Commentary: Ghastly graffiti griping

By JOHN BLOOM, UPI Reporter-at-Large  |  Sept. 22, 2003 at 11:40 AM
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NEW YORK, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- A few words in defense of graffiti. (Please don't kill me.)

When Howard Dean showed up in Bryant Park this month to seek the city's support for his presidential run, he erected a huge graffiti wall similar to the spray-painted scrawls that once appeared on New York subways and buildings in the 1970s and 1980s.

For this little effort at urban atmosphere, Dean was vilified as a provincial moron. He was slammed by the Post, slammed by the Daily News, slammed by pretty much every media outlet and every available politician including Al Sharpton and Mayor Bloomberg for what they called a condescending insult to the city.

"Is Dr. Dean nuts?" opined the New York Observer in a fairly typical summary of press opinion. "It seems the former governor of Vermont thinks that New Yorkers are nostalgic for the time when graffiti turned a walk in the park or a subway ride into an ugly visual assault."

Well, excuuuuuuuse us for thinking there might be one New Yorker left who celebrates the cult of the outlaw and the bohemian. Obviously the city has passed into the hands of the suburban Westchester "City Beautiful" Ladies Auxiliary. If Lenny Bruce came back, they'd not only try him all over again, but this time he'd get life under the three-strikes law. Evidently New York has entered a new age of Comstockery.

It is Rudy Giuliani, of course, who gets the credit for eliminating graffiti from the city. The credit is misplaced. The real reason is a German-made solvent that first became available in the early nineties and was the only chemical that could break down spray paint and allow for massive mural-removal projects. Before that time, aerosol spray paint was resistant to all paint-removers.

I guess I'm the only person in New York -- or at least in the New York media -- who thinks a visual tribute to the graffiti artists of yore is a nice bit of symbolism, and a political image directed at precisely the voters Dean wants.

For young graffiti artists all over the nation -- not to mention the rest of the world -- New York is a mecca. It's where graffiti began, in the seventies, when subway cars were spray-painted. It's where it was first recognized as art -- in a now famous 1978 show that featured the "tags" of all the young artists from the Bronx. It's where the first colossal murals were painted on abandoned buildings in the eighties. It's where it was first sold in art galleries. And it's where the most famous graffiti artist in the world -- Keith Haring of the East Village -- worked out the style that is seen today on greeting cards, mugs, children's toys, T shirts and corporate billboards, continuing to generate income for the AIDS foundation he set up just before his death in 1988. A 1997 exhibition of Haring's works -- including drawings he'd chalked directly onto the advertising panels in subway cars -- opened at the Whitney Museum and travelled around the world for three years.

I'm not sure when the press became so stodgy about all this -- they were certainly available for free hors d'ouevres whenever there was a Haring gallery show -- but why is it such a stretch to see why a liberal Democrat who opposes everything George Bush stands for would want to reach out to the disaffected, alienated, very YOUNG souls who still venerate graffiti artists, skateboarders, goths, punks, club girls and everyone else who hates the bourgeoisie? For one thing, this group of 18-to-30-year-olds celebrates the sixties and seventies, and even aspects of the fifties if you count Kerouac and Irving Klaw. They would look at the graffiti backdrop and say, "Hey, cool, I might just sign up to vote."

At the very least, shouldn't the headlines have said -- instead of "Dean Mocks City" -- something to the effect of "Dean Goes for the Retro Youth Culture"?

The same week that Dean was vilified in New York, England's most famous graffiti artist -- a cult figure known as "Banksy" -- was being honored with a gallery exhibition of the works he's painted on walls and bridges all over London: riot police with smiley faces, Mona Lisa firing a rocket launcher, Churchill with a Mohawk haircut. Banksy even painted the words "Designated Riot Area" at the foot of Nelson's Column, but the Brits apparently have a little more sense of humor about things like that.

Other graffiti artists, like Seak in Bonn and Cologne, Mope in Denver, Flow and Seazer in Montreal, Metroe and Napalm in Seattle, have all made the pilgrimage to New York to meet middle-aged graffiti legends like Futura, who may be the first-ever subway graffiti artist, having spray-painted as early as 1970 and later accepted large commissions in Europe, where he found wider acceptance. Inevitably the graffiti artists from other cities and nations are a little disappointed by the New York of the 21st century. Like gamblers seeking the old Rat Pack Vegas, they're surprised by the paucity of public artwork--until someone takes them to the Bronx. (One amazing thing about the press coverage was the assumption that the city is entirely devoid of graffiti today. Editors of the New York dailies should take the 5 train to the Bronx Zoo -- or maybe they shouldn't. They would be appalled by the massive and plentiful mural art that still exists in the South Bronx.)

