Marc Ecko recommends a figure eight. Showing his upcoming video game "Getting Up" at a loft in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, he's offering tips to better paint virtual graffiti with a PlayStation controller. Hold one button, press another and swish the control stick just so.
Though this isn't how it's done in real life, Marc Ecko — whose last name takes an accent on the shirts in his popular clothing line; whose full name emblazons a billboard in Times Square advertising an upcoming superstore; who popped up in both New York and L.A. to show MTV News his new game; who recently held a De La Soul-headlined concert in Central Park to help save the African rhino; and whose plate, tablecloth and doggie bag are all quite full — wants to teach the world about wall scrawling.
"I definitely have a love affair with graffiti," he said. "Graffiti is probably the most co-opted medium that the media has exploited whenever they want to speak to young people. But the whole outlaw kind of narrative, the person behind the filth, his story — her story — is never told."
"Getting Up," due for PS2 in September, isn't purely a graffiti how-to, but the 32-year-old Ecko wants players to learn a little something. "A generation should understand graffiti beyond a commercial and how it's been marketed."
So forget soda commercials, TV graphics and designer clothing labels, he says. Instead, Ecko wants players to take the role of Trane, voiced by Talib Kweli, and start making the walls of the city New Radius a bit more colorful. Players begin as a graffiti novice — a "toy" — and study under the tutelage of six real-life virtuosos. The aim is to out-hustle rival crews, build respect and reach the pinnacle: status as an "all-city king." (Check out video of "Getting Up" gameplay action and go behind the scenes with Talib Kweli on Overdrive.)
Along the way, players will do their requisite share of video-game fighting as they battle with a mayoral task force determined to keep the city clean, but this is a game thick with aerosol cans and places to throw up burners and tags. Ecko estimates the game will feature more than 1,000 pieces of authentic graffiti art for players to unlock and use.
"Getting Up" is Ecko's first game, but it's not his first gaming-industry experience. Electronic Arts' "Madden 2001" featured an "*Eckó Unltd." team, in exchange, Ecko said, for his help making artist connections for the game's soundtrack.
Though he enjoyed video games as a kid, their bleeps and bloops were no match for hip-hop's scratches and samples. "I was the white kid trying to be down. Graffiti was like my entree. I was too fat to breakdance. I couldn't rhyme. I wasn't that good of a graffiti artist, honestly."
In 1993, Ecko opened his clothing business. Five years later and $6 million in debt, he set on a path that would combine his gaming and hip-hop passions. That's when he wrote the script for "Getting Up," or, more accurately, for the trilogy he hopes the game will ultimately be part of.
The project was put on the back burner for a while, but about two years ago Ecko hooked up with Atari and the Collective, an independent game developer in Newport Beach, California. Graffiti hadn't been the topic of many games — the only standout was Sega's 2000 title "Jet Grind Radio," a stylish, cartoony cult favorite that combined rollerblading, arcade-style action and spray-painting. Graffiti would pop up again in last year's "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," but no game focused on New York's graffiti culture.
"Getting Up," with menu screens styled after New York subway turnstiles and action sequences that include a challenge to surf the tops of subway cars and hang off the sides to tag the exteriors, is clearly designed to do just that.
It turns out that many of gaming's classic actions fit the topic nicely. Running through cars on a freeway might typically be the task of Frogger. Jumping up a stack of boxes to scale a tower might usually be a job for Mario. But they're also the skills needed by a digital graf writer trying to deface a billboard. Gamers, it seems, have training for this kind of thing for years.
But "Getting Up" isn't just about hopping around and making your mark. The game has its political side, as the progressively anti-authoritarian Trane gets into heated confrontations with the mayor's oppressive forces. And Ecko's also promising that the game will be pretty out there. He likes referring to it as a combination of the classic graffiti film "Style Wars" and "Star Wars."
Despite the teases, Ecko wouldn't cough up many details. "The missions higher up get less real-world, like 'bombing' a Jumbotron," he said. "We dream of this kind of stuff but can't actually do it."
"Getting Up" is entering the final development stages, and with several years of attention paid to his game, Ecko said he's seeing the world differently. He spots a tag on a remote spot and wants to know how the writer got up there. And he thinks about his life in video-game terms. "I don't walk. I navigate."
Will the attention — the borderline obsession — pay off? Or will a game featuring so much property defacement just get lumped in with the other incorrigibles and be lost in the shuffle? "I'm not condoning you go out and ruin property," Ecko said. "That's not what this is about. Any cynic that's going to try to just hate on it for that reason needs to dig just three inches deeper and understand the story, immerse yourself in the story and learn about Trane and where his head is really at. He's just trying to flip the script on the system."
And maybe make some art while he's at it.