Booda Monk: A hip-hop pioneer

Designed clothing, boom boxes, vinyl records, and other creations pop and sizzle behind Booda Monk’s tattoo shop window at 132 25th St. His palette takes from Baltimore’s day and night sky, the colors of which he would study and compare when he was learning his craft. Booda paints koi fish on canvasses and laid-back yet energized hip-hop characters on shirts, even spray painting a half-mannequin that hangs from the shop ceiling. This artist cultivates elements of Baltimore’s landscape, people and style into something unique, and his nook on 25th St. offers a haven for urban art.

He is a hip-hop jack-of-all-trades: b-boy, MC and DJ, as well as a graffiti, airbrush and tattoo artist. Booda Monk’s  connection to his contextual culture runs deep. He formed his first graffiti crew, Phat Scool Bandits, with a friend in ’83. He joined a b-boy crew in ’85. Since then, he’s opened for Wu Tang Clan and Busta Rhymes, among others, as a dancer. When he is not in shop laying down hip-hop tattoos or freshening up a shirt, he may be painting graffiti with his crew LBX, also known as lead by xample. He has been a pioneer of Baltimore hip-hop culture.

“Back then, we didn’t call it hip-hop. It was just something that developed around me that I took to,” he said.

Booda’s passion for hip-hop is Baltimore-brewed. His style is rooted in family and the streets of West Baltimore, between Falls Park, Liberty Heights and Waldorf Junction. When he was a baby, his two older brothers exposed him to all kinds of music on the radio — from jazz, to funk, to hip-hop. He said television also impacted his craft early on.

“Ernie Barnes is my favorite artist. He influenced me a lot. I used to always see his paintings on Good Times,” Booda Monk said.

Parliament-Funkadelic album covers affected his creative flow as well. “They were really spaced out,” he said. “They used to scare me as a child.”

P-Funk cover nightmares were one unexpected catalyst to his career.

“I wanted to put certain things aside, but I couldn’t because it would haunt me at night. [My] dreams would call me back to it. It was so intense that I would have to write things down or draw them. My dreams were like reality. A lot of times when I woke up, I couldn’t separate reality from the dream. I had to draw the stuff, get it out of my head.”

As he grew older, Booda translated these visions into physical art. He wove himself into the select generation that cultivated hip-hop 1.0, the fluidity and all-inclusiveness of which is best described through his depiction of an average day, “back in the day”.

“Just hanging in the streets, [hip-hop culture] was there for me,” he began.

“Say I’m sitting on a bench. There could be somebody right there catching a handstyle. And I’d watch it, and the person might run off real quick. There might be a fight down the street, but I’m still there watching the handstyle trying to learn . . . Then after the fight, someone might have a boom box. Then there might be some cats around the corner getting down. So I might go over there, start b-boying. Then at nighttime, someone might knock on my door and say, ‘Oh, we’re about to go hit this bridge.’ So I’d pack my bag, and go with those kids. It was always around me; it wasn’t something we learned in school.”

He sat behind the counter at his shop and turned down the sides of his cowboy hat. “Hip-hop-wise, I’m the only person in Baltimore who can do all the elements,” he said, and began to reflect on where hip-hop has gone.

“Graffiti in Baltimore has changed, as far as the style. But me, I like the style from back in the day … We were trying to get graffiti accepted by society.”

Booda Monk’s and other pioneers’ mission to legitimize graffiti has succeeded in ways. For instance, this fall, graffiti artists Retna, from Los Angeles, Shepard Fairey, creator of the iconic Obama “Hope” poster, and Baltimore artist Shinique Smith were commissioned to paint the parking garage of Las Vegas hotel the Cosmopolitan. In the past decade, rap, and arguably hip-hop as a whole, has transformed from the neighborhood beginnings Booda Monk described into a multi-billion dollar industry.

“As long as people don’t lose the inspiration from the culture and don’t get too involved in the money aspect, it’s okay,” Booda cautioned.

Despite having more legal venues now than it did in the ’80s, street graffiti lives. Some people engaging in this
illegal art form have no interest in its origins.

“In Baltimore, I think the younger kids are not trying to learn from the older pioneers. They’re watching the magazines, and they’re not really learning the foundation of [graffiti]. So, they’re trying to create or mimic something when they have no context for it,” he said.

Before magazines, YouTube videos and instructional DVDs, graffiti artists would ask questions of the more skilled and experienced artists. This face-to-face communication formed a community that respected its elders. The same went for popping, locking or b-boying.

