Volume 19 Issue 53 | May 18 -24, 2007


Joey Semz, 31, graffitist who turned to folk music

By Randi Hoffman

Joey Semz, 31, a prolific Lower East Side graffiti artist and musician, died unexpectedly at his parents’ home in Staten Island on April 7. He gained fame for spray-painting “SEMZ” all over the city, and for co-founding the graffiti crew IRAK in the late 1990s. More recently, he recorded the CDs “Cowboys in IRAK” and “A Great Believer.” He played his acoustic folk music at the clubs Joe’s Pub, Don Hill’s and 205.

He began his graffiti career at 14 with stolen magic markers, tagging on Staten Island. Around 1997, he began writing his name all over Manhattan. Semz painted a backyard mural at the Sweet and Vicious Bar on Spring St., showed his work at Clayton Patterson’s storefront gallery at Essex and Stanton Sts. and displayed his art at the aNYthing store, established by the IRAK crew at 51 Hester St.

“I met Joey in ’97 or ’98 when he was king of the city,” said Ben Solomon, 24, a filmmaker and D.J. at 205 and the Anchor Bar, who goes by the name King Solomon. “He had ‘SEMZ’ on everything. The vandalism cops had a huge vendetta on him. As he grew up, he moved away from graffiti and into music, to keep his name alive and express himself.”

On Autograf, a Web site of autobiographical pieces, Semz wrote that he was arrested by the police about 13 times, but that the charges did not stick. His last run-in came when he was picked up by the police on Spring St. in the summer of 2002. After being questioned for four hours, he confessed to numerous graffiti crimes. He served five days in jail with five years probation. At that point, he stopped creating graffiti and began painting on canvas and writing music instead.

“I’ve known Joey since I was in high school. We met through graffiti and mutual friends,” said Nico Ponce de Leon Dios, 24, another IRAK crew member. “Our paths crossed again and again. He was very natural in his art and in his music. It flowed from him. He would write songs on the Staten Island Ferry. He was very atypical in that he dressed like a construction worker. He didn’t wear flashy clothes.’

“Joey and the IRAK crew are a legend,” said Clayton Patterson, who is a photographer as well as a gallery owner. “His songs were about decadence and drugs and youth culture.”

“A lot of his music is about the darker side of being young and coming up in New York City,” said Solomon. “It was about the highs and lows of being an artist and trying to live freely in the world.”

Joey Semz was born Joseph McCarthy, Jr., in Staten Island to a kindergarten teacher mother and a steamfitter father. He attended the College of Staten Island for a year and then took classes at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. To make money, he painted murals in people’s homes and did carpentry and wall painting.

At 21, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, according to his mother, Nancy McCarthy. She said that during his manic phases he was very creative. He took medication to treat the condition.

By all accounts, Semz was outgoing, generous and easygoing.

“He was friendly and funny and never said anything bad about anyone,” said Ms. McCarthy. “For the last 10 months he had been living here, and I got used to having him around. I keep expecting him to walk through the door.”

On his MySpace page, Semz wrote that his influences were “people who take all the bad and make something beautiful, people who love life through its horror and its joy.”

The cause of his death has not been determined. His mother said there is a history of heart disease in the family.

Joey Semz is survived by his mother and his father, Joseph McCarthy, on Staten Island, and a sister, Elizabeth McCarthy, of Westchester. A memorial service was held in April on Staten Island.

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