Sidewalk Politics

Graffiti Campaign Demands 'No More Prisons'

The spray-painted slogan first appeared on New York City's sidewalks four weeks ago. 'No More Prisons,' read the scrawled message. The phrase showed up along Second Avenue in the East Village, across from the Flatiron Building, and down Fort Greene's tree-lined streets. Even on pavement already decorated with graffiti—including chalk-written maxims by artist James De La Vega as well as countless demands to "Free Mumia"—the "No More Prisons" slogan is so ubiquitous that it is hard not to notice.

This three-word message also began showing up around Washington, D.C., from Howard University's campus to trendy DuPont Circle. In the largely Latino neighborhood of Adams-Morgan, the graffiti urges "No Más Prisiónes." This freehand slogan has spread recently to the sidewalks of major cities, including Cleveland, Chicago, Vancouver, and Minneapolis.

This nationwide campaign may seem like the work of a paint-wielding army of activists, but much of the graffiti was actually done by William Upski Wimsatt. Twenty-seven-year-old Wimsatt is best known for his self-published book, Bomb the Suburbs, which became an underground success in the hip-hop community after its 1994 release. No More Prisonsis the name of Wimsatt's second book. It arrived on store shelves just a few weeks ago. To encourage other graffiti writers to join him, Wimsatt posted a press release about the campaign on his Web site (www.nomoreprisons.net) and faxed it to dozens of graffiti magazines. Now, he says, "it's snowballed past the point where I'm in control."

Wimsatt insists his sidewalk scribblings are not just a clever marketing strategy, but an effort to raise public awareness. "We're trying to get people to question the insane build-up of the prison industry," says Wimsatt, an Oberlin College dropout who lives in Washington, D.C. Since 1980, the nation's inmate population has nearly quadrupled. There are now nearly 2 million people locked up in U.S. prisons and jails. "I'm willing to take responsibility for the graffiti because I don't believe it's wrong to write on the sidewalks," says Wimsatt, whose rap sheet includes seven arrests for spray-painting when he was a teenager. "I believe it's wrong to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders at a cost of $30,000 [a year] and take money away from schools."

The irony of this graffiti campaign is that Wimsatt's new 160-page book is not actually about prisons. He devotes only a few pages to this issue while tackling an incredibly broad range of topics, as revealed by the book's full title: No More Prisons: Urban Life, Homeschooling, Hip-Hop Leadership, The Cool Rich Kids Movement, A Hitchhiker's Guide to Community Organizing, and Why Philanthropy Is the Greatest Art Form of the 21st Century.

Wimsatt's choice of title is a creative exercise in cross-promotion. He named his book after a new hip-hop CD featuring 70 performers. The CD includes rappers Chubb Rock, Dead Prez, and Grandmaster Caz as well as performances by actor Danny Hoch and Harvard professor Cornel West. Produced by Raptivism Records, the No More Prisons CD will appear in stores in early December. Profits from its sales will benefit the Prison Moratorium Project, a New York City group fighting to stop prison building.

When Rishi Nath of Raptivism Records heard that Wimsatt wanted to name his new book "No More Prisons," he was thrilled. "He brings a lot to the table, so we were excited to have him on board," says Nath, 25, who has known Wimsatt for six years. "He's shown a unique ability to be loyal to the subculture of hip-hop."

Wimsatt marketed Bomb the Suburbsas if it were a hip-hop album—stocking it on record store shelves, wheat-pasting ads on city walls, and hawking copies at rap shows. Combining graffiti, cartoons, and hip-hop slang, Bomb the Suburbs sold more than 23,000 copies, an almost unheard-of number for a book that lacked the publicity muscle of a major publishing house.

It is too early to gauge the impact of Wimsatt's second book, but his graffiti campaign has already excited veteran prison activists. "I think it's a terrific political tool," says Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York. "Depending on the ability of whoever is behind this to get this on the radio and get rap performers to speak out publicly, it could have a very good effect."

But not everyone was pleased to discover Wimsatt's handiwork. "Vandalism is vandalism," says Matthew Higgins, a spokesperson for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has launched an aggressive anti-graffiti campaign. "It doesn't matter what the message is."

To promote No More Prisons, Wimsatt will spend the next year traveling to high schools, college campuses, and hip-hop parties across the country. He plans to pack his spray-paint.

 
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