Tuesday, January 15th, 2013
27

The Stupidity Of New York's Long, Expensive (And Ongoing) War On Graffiti

Thirty years ago—at the height of New York City's "War on Graffiti," and in an act of faith utterly incommensurate with the city's public demonization of graffiti writers—a group of teenagers named SHY 147, DAZE, MIN and DURO met with MTA official Richard Ravitch, and proposed a deal. Give the writers of New York City one train line to adorn with their vibrant aerosol murals, and they would leave the rest alone. Let them paint for six months, then let the public vote on the merits of their contribution.

Ravitch suggested that if the writers wanted to contribute, he would give them all brooms, and hostilities resumed. The subway's exteriors have been art-free since 1989, but the war has never really ended. New York City remains rigidly opposed to the very aesthetic of graffiti—even if the art in question is perfectly legal.

Today, advertisers have learned to faithfully, if flavorlessly, appropriate graffiti's ethos of logo repetition, as anyone who has ridden the train lately can confirm. In the city that incubated the most important popular art movement of the 20th century, the message is clear: public space can be yours, if you pay for it.

Unless what you put there reminds them of graffiti, that is. I learned this last week, when I tried to buy space to advertise my new novel. The silver walls where "burners" used to blaze are now for rent; anyone willing to pay fifty thousand dollars to a company called CBS Outdoor can buy advertising "stripes" for a month. For considerably more, one can "wrap" an entire train in product messaging.

"The issue," CBS Outdoor wrote in an email, explaining why my proposal had been rejected, "is the style of writing. The MTA wants nothing that looks like graffiti."

Admittedly, my book title is rendered in colorful, flowing letters, by the Brooklyn artist Blake Lethem. Admittedly, this would not have been the first time Mr. Lethem's work had graced a train. But what exactly is the rubric by which the MTA judges a letter's graffiti-ness? At what stylistic tipping point does a word becomes impermissible to the same entity that has approved liquor adverts depicting naked women in dog collars, and bus placards featuring rhetoric widely condemned as hate speech against Palestinians? And if the NYPD defines graffiti as "etching, painting, covering or otherwise placing a mark upon public or private property, with the intent to damage," isn't a graffiti-style letter kind of like a robbery-style purchase?

All this might seem trivial, except that the War on Graffiti's tactics presaged a generation's experience of law enforcement and personal freedom. Mayor John Lindsay first declared war in 1972, and over the next 17 years, the city would spend three hundred million dollars attempting to run graffiti-free trains—this, during a period when the subway barely functioned and the city teetered on the brink of insolvency. Clearly, there was more at stake than aesthetics.

Those stakes become clearer when one examines law enforcement's public profiling of graffiti writers. They were described as "black, brown, or other, in that order," and vilified as sociopaths, drug addicts, and monsters. This was a fight over public space, and we would do well to remember that at the time the fight began, teenagers were also being arrested for breakdancing in subway stations, and throwing un-permited parties in the asphalt schoolyards of the Bronx. Taken collectively, these three activities also represent the birth of hip-hop, the single most influential sub-culture created in this or any country in the last half-century.

As historian Jeff Chang writes, the early 70s saw the politics of abandonment give way to the politics of containment in communities of color. The War on Graffiti is a prime example, and it midwifed today's era of epic incarceration, quality of life offenses, zero tolerance policies, prejudicial gang databases, and three-strike laws. The War on Graffiti turned misdemeanors into felonies, community service into jail time. It put German Shepherds to work patrolling the train yards; Mayor Koch once suggested an upgrade to wolves. Today, the city prosecutes hundreds of graffiti cases each year, and maintains a dedicated Citywide Vandals Task Force. Nationally, writers have been sentenced to prison terms as long as eight years, and ordered to pay six-figure restitutions. In other words, the war rages on.

One cannot help but wonder what might have happened if New York City had agreed to the naïve, visionary truce those four teenagers offered, 30 years ago now. With a handful of scholarships and a press release, might the "graffiti plague" have been alchemized into a landmark public art program, to be adapted by other cities with the same zeal that zero tolerance has been? Could thousands of lives have been altered, hundreds of millions of dollars better spent?

We'll never know, because the city didn't listen to its young people then. It didn't recognize graffiti as an outpouring of creativity and frustration, a simultaneous urge to beautify and destroy, to hide and be seen, that's every bit as complicated as being shunted to the margins of the American dream. Kids are still writing graffiti today, beautifully and badly, in every city in the world; New Yorkers taught them how to do it, but they've always understood why. It's not too late to listen to them now.


Adam Mansbach is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Go the F**k to Sleep and the novel Rage Is Back, available now from Viking.

