This year’s event marks the first time the full crew of six men — Dwayne “Just One” Devoe, Hackwin “ESKAN” Devoe, Fernando “ESKEME2″ Alexander, Mark “KRAM” Wallace, Rodney “RAD1″ Wills, and Dexter “DEQUE” Gilmore — are working together on a piece in nearly 40 years.
Local artists, journalists and historians agree the group’s run from 1983 to 1986 changed hip-hop culture and public art in Atlanta forever. After that, they seemingly disappeared.
“They were there for everything,” said Dr. Dax, a professional graffiti artist and member of Dungeon Family, the legendary music collective that includes Organized Noize, OutKast and Goodie Mob. “They are the beginning of Atlanta hip-hop in any form.”
So, where have they been this whole time?
Credit: Rodney "Rad1" Wills
Credit: Rodney "Rad1" Wills
From boys to ‘Kings’
Brothers Dwayne and Hackwin Devoe can trace their artistic roots to growing up in Atlanta’s notorious East Lake Meadows public housing project. It was the late 1970s, and the Devoe brothers were drawn to art from Marvel Comics and Parliament Funkadelic albums created by artist Pedro Bell. They would spend time sketching their own versions of Bell’s NSFW, unapologetically Black imagery.
Living in a place dubbed “Little Vietnam” for its violence and war zone-like feel, their intro to spray cans did not involve graffiti. “Some of the teenagers would take an empty plastic bread bag, spray paint in there and then get high that way,” Hackwin Devoe said. “So seeing all of that, it was just a Monday evening in East Lake.”
But the brothers stayed out of trouble and focused on creating art. The family eventually moved to Eastwick, a townhome complex near South DeKalb Mall.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, hip-hop culture was taking shape in New York City. In Atlanta, Black and brown children were living in a state of fear because of the Atlanta child murders. The Devoe brothers, Alexander and Gilmore attended Columbia High School.
At school, prep style — polos, Sebago loafers — was prevalent. But the Devoe brothers and their crew mixed it with b-boy style featuring the suede Pumas, Adidas sneakers and T-shirts favored by friends from New York. That was not the only piece of hip-hop’s birthplace that rubbed off on them. The brothers, cousins and Gilmore were part of a break dancing crew called Wild Style, that once performed at the Omni and battled a rival crew led by Jermaine Dupri. Wild Style also included DJ Sol Messiah and Gilmore’s cousin, Speedy.
Around 1982, a friend showed them photos of himself standing in front of playgrounds, pickup basketball courts and subway cars in New York City. What the crew noticed was the graffiti in the background. The massive pieces were done by a legendary Black graffiti artist named Vulcan, and the crew flooded their friend with follow-up questions. “Who is that dude, and what’s that behind you,” Dwayne Devoe remembers asking.
This was their Funkadelic album art come to life. They were artists already, but the lack of rules around graffiti appealed to them. They loved their art classes at Columbia High, but teachers adhered to structured curriculums. That graffiti was illegal, and cities like New York were spending upwards of $20 million to fight it, only made it more enticing.
“To be your own creative genius about it was liberating. That kind of got us going,” Hackwin Devoe said.
Specifically, they were drawn to what’s called wild style, which typically features the convoluted formation of words or phrases in bright colors on a large scale. They were already tagging — writing their names in single lines — where they could.
Their friend wouldn’t let them keep the photos, but the images never left their minds.
Credit: Jason Getz
Credit: Jason Getz
The Devoe brothers were raised by a single mom who let them and their older brother, Anthony, use the basement as a hangout. Immediately, they started using the basement walls as a canvas, creating graffiti pieces from 35mm memories. They also got their hands on a VHS copy of “Style Wars,” the 1983 documentary that explores graffiti’s rise in New York and the government crackdown on it.
Along with their brother, who was a DJ under the name Grand Wizard AD, they would host parties in mom’s basement. Kids would practice tagging, graffiti, doing bigger pieces and break dancing. At its height, the basement was an early epicenter of hip-hop culture in metro Atlanta with everyone from a young MC Shy D to Emmanuel Lewis (yes, Webster), making an appearance.
Eventually the teenagers set out to start bombing (style writer speak for painting on several walls in short periods of time). Despite news and radio warnings about the danger for Black children being out past 8 p.m., their runs typically started after midnight. They understood the danger of being out till 3 a.m. and the risk of getting arrested, but the art and act of doing it spoke to them.
