After the demise of New York’s famed subway scene in the late ‘80s, graffiti by and large went above ground to walls and rooftops. But for renegade couple Utah and Ether from Chicago’s MUL crew, graff never left the subways. Together they travelled the world, painting trains globally on an unprecedented scale in an era when transit security has never been tighter. Their notoriety eventually got the best of them and they were arrested and jailed in 2009 after a three-month European spraycation. Now reunited and travelling globally, the couple continues to make a name for themselves. After a lot of digging we got in touch with the graff game’s very own Bonny and Clyde.
How did you guys meet initially?
UTAH: I was going on this road trip with a former friend and at the last minute he had to ditch out on it. He didn’t want me to go by myself and he was like “Oh my friends really want to go”. Well his friends were Ether and this other guy. I thought Ether was a total fucking weirdo. It was a six-hour drive to where we were going and he just slept the whole way. When we got there he woke up, we painted a train, then he went back to sleep the entire way back. I thought this kid was kinda weird but he had gas money, so that was pretty cool [laughs].
So when did you start painting together? Was it from that first time?
U: We didn’t really start painting a lot together until ’06. We went to Toronto for New Years, and painted a load of Metros there. Then we came back and painted in New York and did a whole East Coast tour.
E: Around that time was when the train-painting renaissance was going on in America. At the time there were a lot of people trying to do that sort of stuff. Not a lot of people really knew what they were doing though, so we were at the forefront of traveling and figuring out systems that hadn’t been hit hard.
You guys specifically, and MUL as a whole, were definitely pushing that global transit saturation. Was that something you set out to do from the get go?
E: In Chicago a lot gets done but there aren’t many spots. At the end of the day I could still be there and be painting hundreds of trains a year. However, I like having a challenge. Back home it’s like the back of my hand, it’s almost like painting freights. We always set goals to go out and travel.
U: A lot of people in America don’t really have the foresight to map things out beyond what is cool and fun now. I feel like that’s what MUL has always had, we’ve been 10 steps ahead and that’s always been the goal.
Where there any systems that you wanted to paint, but didn’t get a chance to?
E: We’ve got a few works in progress.
Have you got any good travel stories for us?
E: Well it’s a typical lame graff story but we were painting an underground yard in Paris and we ended up getting spotted by a driver. There was only one way in or out aside from this emergency hatch that we’d never used before.
U: We go to duck out this emergency exit and there’s this dude sitting there with a German Shepard, a Canine Unit.
E: He didn’t know we were there; we totally caught him off guard. He hadn’t got a call yet and he didn’t know that we’d been painting right below him.
U: It’s mayhem. The dog is barking, this guy is yelling at me and I’m screaming back at him. Ether is trying to get out of the hatch and the hatch isn’t opening. We’re in this underground hallway pinned in a corner between the hatch and the tracks.
E: He’s this big dude with a German Shepard and it’s a really small hallway and I’m thinking I’ll just sort of push past him and be like “We didn’t do anything. It’s okay. Just chill” and this dude does some ninja bullshit and kicks me. So I approach again and I’m like “Nah nah man, it’s cool” and he kicks me in the balls.
U: I’m looking over at Ether and I’m like “Okay do you want to just do this?” Because we’re either getting racked or we’re just blowing past this dude and fucking him up if we have to. The guy is getting pissed off because we’re talking in English, so we both got up and Ether is walking towards him and he takes the muzzle off the dog.
E: I’m going in to give the guy a jab and he lets go of the dog, which I don’t even see. Before I know it there’s this German Shepard dragging me by my leg back down the hallway. But it works because he pulls me back past the exit and down into the yard. At first the security guard is just happy that I’m getting bitten by the dog, so I’m hitting it and trying to gouge its eyes.
U: I’m screaming just to be loud and hectic, and then I’m like “No for real, what do you want me to do?” and Ether is saying “I got this, just go”. It’s just a hot mess and Ether is like “Really, get the fuck out of here”. I really didn’t want to leave him, but it was at the point where there wasn’t much I could do to help. So I was like “You know what, I’m a get the fuck out of here”. I ran down the tracks and off the platform right into a station where all these people were. As I go up the stairs to exit, all these SWAT team looking cops are coming down and I’m like “Later”.
E: Eventually the guy gets the dog off me and he’s holding me. I’m still like “Fuck this. I’m going to get up and dip on him”. I’m thinking sure, I’m bit by a dog but I’ll still be able to run, so I get up to go and I just collapse. I had no idea; those things will really fuck you up. It took probably 45 minutes for anybody else to come and while we’re waiting he has got his phone and he’s gesturing to me with his hand and saying “Last night, you paint here also”. He pulls up these photos of the panels that we’d painted there the night before with about 10 security guards posing in front of this Hunchback of Notre Dame character that I did. He’s saying “Really good, Really good! I love it”. I’m just like “No, not me”. Finally the guys come and they’re going to take me to the hospital and then the police station.
They take my bag and Utah’s bag, as well as my camera. They load me into the ambulance and a security guard gets in the back with me and they take me to this gated hospital, there’s just no point where I can escape. They take me into the ER and stitch me up with no anesthesia or anything. So security has gone to get the car and I’m sitting there waiting for them to come back for maybe five minutes when I was like “What am I doing here?” I’m not cuffed at all – I’m not sure why – they were so slipping. I just get up and grab the two bags of paint and the camera and walk out. I’m hobbling around and after this maze of all these doors I finally make it out. I end up in the parking lot right next to a police van while they’re all inside looking for me. I’m still locked in because all the cars have to come in through a gate in the lot, and my stitches are breaking out so I’m bleeding again. I was hiding behind the van and eventually another ambulance comes in and I just hobbled out in front of the security guy at the gate and waved at him, I guess he thought everything was cool.
Did you ever go back to Paris?
U: Yeah, Paris is the shit. They love us in Paris.
What are you guys up to now?
U: We’re in Asia, it’s cool – it’s chill out here. Asian culture is weird when it comes to graffiti, because it’s so young out here.
E: We’ve got kids in some of these places saying that have paid hits out on us. We have locals emailing us saying that we paint too much, so they want to diss us because we’re up more than them. We’ve got people in America sending kids out here money to diss us. It’s hilarious. Graffiti out here is all about the image associated with it, not actually doing it. But the ignorance is also something that you can play on too.
What are your thoughts on the online presence of graffiti writers?
U: I think social media is a really good way to snitch on yourself. At the same time, used correctly it can be an awesome tool. It’s a double-edged sword. At the end of the day there’s only so much that you can do realistically, as the internet has become such a part of everyday life. With things like social media, email, ip addresses and exif data, I feel like it’s in everyone’s best interests to be aware of the drawbacks and how much caution you want to take is on you. I’m not really big on things like twitter per se; it’s like “I’m right here, right now, doing this, come get me!”
Well that’s happened down here before. I’m sure you guys are aware of that.
E: [Laughs] Yeah, we’ll leave it at that before we say anything we’ll have to hear about later.
U: Most people get really reckless, so I’m torn with social media. It’s a good tool but it definitely can come with a price.
Because you guys obviously run your website and you’re putting videos up and stuff as well.
U: Yeah, we started our site after we had our legal troubles because at that point it was all already out there. The site was a tool for us to exercise some sort of damage control, to counteract all the negative stuff that popped up on us when you searched our names. It has its pros and cons too – it is what it is.
So what’s next for you guys?
U: We’re always working on something. If you don’t hear from us for a while then that just means we’re extra busy.
This article features in issue #28 of ACCLAIM Magazine – The En Route Issue – click to purchase.