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As for the writers who travel thousands of miles to tag here in the mecca of graf, they're tolerated but not respected (with a few exceptions, such as the intrepid Mexican MOSCO). The problem isn't that they're foreigners; it's that they're frontingand they usually buy their paint. The graffiti code requires "racking," or stealing, the materials you use, an act of defiance that springs from necessity. After all, a night of bombing can involve up to 20 cans of aerosol at $4 a pop. As one writer notes, "It's the most expensive drug."
But these cool-police can't stop the spread of graf beyond the ghettos. To visit the home pages of Graffiti@Yokohama or S2K Kings of Istanbulnot to mention TOP Crew of Paris, CTC Crew of Venezuela, and Aerosol Warriors of the Czech and Slovak Republicsis to glimpse the power of this code to represent all over the world. There are Old Skool pieces on the walls of every European capital. Paris has declared war on graf, Berlin tolerates it, Amsterdam celebrates it. And in Japan, there's a video game called Jet Grind Radio, in which a writer on roller skates sprays the walls of Tokyo, dodging the police.
Thirty years after it emerged from the heady brew of street gangs and radical politics in Washington Heights and the South Bronx, graffiti is a movement that transcends race and class. Even in New York City, by most estimates, at least half of today's writers are white. Some of these homies are homing in on college degrees; others are chasing a career in commercial art and design. (Rooftop King is marketing himself as a graf-savvy model.) "Every writer I've met is the center of his friends," says TRIP, the resident graffiti artist at tagmag. "It's antisocial behavior, but at the same time, what you're doing takes a lot of balls. That's an important development thing, and so people flock to that strength."
It's these assertive writersthe best and brightest on their blockswho get targeted by the police. Many writers believe that if you shuffle when busted, you'll get through the system quickly, but if you fight the power (say, by getting an attorney), you'll end up on the vandal squad's most-wanted list. On this level, policing is designed to crush the ego and teach submission, the usual ghetto curriculum. The real trouble begins when writers aspire to get up beyond the 'hood. As the effervescent EARSNOT notes, the police are "far more likely to arrest kids in the money area"by which he means Downtown. Yet, because the area south of 14th Street is also the heart of club land, it's where writers from all over the city congregate. It's also where graffiti meets the edge of commerce.
Tagging is an important signifier of the street, and it's entered the repertoire of a whole group of young artists who have learned to synthesize the primitive and the pomo. Soho galleries that show their work welcome full-time writers, at least at openings. And so, titans of the tunnels mingle with with Fubu fops from Wall Street at an installation featuring a replica of a ghetto street. Meanwhile out on the sidewalk, the real thing goes on unobserved. Kids are marking every landmarked pillar and post. It's all a scrim for fame.
Graffiti's impact on the art world is a sorry tale. In the '80s, dealers tried to market it as a lumpen version of pop art, but the market collapsed with the quality-of-life crusade. The insult was acutely felt by writers, and this generation won't make the same mistake. "The new writers don't believe in decoration or fitting into the upper-class hegemony," says Hugo Martinez. "Pretty is not as important as real, or even ugly. And property is redefined as a reflection of the self."
Most young writers recoil at the idea that they are making art. "An artist is someone working in a nice white studio," says the fabled GHOST. "A writer is doing his work watching his back." Nothing is more contemptible to SKUF than marketing the stuff of one's soul. "How can you sell something you love?" he asks. "Graffiti is supposed to be free."
So it is. Because it can't be bought and sold, writing is a culture without surplus value, something that can only be said of folk traditions that remain under the media's radar. The idea of culture as labor for its own sakethe music of sheer celebration, the art of personal obsession, the dance of connection with one's ancestorshas all but vanished from American life. Graffiti keeps the faith, and stigma assures its integrity. This is why writing has the power to inspire young people around the world, and why it has played an important role in the dominant cultural movement of our time: hip-hop.
It's generally agreed that graf is the matrix from which hip-hop sprang. Rap pioneers like KRS-One and Rakim were also writers, as were a number of important DJs. Early parties featured tagging, rapping, and break dancing. But once the entertainment industry moved in, the most marketable elementmusiccame to stand for the whole. Whether graf has anything to do with the platinum world of rap today is a matter of intense debate. If there is still a connection, it lies in the sensibility: fusive, flamboyant, felonious.