“If, when I came up, I wanted to learn how to windmill, how to pop, how to sixstep, I had to watch somebody. I had to learn. I had to ask questions. How can I get my arm to jerk? How can I wave it down? They would break it down for you.”

Since hip-hop has solidified into a concrete movement, this grassroots learning style has faded. Booda says that some people doing graffiti now “don’t care” about the pioneers. “Right now I’m not happy with a lot of the artists that are  coming up,” he stated.

He addressed the more “ignorant” users of a spray can: “You’re going to wonder one day, ‘Ok, well, how did Booda do his lines? How did he get his lines so clean?’ When you had the chance to learn, you wanted to battle me. You wanted to go over my pieces instead of asking me, and I would have been glad to teach you [my techniques]. I try to talk to them, but they don’t want to hear it.”

The hierarchical structure that kept order is breaking down in ways.

“If you have a pioneer, someone that’s been doing it since the 80s, that went up [with a mural or tag], you can’t go over that person if you’re not ready. Nobody’s really paying attention to the rules right now . . . I blame a lot of the pioneers as well, because some of them are not being stern in how this thing is supposed to go. Sometimes [graffiti] is a free thing, but at the same time you have to follow the foundation in order to learn, so it can grow, so that one day you can get to a certain point, and you’ll be able to pass it down.”

He attributes the loss of the foundational, person-to-person learning style to technology.

“We respected it more back then because we didn’t have Internet. We didn’t know what somebody was doing in Germany. If we heard somebody was nice on another block, another neighborhood, across town, we would go and battle them, just based on word of mouth. Now, you can go onto the Internet and type in anything, and to me, that’s  not cool.”

The instantaneous of hip-hop “news” from around the world is a far cry from the contained knowledge Booda and his friends would pick up from one Baltimore neighborhood or another.

He admits the accessibility has a payoff, that some contemporary dancers are doing “phenomenal” moves, and he recognizes 21st century graffiti artists’ drive. “It’s cool to have that fire, and say, ‘Oh I want to go out and just bomb’, but you have to learn first, you have to humble yourself . . . [Hip-hop] is built on competitiveness . . . But you’re going to have to learn from somebody,” he emphasized.

Booda also notes hip-hop culture’s changes over the airwaves.

“The stuff you hear on the radio, to me, is garbage, because it has no substance to it . . . Back in the day, if they were rhyming like that, they wouldn’t get any kind of time on the mic or anything. To me, the people on the radio right now are wack MCs.”

Though hip-hop can slip into “wackness,” Booda still “loves it all.” He praises it for retaining its ability to “help the youth come up and feel positive about themselves.”

“[Considering] everything in hip-hop right now, real hip-hop overweighs the bad.” He continued, “I feel as if I will never stop loving hip-hop. It will always be a part of me . . . Change is good; things just don’t stay the same.”

Eighteen years after graffitiing his first wall, Booda’s last frontier was skin. High demand for Booda Monk tattoos readied the artist to pick up the needle in ’01. He did his first piece on his best friend while listening to another friend explain how to tattoo over the phone — eager to learn from others, once again.

He opened up his first tattoo parlor five years ago, and now owns the eclectic store and parlor Booda Monk’s Hip-Hop Tattoos. “I don’t get too much into what other businesses are doing,” he said. “I try to stay somewhat up to date with it, but I just do what I do, that’s all,” he concluded with a smile.

“I’m different,” Booda laughed, “in every way possible. I learn from different people, but what I always try to do is put my twist on it . . . My dance style, my graffiti style, everything that I do, is different, and I try to make it [all] my best. I see everything that I do on the same level, because I love everything that I do. Or if not, I’ll just trash it,” he said smiling.

Booda has made his two-dimensional art profitable while still MCing, DJing and dancing, but he has limits on commercializing those passions.

“Right now you get paid thousands of dollars for being ignorant, and it’s sad,” he said, referring those who exploit  hip-hop as a medium for disrespect. “There’s certain things I just wouldn’t do, certain jobs I just wouldn’t take, because what I have inside me outweighs money . . . I would never sell myself short like that because I stand for something much higher.”

You can find one of Booda’s murals at the graffiti alley behind Loads of Fun at 120 W. North Ave. The wall’s current designs were created during a reunion and celebration of the graffiti pioneers featured in the ’83 documentary “Wild Style.” Booda Monk’s mural is a free style piece that says “Anery,” a type of boa and allusion to his side business of breeding snakes.

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