Kel First – style Master
Kel First aka KEL139 (born Randy Rodriguez) is a recognized graffiti-style master who began painting trains during the mid-1970s. His generation of style masters has left an indelible mark on writing history.
Raised between Manhattan and the South Bronx, exposure to graffiti on the subway lines between these two boroughs influenced the development of Kel’s aesthetique of wild-style lettering. His admiration of pioneers like Kool 131, Noc 167, Part 1, Chain 3, Slave and others drove his ambition to gain status alongside these style masters.
Early in his career, Kel was a devoted follower and student of graffiti history. He often sought out the best writers for tutelage and collaboration, no matter how remote they were from the South Bronx. Among his established partnerships, the relationships with Dondi White and Duro 1 (both from a remote area of East New York, Brooklyn) proved crucial to his development in 1978.
During this period, he and the CIA crew executed a call-and-response with the writing crews they admired — TFP, TDS, TMT and Mafia — by upping their game. For example, when TDS painted whole cars with names that started with the letter W, Word (Chain3), Worm (Part1), Warm (Kool131), CIA painted Welch (Kel139), Wink (Duro), Wurm (Dondi).
When his partnership with Dondi ended, Kel continued to paint with writers from various boroughs. Among them were Cos207, Shy 147 and Crash One in the South Bronx, Rin1 in Staten Island, Shock123 from Yonkers and especially Min 1 RTW.
Toward the end of Kel’s career, he and Min 1 shared a Tribeca studio. Both regularly alternated between subway painting and studio paintings.
One notable feature of Kel’s legacy, beyond style writing, was his unique color combinations. These are on display at the museum. Next to a Dondi White work is a canvas that Kel painted in 1984, toward the twilight of his career, in which he breaks from convention to use colors never seen before in style writing.
Kel’s contribution to the global writing scene was cemented with his inclusion in the book Subway Art (1983). It showcased photos of his train paintings and style to the world, thus allowing teenagers all over the globe to learn from him. For decades to come, his letter style would be duplicated and would illuminate the foundations of style writing all over the world, allowing Kel’s influence to live well past his retirement from active painting.