27 Comments / Post A Comment

Non-Anonymous (#19,293)

I hold these two completely compatible beliefs:

1. Everything Adam Mansbach wrote above is true.

2. It is wrong, in principle, to mark up someone else's property (including public property) with your permanent or difficult-to-remove artwork.

shostakobitch (#1,692)

Graffiti is fun to do but usually terrible to look at. In case all you leathery, seasoned strap-hangers forgot:
http://everyday-i-show.livejournal.com/194622.html#cutid1

rural14 (#235,566)

Nay…as a kid in the late 60s and 70s and a kid in public school in Coney Island at that…I can tell you that the graffiti and graffiti "culture" was terrifying / trains were really scary; and no amount of hanging out with the famous Samo who tagged all over – every single pay phone, train car etc – mitigated the fear that most kids felt when other packs of tagging kids came through. And this not just a white / black || cool / nerd opposition…everyone felt edgy and taken hostage. And there WERE lots of attempts to make spaces available for graffiti artists, and they did take those offers, but the bulk of taggers were more intent on territory and intimidation. Sorry, but this falls under "New York usta be real man" when in fact it was pretty torturously scary.

Sure – Lindsay, Beame, etc…jerks – but taggers – likewise considerably jerky too.

rural14 (#235,566)

@rural14
(famous Samo = Basquiat. It was a small overlapped world, just like now. But far more viscerally scary; now it's just a simulacra)

Multiphasic (#411)

@rural14 Zombie Sacer not bringing the night sweats, eh?

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@rural14 "as a kid in the late 60s and 70s and a kid in public school in Coney Island at that…I can tell you that the graffiti and graffiti "culture" was terrifying"

Well, yeah… back then (and there) there was a lot of scary shit that there is less of now. The thing about seeing graffiti vs getting stabbed is that of those two only one can at least sometimes (even if less than 5% of the time) be considered enjoying art and be appreciated as such to this day. I think the whole point of appreciating graffiti is in how the scary goes with the beautiful. If graffiti was harmless, it would be utterly boring and irrelevant.

So, with that said, I have to conclude that graffiti in this day and age is pointless. It's a form of art that's historic to NYC. It's time has past, and it's no longer really possible to do it as art of any consequence.

alexandra (#233,950)

@Niko Bellic I agree with everything you said until the very end– "It's time has past"? (sic, btw) That's like saying hip-hop is over. Graffiti may have had a different significance in New York in the '70s than it does in Florida today, but it still has meaning as an art form and a sign of protest. Please don't shit on people trying to say something today just because they're using methods you associate with something else. You don't have to like Kitty Pryde and you don't have to like us, but graffiti still exists and people like me still make it.

Mr. B (#10,093)

I appreciate this piece's restraint and lack of hyperbole.

alexandra (#233,950)

@Mr. B I appreciate your thoughtful & constructive commentary.

Mr. B (#10,093)

@alexandra How DARE you.

Ranbud (#240,840)

I agree with Adam to a point, problem is if you let these writers do what they want, then you look like what Italy does now, who now is having to spend enormous amounts of money to remove and then try to restore the buildings from decades of graffiti because vandals do not care that it is a historic building, all they care is that it is a flat space to vandalize. There is a portion of people where graffiti is an art, the problem is that only about 5% fall into this area, the other 95% have no talent and just want to vandalize the property of others. Stop the 95% and you would see a bigger appreciation of graffiti. Art id on your own property and vandalism to the property of others without permission to do it, pure and simple.

kimberussell (#239,412)

I gather that anyone who is an apologist for graffiti as "art" has never had to watch their crying grandmother attempt to scrub graffiti off of her city rowhome because she didn't have the extra money to pay to have it removed.

LokoOno (#240,586)

@kimberussell You gather correctly, because graffiti is a multifaceted international art form appreciated by millions of people, almost none of whom have had the very specific experience you are describing. That's like saying "I gather anyone who is an apologist for rap as 'music' has never had to watch their crying grandmother attempt to block out the noise of a loud house party."

Binne (#231,278)

"The subway's exteriors have been art-free since 1989, but the war has never really ended." Like, that's a bad thing? Sorry, Adam, you lost me at the scare quotes on "War on Graffiti." The city PTBs didn't need to demonize the graffiti "artists" — the "art" and the "thinking" behind it were demonic from the git-go.

