THE CANS of spray paint hissed like radiators as the two
teens tagged the drab stairwell. As they worked, a rusty door bolt creaked and
a woman poked her head out and asked them to avoid marring the door to her
shop. The boys gave their assurance and calmly went back to work.
There was no need to fear that the woman would call the police, since the
two graffiti taggers, Eksorc154 and SevereOner, were inside the Phun Phactory,
a Long Island City institution billed as "the largest aerosol art museum in the
world." Since 1993, the establishment has tried to provide a positive outlet
for kids who might paint in inappropriate locations.
To founder Pat DiLillo, graffiti is a fact of urban life. "They can either
do it on your home or they can do it here," he said. "Imagine how many kids you
could save from the cops if you could have six more Phun Phactories just for
Queens? That's where they would do their thing instead of hanging out on the
corner, getting arrested."
Last month, though, DiLillo's landlord barred him from the property and the
Phun Phactory's future is murky. Some of the artwork offended the tenants,
including a depiction of the devil and a pig being gored with a knife.
"I have no problem with the graffiti guys staying there, but I don't want
Pat running the show anymore," said Jerry Wolkoff, the building's owner. "If
someone else takes over, that's fine, but Pat is a loose cannon. I asked him
not to upset my other tenants, who are devout, churchgoing people, and he
From its inception, the Phun Phactory has triggered controversy, due in
part to DiLillo's hard-boiled personality. Some people see graffiti as
vandalism. Others view it as a legitimate art form. Depending on one's
perspective, the Phun Phactory's possible demise is either a blessing or a
"There are people who are opposed to any type of graffiti, but it's all in
the eyes of the beholder," said Dolores Rizzotto, district manager of Community
Board 2. "There are mixed views toward him [DiLillo], but he has done a lot of
cleanups in the area, taking graffiti off of mailboxes and light poles."
A former plumber who lives in Woodside, DiLillo receives disability since
breaking his back falling off a ladder. Ironically, he used to crusade against
graffiti with an ad hoc civic group called the Graffiti Terminators in 1989.
"After a while, I didn't have the passion for whitewashing walls and taking
graffiti off of bricks," he said as the No. 7 train rumbled by overhead and
nearly drowned out his words. "One day, in Bayside, I noticed a wall full of
graffiti, thought it was nice, and skipped over it, just left it there. I
realized that so many kids were getting [sentences of] community service and
getting arrested and that there were no programs for them, nothing."
Introduced to DiLillo by a mutual friend in 1993, Wolkoff donated space in
his factory building at 45-14 Davis St., which houses mostly clothing
manufacturers. DiLillo and his crew of teens and helpers covered the exterior
with aerosol art and opened for business as a nonprofit organization. In
addition to a room on the ground floor for impromptu graffiti scrawling, the
building has since provided studio space for traditional artists on the upper
The teens don't receive any pay from Phun Phactory, although some used to
receive a stipend from the Corrections Department. DiLillo basically donates
his time, and operates the organization on a shoestring budget funded by
In 1993, the year it opened, the Phun Phactory served as a hub for artists
from all over the city and the world, who regarded the place as if it were an
exclusive art gallery. The loading dock is a riot of color that looks like
unintelligible scrawl to the uninitiated. Taggers applied to DiLillo and his
committee of artists for coveted outdoor wall space visible from the No. 7
train. Exhibits rotated every three months.
Since its inception, the Phun Phactory has gone beyond helping hundreds of
graffiti artists flash their skills. DiLillo also tried to rehabilitate lives,
offering tough love for those sentenced to community service or to work release.
Five years ago, when Eddie Perez received a work release assignment at the
Phun Phactory, he chafed at DiLillo's abrasive nature. "A lot of people at
first don't see eye to eye with Pat; he's not the easiest person to get along
with," he said. "But if you try to work with him a little bit, he opens up. A
lot of people don't make it through that first day with him and they go the
Perez, 27, never had much interest in graffiti, but DiLillo found plenty of
tasks for him to do. "I cleaned out garbage, whitewashed the walls, answered
phones and assigned people spots. I became his right-hand man. Pat guided me in
the right direction. He taught me about discipline, but unlike other programs,
there's no textbook where we're obligated to do this today or we're obligated
to do that today. He lets you be yourself."
Perez, of Long Island City, used to make $100 a week working for DiLillo.
Now, he makes $19 an hour working for Waste Management Inc. He gets a gleam in
his eye when he talks about his three children.
"I grew up in jail, but now I'm living my life the way I should be," he
said. "Pat was like a father figure to me. He was always there for me; to this
day he's still there for me. It's not for everybody, but for those who are open
to it, he gives the kids a sense of direction and teaches them how to take
their negative stuff and turn it into a positive. I've seen a lot of kids get
Despite success stories like this, one afternoon last month DiLillo slumped
in his office chair like a bloodied boxer waiting for the 15th round. He plans
to take the winter off and mull his options. No successor has stepped forward
to fill his shoes, and at least for now, the Phun Phactory is defunct.
"They want to throw the kids in jail for vandalism, but did they ever open
a program to help them?" DiLillo asked. "Did they ever think that maybe some of
these kids are addicted to graffiti? A lot of these kids are addicted to it."
Graffiti art has proliferated since its inception in the mid-1970s. Bombers
are exhibitionists who constantly look for new places to tag. To them,
subways, freight cars, trucks, and buses are rolling canvases that offer broad
exposure. They also travel elevated lines looking at the work emblazoned on
walls and rooftops along the route.
For "SevereOner," who lives in Woodhaven, and "Eksorc154," a Maspeth
resident, nothing short of shock treatment would be able to sway them from
their artistic leaning. (They wouldn't give their real names because what they
consider art, graffiti on public property, police consider a crime.)
"When you get the rush to do it, you can't stop," said SevereOner, 13. "The
7 line is the best line. It runs on top of the world. It makes me proud to be
from Queens. I want to do stuff where people on the 7 will see it. It's the
line with the most graffiti on the roofs."
His friend, Eksorc154, also 13, nodded in agreement. The two speak in a
lingo all their own, spit like baseball players and curse like longshoremen. As
they walked near the factory, they jiggled doorknobs. (The two often try to
find an unlocked door that will provide access to an inside wall unadorned with
graffiti.) As they hung out inside a warren of rooms and garages, three men
rushed over shouting, "No graffiti, no graffiti!"
"Look what they did to my truck," said Mohamed Foula of the Long Island
City Wholesale Service, a pushcart graveyard, referring to unknown
perpetrators. He pointed to the black paint blotches that covered the side
panels and windshield of one of his delivery trucks.
"It doesn't look like art. We just put the sign on and they messed it up.
It cost us $2,000 for that sign. If the truck looked nice, I wouldn't mind, but
the same night they did this, my driver got into an accident. They paint the
garbage containers, then the service won't come and pick them up. The other
week, we got three tickets."
SevereOner and Eksorc154 agreed that the blotches were aesthetically
unappealing. Continuing their adventure undaunted, the teens pulled all kinds
of markers and paint cans out of their pockets and backpacks as they
absentmindedly tagged walls and lightposts and pointed out work they admire by
UTZ, KR and Korn.
"Half my life is graffiti. It's part of my daily thing," Eksorc said. "If
it's legal or illegal, kids will still do it to get fame and show off their
skills. It's not just our thing anymore. It's international now. It's bigger
than it's ever been."