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Epilogue | Michael Martin

Graffiti artist 'Iz the Wiz' left his mark on NYC

SPRING HILL — For two decades, his name was tattooed on hundreds of New York City's subway trains in loopy, colorful strokes. "Iz the Wiz" announced himself in huge bubble letters that sometimes took up the entire side of a subway car.

His real name was Michael Martin, but Iz the Wiz was how he signed all his works.

His career as the city's most influential graffiti artist began when, as a teenager in the 1970s, he began tagging walls for fun.

By the end of his run, his work was featured in art galleries. One colleague compared him to Andy Warhol, while others point to the famous multicolored painting of Barack Obama as a modern example of what he started.

His life and career ended June 17 in Spring Hill, where he had been living for nearly a year. All those paint fumes over the years had taken a toll on his heart and kidneys. He had been on dialysis.

Michael Martin, who signed his works with Iz the Wiz, was 50 years old.

Now millions are reading the name again, this time in obituaries in the New York Times and in publications around the world.

His deft use of spray paint landed him in jail and made him "the longest-reigning all-city king in NYC history," according to the graffiti Web site,

He appeared in a movie and a documentary about graffiti, and will be the subject of a forthcoming biography, as well as a soon-to-be-released hip-hop song.

His work helped launch a genre called street art — of which subway graffiti was a part — that gained respectability in the art world. Legally distinct lines between public art and vandalism blurred in the public imagination.

For the evolution of street art from misdemeanor to fashionable event, some experts credit Iz the Wiz.

"Iz was at the point of origin as subway cars became the moving language of the times," said New York gallery owner John Woodward, 46. "It was like Andy Warhol painting the soup cans. It spoke the street language very well."

"He was the king of kings," said Ed Walker, 37, who is writing a biography about Mr. Martin. "Nobody did more damage on the subways than he did."

Mr. Martin grew up in Queens, and was put in a foster home after his mother was arrested for burglary. At 14, he started spraying graffiti around his neighborhood, then moved to subway cars. He adopted his famous tag after seeing a poster for The Wiz, a Broadway musical. Inspired by other taggers, he sprayed scores of train cars with "Iz the Wiz," or sometimes just "Iz."

"He wasn't the first to write, but he made it famous," said artist and hip-hop musician Tim/Single/Braddock.

Mr. Martin carried an impressive data bank of train schedules in his head. He could find subway tunnels no one used anymore.

"That was like his home, being underground," Braddock said.

Iz worked quickly. He sprayed his name, then added a border and snippets of phrases or lyrics.

He also "burned" scores of whole cars, most famously a two-train-car tribute to John Lennon that he painted with Lady Pink, the first woman to achieve notoriety in the graffiti world. The work stayed on the cars for four years.

Graffiti writing produced a high and a sense of recognition.

"You feel like you won a trophy," Braddock, 40, said. "When you see a thousand people on the platform and your art work comes out, you feel like a movie star."

"It was just hip and cool and fashionable," said Lady Pink, 45, now an accomplished mural artist. "And you got a lot of fame and power."

As a graffiti legend, Mr. Martin was profiled in the 1982 documentary Style Wars, and played a subway detective in the 1983 film Wild Style.

He began winding down in 1986 after spending time in jail for vandalism. In 1989, transit authorities tightened security to an extent that effectively killed subway graffiti.

Mr. Martin remained a legend, sought out by tourists from all over the world. He exhibited his work in New York, most recently on June 12 at Tuff City Tattoo.

But the paint and other toxic substances he encountered during his work destroyed his insides.

"Every drop of fame, every drop of glory, every magazine I was ever in, every movie I was ever in -- I would give it all back in a heartbeat and have my health," he said in the years before his death.

Last month he returned to Spring Hill, where his brother lives. He died three days later of heart and kidney failure.

"Two hundred years from now," said Woodward, the gallery owner, "if they just find one car with painting all over it, it'll be in a museum. If somebody owned one of those cars right now and it was all painted, it would be a collector's dream."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Michael Martin

Born: Nov. 8, 1958.

Died: June 17, 2009.

Survivors: brother, Peter Poston; sisters, Evelyn and Linda Poston.

Graffiti artist 'Iz the Wiz' left his mark on NYC 07/02/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 3, 2009 10:34am]
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