Art? I don't think so. I rode those subways all over the city in the 70s and 80s, and they were disgusting. The "artwork" was vandalism, pure and simple — hostile, repellent, ugly, intimidating, and everywhere. It was like having to listen to somebody's boom box and smell their cigarette smoke and try to avoid attracting their attention for an hour at a time, all while trying to read essential signage that's been obliterated by spray paint — when all you wanted to do was get to work on time. This happened a lot, no fooling.

An "an outpouring of creativity and frustration"? Please.

"…prison terms as long as eight years, and … six-figure restitutions"? Good.

To characterize the sanctions on graffiti as a limitation of free speech is silly. Want to make ugly paintings and meaningless messages? Fine, do it on your own house, not someplace where I can't avoid looking at it day in and day out. What was written on the subway walls was not the words of the prophet, but orcish scrawl, and I'm glad it's gone.

LokoOno (#240,586)

@Binne You think it's good that people writing on trains were sent to prison for longer than rapists? I wish you had actually had the balls to go up to a graffiti artist on the train and say, "Your orcish scrawls are hindering my comfortable middle-class existence!" Maybe that way you would have gotten the beatdown you deserve.

Binne (#231,278)

@LokoOno — And risk getting knifed? And somehow I doubt your own life isn't comfortable and middle-class.

LokoOno (#240,586)

@Binne I am middle-class and (relatively) comfortable, but that wasn't the point I was trying to make. The point I was trying to make is that you are a reactionary stiff who thinks that people who obscure "essential signage" with written words of their own deserve to go to prison for long periods of time, and that is why someone should punch you in the face.

Non-Anonymous (#19,293)

@LokoOno You don't have to love graffiti to think that eight years in prison is an excessive punishment for it. Of course, saying that people deserve to get punched in the face if they believe that graffiti should be punished with prison is also kinda excessive.

LokoOno (#240,586)

@Non-Anonymous I say we find someone who just got out of a lengthy prison term for the heinous crime of public art, have Binne make his self-centered, whiny argument to this person, and then leave it up to the person in question whether or not punching @Binne in the face is "kinda excessive." Then again, that person has probably been so scarred by the rape factory he just left, and is so afraid of returning to such a horrific place, that he will leave @Binne's smug visage sadly unpunched.

Non-Anonymous (#19,293)

@LokoOno Oookay then.

kimberussell (#239,412)

@LokoOno You're a real charmer!

LokoOno (#240,586)

@kimberussell I wasn't trying to be charming. I was trying to make a point that graffiti is art and people should not be sent to prison for art.

Non-Anonymous (#19,293)

@LokoOno But even if something is art, does that mean anything goes when persuing that art? Music is art, everyone agrees. That doesn't make it right for you to blare your music outside my bedroom window at 4 am. Or force me to use it as my ringtone. Or steal my laptop so you can use it to make your mixes.

LokoOno (#240,586)

@Non-Anonymous I think a better comparison would be between graffiti artists and street performers – they're doing something that not everyone is going to like, and they're doing it in a public space (the difference being that street performers can get permits). Writing something on a wall that someone might object to is not comparable to stealing someone's laptop. I don't view looking at something I don't want to see as an imposition, at least not any more than being forced to constantly look at advertisements.

Non-Anonymous (#19,293)

@LokoOno To be honest neither your comparison nor mine is very good, because both music and street performance are limited in time. Graffiti, on the other hand, is always there until someone finally scrapes it off. And neither music nor street performance does any physical damage to anything (unless it's *really* loud), whereas graffiti does at least a little. And, of course, it's always someone else's property that's being damaged. That's part of it too, isn't it? It's no fun to mark up your own property, assuming you're lucky enough to have any.

As for commercial advertisements, I fucking hate that shit. (Don't you?) The content is even more annoying than that of most graffiti. But on the other hand, it doesn't make me think about how it was done against the will of whoever owns the advertised-on space. So they're about equal, I guess.

WaDaTa (#240,887)

Sorry, but even when I saw Style Wars as a teenager, I thought that the proposal from SHY 147/DURO/DAZE/MIN was ridiculous. Even keeping the discussion restricted to the film, it's guaranteed that someone like CAP would have zero interest in helping those guys maintain a truce with the city. I'd also venture that someone as obsessed with being an "All City, King of All Lines" type as MIN would not keep up his end of the bargain. In any case, those guys didn't have any kind of pull over every single writer in the city, so there's no way it could have ever ever ever worked. Ravitch was right to turn down that deal, although he should probably re-enroll in diplomacy school.

That said, the city did miss an opportunity to channel a lot of creative energy and the MTA is ridiculous for rejecting the advertising proposal for Rage is Back. What about the KAWS train that was running in conjunction with the Thanksgiving Day Parade? I guess Mansbach needs some help from Macy's….

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