But here's my point: graffiti painting was always both a political and an artistic act. Depending on the artist's skill and taste and purpose, it could be primarily political -- in which case the most important code was the slogan or the tag itself, the artist defiantly writing his name on a public building -- or it could be primarily artistic. (Haring liked to do his subway drawings in the middle of the day, with hordes of people around, many of them yelling at him that he shouldn't be doing it.) The fact that it was a criminal act -- a third-class misdemeanor when the trend began, later made more dangerous by tougher and tougher laws -- was part of the point. In the fifties angry youth chose loud motorcycles, in the seventies they chose graffiti and punk music. The message was the same: we're here to get in your face and change things. We will not be ignored.

Today the stakes are even higher for graffiti artists. Neighborhood watch groups and property owners will pursue them to the ends of the earth. When a notorious artist named Mook was arrested in Pittsburgh while making his escape on a bicycle from the freshly painted 10th Street Bridge, there was civic celebration on a scale usually reserved for the apprehension of terrorists. Mook was an especially daring sprayer, scaling suspension bridges and highway underpasses and developing a following (a virtual graffiti gang, as it were), and at his arraignment the city-beautiful activists packed the courtroom and cheered when the magistrate set a bond of $100,000, ensuring he would sit in jail for at least six months. (I've covered MURDER trials, with the courtroom packed with relatives of the victim, and I've never heard actual cheering. This is some indication of just how personally the middle class takes this crime.)

In Seattle, an 18-year-old with the tagger name Flare was sentenced to a year in jail after being targeted by something called the Anti-Graffiti Coalition. The sentencing judge sternly admonished him, "You cannot go around imposing your art on the community." Seattle even has an ordinance stating that graffiti must be painted over even if the building owner likes it. There was formerly a "free wall" tradition in the city, in which cafe owners and other proprietors would allocate part of their property for graffiti, but they're now required to paint it over, in what can only be described as a denial of property rights in the name of property rights.

Perhaps the saddest case was that of Tie One, the San Francisco graffiti artist famous for his daring, especially the time when, running from the cops, he jumped from a building, broke both legs, but managed to cover himself in a snowbank to avoid getting arrested. He decorated buses, walls, doors, doorways, stop signs, billboards, freeway overpasses and even, in one case, a paddy wagon. He had just completed a piece--called "The Joy of Life" --when he was shot in the head by a man who said he felt "threatened" by Tie One, who stood 5-foot-5, weighed 90 pounds, and was unarmed. The shooter was not prosecuted.

The fact is, the world is full of graffiti artists, and probably always will be, especially because they all know the history of New York graffiti and they find inspiration in it. Temper, the artist who works around Wolverhampton, England, has his work featured on 50 million Sprite cans sold in the United Kingdom. Robert Herrera of Austin, Texas, has painted three walls on the Holly Street Power Plant, a municipal structure in a city that still values the medium. Robin VanArsdol is a classically trained abstract expressionist who founded the "bad painting" movement in New York (crude renderings with agitated paint) and felt so passionately about free public art that he created 2,000 illegal murals in 1983 alone, all of them tagged with his "Bad Jet" monicker.

Probably the most famous artist today is Daim, of Germany, who has studied the history of New York free public art and noted that graffiti passed from the subways in the seventies, to galleries in the eighties, to the Internet in the nineties -- and even though he has enough legal commissions to last a lifetime, he still goes out and paints graffiti illegally. "I believe that someone who writes only legally cannot grasp the whole spirit of graffiti," he says -- and since he signs his work, like a true tagger, the police always know where to find him.

If the press of New York City takes no pride in this unique history, you would expect them to at least acknowledge that it has a place in the popular culture, a place in the youth culture, and should be no more "off limits" than, say, the three-story-high billboard of porn star Jenna Jameson in Times Square. If there's a youth vote in this country, they despise the old fogeys who would spit this much venom over a chapter in our history that signified civil disobedience and rebellion. It could be that Howard Dean understands New York better than its gatekeepers.

*

John Bloom writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at joebob@upi.com or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.

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