“It was an oppressed culture,” said Hackwin Devoe, when asked why, as young Black men, they were drawn to hip-hop culture, especially graffiti. “It wasn’t sanctioned. You were going to get in trouble, you were going to get in jail, people were out trying to do things to you. The art pushed through that. It pushed through the fog of all of what was against us.”
Their early pieces included one at Big Star grocery store on Columbia Drive that read, “Deque,” which is Gilmore’s tag, short for his first name, Dexter. Above the text they painted Disney’s Scrooge McDuck. “We looked at a lot of cartoons back then. He had all the money,” jokes Alexander.
Before long, they were getting better, hungrier. It was time to branch out.
Credit: Jason Getz
Credit: Jason Getz
Meanwhile, in winter 1983, Wills was a student the Atlanta College of Art in Midtown, studying graphic design. He came to Atlanta from Sycamore, Alabama. A white kid living in a predominantly white town eons away from the block parties in the Bronx, Wills found his intro to hip-hop at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. He grew up motorcycle racing and befriended Black students and Latinos who talked about graffiti. They played him cassette tape mixes they made from local Atlanta radio stations, which included some rap.
In college, Wills would venture out with a student from New York, who used the name Pest. He and Pest were doing a piece at King Memorial MARTA station. At the time, graffiti artists like the United Kings were not doing pieces on train cars, but they rode on MARTA to scout walls at nearby stations.
While working on that piece, Wills noticed a train with four Black guys staring at him out of the window. They got off the train and started yelling at him from the platform, slowly heading in his direction. His apprehension faded when he saw the kids were dressed like RUN-DMC video extras, covered in spray paint.
“These cats were the epitome of that early ’80s b-boy kid,” Wills said. “They were all about hip-hop, and they immediately adopted me.”
The artists got together and set out to do an all-city campaign, hitting public locations across town, making their presence felt. They were everywhere. And everyone knew their roles, said Wallace, who served as the lookout back then. Walls were chosen based on visibility, feasibility and easy escape routes. As a unit, they completed a couple dozen pieces over the course of their run. They’ll say the pieces that brought them respect in the community was a massive “United Kings” work on a wall off of I-85, leaving the Arts Center MARTA station heading north. Later, they would also be known for their “Kings” piece in the Atlanta civic yard, once the site for bombing in downtown. They did it first, they say.
Dubbed, “the visionary,” Dwayne Devoe is credited with establishing the crew’s name, a nod to their artistic prowess and selfless commitment to the group. “I figured all of us are kings, and all of us were united — that simple,” he said.
Though local artists such as Sir Leon and Exact were bombing solo, the collective efforts of the United Kings caught the attention of longtime Atlanta arts journalist Doug DeLoach, who followed them on bomb runs and profiled them in a two-part story for the Atlanta arts newspaper Open City in 1985.
“The Kings took it to another level, both in the planning, the execution and the scale. Their pieces were just so much better, more keenly executed, more imaginative in that convolution of the word and the image,” said DeLoach.
The first time DeLoach saw the United Kings in person was at the 1985 “Grandmasters and Assassins of the Letter” show at Fay Gold gallery in Buckhead. An arbiter of contemporary art in the South, Gold was a Brooklyn transplant who brought underground artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring to Atlanta and was instrumental in the careers of regional artists such as Radcliffe Bailey, Rana Rochat and Zoe Hersey. Her gallery shows and exhibition were must-see events.
She recalled curating the exhibition and ignoring graffiti naysayers who questioned the art’s value at the time. “I never cared about that,” she said. “So much in the art world is so boring. When you find a group that are exciting and doing something that had visual movement and tell stories about themselves, what could be more wonderful than to bring them out to the South?”
Despite small flashes of mainstream acceptance, the United Kings faced the reality of prosecution. Even with a rising profile, anonymity was paramount for survival. They were chased by police and residents alike. They saw a notices on MARTA trains offering a $10,000 reward for information about their identity. The crew continued, but kept a low profile and never got caught.
And then, they were gone.
