It was a warm September night in Kingsbridge when renowned graffiti artist Michael Christopher Tracy was grabbing a late-night bite at the Wendy’s on 238th Street and Broadway and suffered a massive heart attack. He was dead at the age of 65.
“I didn’t find out until last week,” his estranged son, Shawn Tracy, told the Bronx Times on Oct. 27. Tracy died Sept. 3.
His body sat in a morgue for a month before he was claimed by a relative and memorial services have yet to be held, which epitomizes the complicated life he led.
Born on Valentine’s Day in 1958, Tracy was a Bronx latch-key kid, raised by his grandparents and a single-mom in University Heights where he was known as a vagabond until the day he died, depending on the kindness of others for food and crashing at friends’ homes.
“I took him in like a stray,” said Lewis “Devote” Martell, Tracy’s best friend. The two met one night in the mid ’70s while Tracy was writing on a wall and asked Martell, who was walking by, if he had a pen (a pilot marker.)
But not even his close friends knew much about Tracy’s personal life.
“I met his grandmother once,” said Martell.
Tracy was known as one of the pioneers of the graffiti scene, signing his works with his tag, Tracy 168 – the number of the street he hung out on.
“He saw the graffiti I had on my gate and told me, ‘If I paint a mural here, no one will spray over it,’” said Gennady O., owner of Cohen’s Optical on the corner of 231st Street and Broadway. Tracy painted the mural in 1994 and Gennady confirmed that he never had problems with vandalism again.
“I started this f—ing movement,” said Tracy of writing – how graffiti is referred to by artists — in a YouTube video titled, “A Tracy 168 Tribute.” “I wanted to draw pictures all my life and I found an outlet. I just started spraying.”
What started as the artistic expression of one kid in the late ‘70s, transformed from walls and the side of train cars into a world-renowned art form. Graffiti took the world by storm and became the signature style of hip-hop.
Tracy’s work was ubiquitous throughout the West Bronx with his signature cartoon – a big faced man with blond hair wearing wrap-around sunglasses and a big smile with a single white block for teeth.
He also created the Wild Style crew — a group of like-minded teenagers from troubled homes living in the South Bronx and roaming the streets. That term became synonymous with the graffiti scene and in 1982 Charlie Ahearn produced a documentary-style movie by the same name, exposing the world to the Bronx and its artistic boom.
“Wild Style is a way of life and I invented it,” said Tracy in the YouTube video. “We lived wild and with style.”
And live wild he did, riding on top of trains and spray-painting subway cars. In the ’80s Tracy drove a yellow cab and got into a car accident. He convinced the other driver to turn over her car so that he could get it fixed. Tracy then drove the car to his friend’s house and asked him if he wanted to go for a joy ride.
“Where’d you get this car?” asked Martell, who was a teenager living in Kingsbridge at the time and five years Tracy’s junior. Tracy then told Martell the story. The car was never returned.
Tracy’s art would take him to London and earned him international notoriety. The only thing more disheartening than his death was that his only son learned of the news of his passing six weeks after the fact through condolences on social media.
The graffiti pioneer kept in touch with his son through Facebook messages here and there, Shawn Tracy said, but they never saw each other despite both living in New York City.
Tracy was known to probably take more than he deserved by milking the pizzerias he painted murals on for free food and drinks, even though he was paid for his artwork. He would sit at a table at the now shuttered Indian Road Café with his notebook, pens and markers for hours, nursing a single coffee and would get annoyed whenever the server dropped the check. He also ran with rowdy crowds, often causing trouble at small establishments.
He was a complex man who wasn’t without flaws.
“There was a rumor that he died a few years ago,” said John, the owner of Broadway Pizza and Pasta, who didn’t believe the news when he first heard it a month after Tracy’s demise. The pizzeria, next door to Cohen’s Optical, also dons a Tracy 168 mural.
But despite his negative traits, Tracy was known to share his art and encouraged others to explore their creative side. He visited schools and spoke to kids about drawing outside the lines, so to speak. He was friendly, sociable and took photos with anyone who asked. He was always smiling and never took anything too seriously.
“I knew him to be somebody that was always willing to share his art with other people,” said David Lindsey, co-owner of the pizza spot the Kingsbridge Social Club, the popular pizza joint which served as Tracy’s last commissioned work in 2018. “If you sat next to him at a bar, he would draw something for you without even asking about it.”
Tracy spoke to anyone who would listen and made friends wherever he went. He was a large man, like an urban Santa Claus — a white goatee, just shy of six feet tall and upwards of 300 pounds. He always wore a bandana and had one in every color. Until his last days, he could be seen walking the streets of Kingsbridge with a limp due to a bad hip.
“If I die and nothing comes from this but my art, I gave what I got — I did what I was supposed to do,” Tracy said in the YouTube video.
He is survived by his brother, John; two half brothers, seven half sisters, his son and a 13-year-old granddaughter.
Services have been organized by Shawn Tracy and will take place at Casey Funeral Home in Staten Island on Saturday, Dec. 2, from noon to 4 p.m.
Correction: This article was updated on Nov. 16 at 6:19 p.m. because it previously listed the age of Michael Christopher Tracy’s granddaughter as three years old.
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