Martins quickly made a name for himself downtown. His persona was as distinctive and compelling as his tag. He customized his huge pants with panels of fabric to make the legs even wider. He was tall and loud and aggressive. He came out as bisexual, then gay, and would fight anyone who challenged his sexuality. Friends recall stories about him beating the socks off someone for calling him a homophobic slur, then getting down to shout into the face of his opponent, loud enough for everyone to hear. “I was super into the showmanship of it,” Martins told me. “I’d beat people up for calling me a faggot or whatever, and then I would tell them, ‘Now go home and tell your daddy that a faggot fucked you up.’ ”
“I became this sort of downtown omnipresent guy, like man about town,” he added. “Just always around.”
Through their magnetism and savvy promotion, Martins and the crispy white kids continued to grow the IRAK graffiti crew, and soon more tags appeared on walls next to the IRAK name: SACER, KSER, GLACER, SETUP, AREA, SEMZ, KENT, FANTA, SEMEN, and NEKST. “It was like I sort of had built this thing that was like a little gazebo of shelter from the sun and the rain that my friends could come and hang out in,” Martins said.
Dash Snow was the most dedicated writer among them. He had recently left a therapeutic boarding school for “troubled” teens and approached graffiti with abandon, writing every chance he got. Everyone knew Snow came from money—his grandmother Christophe de Menil was an heiress to a French oil-technology fortune and one of contemporary art’s greatest patrons. But, as Martins recalled, any doubts about Snow’s credibility were quickly dispelled by his commitment to “fucking shit up.”
“Dash brought a different level of dedication to vandalism and graffiti,” Ben Solomon, an IRAK member who works as an artist and filmmaker, told me. “He was like this missing piece of the puzzle. And it was a catalyst. Dash came back and had this energy and access and dedication. We were like, ‘Oh, shit. Okay.’ ”
By this point, IRAK weren’t just repainting downtown; they were rewiring it, making new connections between cultural movements. They brought together skateboarders and fashion models and ravers and blue-chip artists and legendary Bronx graffiti writers and less legendary wannabe vandals from New Jersey. We take for granted that all of these worlds are constantly colliding—fashion and art and music are now all part of one cultural spectrum—but that wasn’t always the case. With Martins as a kind of spiritual leader, those who fell under the IRAK umbrella weren’t seeking out others who were just like them. That’s exactly what they were trying to escape. They were looking for people who were different, as different as they were themselves.
“What is every angry, horny, self-centered, half-depressed, half-manic teenager looking for?” Solomon asked me. “You’re looking for a fucking reason, and you’re looking for people to share it with. You know? The bond that formed over these simple, superficial things like graffiti, like a jacket, like wanting to be tough, or wanting to be cool or not wanting to be cool—that’s just the entry point. What is so dope about IRAK is that the bond ran a lot deeper than that, and has propelled everyone to where they’re at today.”
By 1999, IRAK was everywhere. Anywhere you looked downtown you’d see an IRAK tag. “It was evident,” Nico Dios, an IRAK member and cannabis entrepreneur, told me, “that we were rocking very hard.”