Credit: Jason Getz
Credit: Jason Getz
Searching for royalty
After the United Kings’ run, Atlanta, hip-hop and the local graffiti community evolved rapidly. Following in their footsteps were crews like the Five Kings. Solo artists including SparkyZ, Sir Smith, Save, Hense, Totem, Dax and Vayne made names for themselves. More white artists began to take part.
Dax is a professional graffiti artist who first fell in love with the art form after spotting United Kings pieces riding MARTA in 1985. He, along with graffiti historian, archivist and documentarian Antar Fierce, are dedicated to preserving the history of graffiti, especially untold stories about Black artists. They have been photo documenting graffiti art in Atlanta for decades, which provided them with the only evidence they had of the United Kings’ existence.
When Roger Gatsman’s book, “The History of American Graffiti” — considered required reading for fans of the art form — was released in 2011, local graffiti nerds were bummed. The section on Atlanta was noticeably skimpy and credited artists from Baltimore with being the earliest instance of graffiti in ATL.
“I started getting kind of upset that people kept rewriting graffiti history because it’s kind of easy to rewrite. Roger’s book, it’s the wrong history,” Dax said.
“We know a lot about New York’s history,” said Fierce. “It’s time for a lot of these cities that New York inspired to begin telling their stories and putting their stories on the record.”
Dax began to search for the United Kings, asking style writers he documented if they had any info, but it went nowhere. Dax and Fierce would update each other with potential leads.
They caught a break just before the pandemic while scrolling through Instagram. In an effort to document its graffiti scene, the East Bay Archives in California posted an image of piece done by Wills, who moved to California after Atlanta. The caption credited him with being a member of the United Kings. Dax connected with him and eventually met the rest of the crew. His heroes had been found, but their own influence seemed lost on them.
“They didn’t think they had any significance,” said Dax. “They weren’t adequate in their own eyes, but they were (expletive) mythical creatures.”
Dax and Fierce worked with local style writers and the Art on the Beltline organizers to include the United Kings in ATL Jam.
Credit: Sigele Winbush
Credit: Sigele Winbush
On the last day of ATL Jam 2023, the entire United Kings crew stands in front of their piece, admiring the finished product. It’s like the closing scene in “Ocean’s Eleven″ where all the players are taking in one last moment together after completing a major heist. They are the last ones left, and they are soaking up the new world. Rather than looking over their shoulders and painting at night, they’re doing it in the daylight and getting paid for it. And they’re not kids anymore. Ranging in age from 53 to 57, they’re sore from going up and down the ladder for three straight days.
While the their fans were searching for them, the United Kings were dealing with life. They would go on to get married, divorced, have kids, grandkids, serve in the military, dabble in music and work overnight factory jobs. Today, Alexander, Wallace and Hackwin Devoe are retired.
Despite not having worked together as a crew since 1986, they never stopped making art or doing one-off solo graffiti pieces when time allowed. They also kept in touch, despite the fact Wills moved to California and then Colorado Springs, and Wallace moved to Texas.
“The organization never disbanded,” Wallace said.
Wallace moved back to Atlanta last year, and now, with the exception of Wills, the crew is all living in the metro area where it started. When they found out other artists were looking for them, and that their legacy in Atlanta mattered, they connected with one another on FaceTime, launched an Instagram account and started planning new projects. A United Kings documentary, comics, photo book and podcast have all been up for discussion.
Like many graffiti artists in the city, they felt like the Hip-Hop 50 celebrations whiffed on honoring the graffiti community’s contributions.
“They didn’t salute or celebrate the whole realm of hip-hop,” Gilmore said. “They just celebrated the recording of hip-hop on wax.”
The United Kings know Atlanta’s hip-hop legacy because they lived it, breathed it and had a hand in every element. They’re one the most influential hip-hop collectives to come out of the city. Their work ultimately gave rise to Atlanta’s public art scene.
Watching them together, Fierce was reminded of what makes the United Kings so special: their unity in an art form built on individual merit and ego. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s like an orchestra. ... You never see guys who go and paint and just paint the name of the crew.”
As the crew walks down the Westside Trail, headed back to the parking lot, there are plans to go see other pieces done by local artists taking part in ATL Jam. History might’ve forgotten the United Kings for a period, but they plan to keep the name and legacy going. For them it’s bigger than hip-hop, and they are more than just a crew.
“That’s how I look at this group. It is not a group,” Alexander said. “This is my family, this is my blood. I’d die for these boys.”