The Joy of Bombing

Graffiti’s Next Generation Gets Up By Any Means Necessary

 To live outside the law, you must be honest. —Bob Dylan

It was round-up-the-usual-suspects time at City Hall last week, as Rudy Giuliani announced a new crackdown on quality of life crimes. Though noise is the beef in 87 percent of complaints to police, the mayor was looking for a crusade that could land him a place in a possible Bush administration. So he targeted the homeless, as well as pot smokers, street drinkers, and those dukes of damage, graffiti writers.

This was no news to the writers. For them, Giuliani Time has been a nonstop crackdown, with all the classic police techniques—from entrapment to illegal search and seizure—used against kids whose only crime is "getting up." Nearly all the major writers have been busted, and several have done significant time or been slapped with major fines. But the response on the street is best summed up by the legendary REMO: "Getting caught is the price of fame."

Wall by Ghost, Staten Island
photo: Flint
Wall by Ghost, Staten Island

Repression has done what it usually does. Writing is now a heroic act, and the kids who master it are celebrities of the sidewalk. When Rooftop King (as he must be called here, due to a recent encounter with the vandal squad) walks down Lafayette Street, teenagers greet him every half block or so. This is more than a shy guy from Queens could ever hope for, which is why Rooftop King says, "Graffiti means everything to me."

Status is the major reason writers are willing to risk arrest. And since respect is hard to come by in the outer-borough neighborhoods where most of them live, there are several thousand writers, according to art dealer and graffiti historian Hugo Martinez. Any hip high school student knows who the kings are, those whose ubiquity has earned them the coveted title All City. What looks to most adults like a jungle of writhing vines is a code to their kids. And given the importance of the information conveyed—the claims of glory, the determination to be visible at any cost—no wonder graffiti has endured. Despite—or because of—the aggressive attempt to extinguish it, graf is bigger now than at any time since the 1980s.

It may not be as apparent, because it isn't in your face when you ride the IRT. But a new generation of writers has moved out of the subways and on to the streets, roofs, bridges, tunnels, parking-lot walls, window ledges, mailboxes, and abandoned buildings everywhere. Their goal is not to create huge bursts of color like the "pieces" that covered trains in the 1980s. These Old Skool murals usually involved elaborate sketches and teams of writers spraying in the safety of a train yard or tunnel lay-up. With cameras and motion sensors in place, there's no time for such deliberation now, and besides, as REMO puts it, "I ain't got the patience for that." The new crews are out to hit as often and as quickly as they can. The idea is not to beautify but to bomb.

Some writers scale buildings abutting the el, while others troll the tunnels, so their tags can be seen from passing trains. "I'm looking for the virgin wall no one else will touch," says FOE, the flexible flier whose name adorns the Hellgate Bridge. His goal is to "get up where a lot of people can jock it" (admire the work). Some writers are drawn to spots where kings have tagged, hoping the attention will rub off on them—that too is considered jocking, an attitude that's nearly as frowned upon as "biting," or copying someone's style. The idea is to be unique and bad and everywhere. Any surface unlikely to be buffed will do. "Nice brick walls, the dirtier the better," notes Rooftop King, "places where your stuff becomes a permanent part of it." Walls that are too high up or too neglected to be cleaned. And sites that move. Trucks and vans are the new trains, and most of them have been marked.

In the fight for lasting fame, tags are being etched onto windows with acid, sandpaper, or screwdriver blades. Sheet-metal graf (called "sculpture") is being welded onto fences and street poles. Subway signs are being unscrewed, taken home for tagging, and fastened back in place. A whole new venue—freight trains—means that writing now travels across the country, with kids along the route documenting the journey and adding graf of their own.

All this is preserved in "flicks" that are kept in vast snapshot collections. Nearly every writer owns a bulging shoebox or several photo albums of his work, and thanks to the Internet, flicks can be circulated online. By now there are hundreds of graffiti sites, including webzines like artcrimes, bigtime, massappeal, and tagmag. Graffiti chat rooms attract writers along with pretenders—and reportedly the police. A favorite sting is to log on as a sexy girl and prompt the suspect to boast about the damage he has done.

Of course, to confine your writing to the Web is to risk the ultimate graffiti diss: being called a toy. Plenty of writers will apply the T-word to anyone not from New York. California is whack because the writers there "try too hard and pay too much attention to things," according to the young man who writes REHAB. As a rule, two minutes is all the time it should take to do a throw-up; anything more smacks of concentration, not a prop-worthy trait. (No one from Cali was available for comment.)

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