Rammellzee created and wore full-body suits of armor that he called “Garbage Gods.” Photograph by Mari Horiuchi / courtesy Red Bull Arts New York and the Rammellzee Estate
In the mid-eighties, he began rendering these ideas in 3-D. He made sculptures that evoked the fossilized remains of twentieth-century life: newspaper clippings, key rings, chain links, and other junk, floating in an epoxy ooze. The most remarkable works were his “Garbage Gods,” full-body suits of armor, some of which weighed more than a hundred pounds. They look like junk-yard Transformers doing samurai cosplay. His most famous character, the Gasholeer, was outfitted with a small flamethrower.
Ramm’s art, thought, and music are the subject of the exhibition “RAMM∑LLZ∑∑: Racing for Thunder,” at Red Bull Arts New York. Befitting the popular drink’s own sense of iconoclasm, “Racing” bathes in Ramm’s frenzied, free-associative, and occasionally overwhelming energy. There are his early canvases and sculptures, along with flyers, business cards, manifestos, and patent applications. A small theatre screens previously unseen videos of Ramm rapping at night clubs. The most impressive part of the survey is a floor devoted to his “Garbage Gods” and “Letter Racers”—skateboards representing each letter of the alphabet, armed with makeshift rockets, screwdrivers, and blades.
Throughout the exhibition, you can hear moments from Ramm’s lectures on Gothic Futurism—a thrilling jumble of street-corner hustling and technical language, all “parsecs,” “integers,” “aerodynamics.” As I was examining a collection of hand-painted watches, I kept hearing Ramm pause as he reached the end of a long disquisition on ecological catastrophe and graffiti-as-warfare, and then bark, “Next slide!”
In early May, the Red Bull Music Festival staged a Ramm-inspired concert to mark the opening of the art show. Ramm had continued to make music after “Beat Bop,” never wavering from his philosophies, just declaring them against increasingly turbulent, industrial-sounding backdrops. The eclecticism of the bill spoke to his wandering ear, and ranged from the terse hardcore of Show Me the Body to the wise-ass raps of Wiki. K-Rob, wearing a T-shirt featuring a mushroom and the words “I’m a Fun Guy,” reprised his verse from “Beat Bop,” grinning the whole way through. Gio Escobar, the leader of the deft punk-jazz band Standing on the Corner, dedicated a song to a late friend. The departed are everywhere around us, he said, as a groove emerged from the band’s dubbed-out chaos. “And they’re waiting.”
As hip-hop and art changed, as graffiti vanished from New York’s trains and walls, Ramm delved further into his own private cosmos—namely, the enormous loft in Tribeca where he lived, which he called the Battle Station. His obscurity wasn’t a choice. In the early eighties, he offered to send the U.S. military some of the intelligence he had gathered for national defense. (It declined.) In 1985, he wrote an opera, “The Requiem of Gothic Futurism.” In the nineties, he tried to promote his ideas by producing a comic book and a board game. He thought that toy manufacturers might want to mass-produce his “Garbage Gods” models. He was the first artist to collaborate with the streetwear brand Supreme. There was a series of infomercial-like videos to seed interest in “Alpha’s Bet,” an epic movie that he hoped would finally resolve the narrative arc of his extended universe.
By the time Rammellzee died, in 2010, after a long illness, New York City had been completely remade by mayoral administrations that took broken-windows policing as gospel. The Battle Station became condos. The Internet has made it easy to take what the culture provides you and rearrange it in some novel, cheeky way. It’s much more difficult to build an entirely new world—to abide by an ethical vision with a ferocity that requires you to break all the rules. I was surprised by how moved I felt standing underneath Ramm’s “Letter Racers” and studying the textures of the “Garbage Gods.” To see their meticulous handiwork up close was to believe that Ramm’s far-flung theories, his mashup of quantum physics and “slanguage,” made sense as an outsider’s survival strategy. I noticed all the discarded fragments of city life—bulbs and screws, a billiard ball, a doll’s head, old fan blades and turn-signal signs, visors stacked to look like pill bugs. His commitment was total. These are works of devotion.
This is where Ramm wanted to live—at the edge of comprehensibility, but in a way that invited others to wonder. Cities are filled with strangers who possess an unnerving energy, who hail us with stories, songs, and poems. Ramm was one of these. In an interview filmed in the aughts, Ramm sheds light on his everyday life. Sometimes, he says, he’ll be walking down the street or sitting at a bar, and people will just look at him. And sometimes they’ll come up to him and ask, “Who are you?” He’s explaining all this while wearing one of his “Garbage God” masks. You notice his paunch, the warm crackle of his voice at rest. “I’m just an average Joe,” he says, and he sounds like he believes it. ♦
This article appears in the print edition of the May 28, 2018, issue, with the headline “Graffiti Prophet.”