those things that you’d never think you’d be there until you’re there. The richness of renowned NY is doper than what is known. Graffiti makes you feel like a famous loser, like if you’re on the radio with no followers. Sounds a little empty, huh? I think the funniest shit comes in the most tragic doses.
JST: So, what’s next?
Anna: Considering quarantine, I’ve been painting my ass off, trying to be considered a real artist. I’m trying to be collectible to represent a time in history. Picasso is credited with inventing the cubism movement, CREDITED, he probably wasn’t the first one! I have this one valuable graffiti collection, and I’m trying to be as valuable.
Miami Art Bazzel is a big goal of mine. I would love to work in the music industry, but it’s difficult to be seen and recognized for who you are. Until someone finds a niche for me, I’m unnecessary. Until that happens, I’m gonna paint and see what’s happening. Since I have no opening into the “real” art world, I want to try to be more exclusive. Personality is becoming what people pay for. That’s what I’m trying to do, is my art worth anything? Here’s my personality, make that decision yourself.
JST: Anna, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down and talk to Jetset Times, this interview has been fun and informative! Where can our readers find your art?
Anna: Of course, thank you for the interview. My tags are all over the place in NYC, so I’m all around! You can find me on my Instagram: @annatelevision, my website: annatelevision.com, and my Youtube channel! Anna Television.