By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"Hip-hop is a mentality of the sneak," says Bobbito, a/k/a DJ Cucumber Slice, who hosts The CM Fam-A-Lam ShowThursday nights on WKCR, 89.9 FM. "But it's also about exploration. Just as an MC searches for a concept no one's thought of, a writer will try to discover a new place to put his tag. There's an extension of self, and also an extension of exclusivitylike when a writer's work rolls into the station or a DJ presents a moment that can't be commodified. This is the height of hip-hop."
Because of its illicit status, graffiti is a repository of the utopian spirit that the market has left behind. Homophobia is not the price of admission to this show: Out-and-proud writers like EARSNOT get their props. And women have played a small but vital part in graffiti from the start. JOE 182, the first writer (along with his neighbor, TAKI 183) to hit the subway in the early '70s, remembers running with BARBARA, MICHELLE, and EVA 62. "They were some crazy bitches," JOE recalls. "They used to spray the inside of trains while people were sitting there." Their heirs are NAISHA, DONA, and the college student who writes MISS 17. It's not easy being a girl writershe's subject to the rumor that her boyfriend does her tagsbut MISS 17 is determined to become All City by the end of the year. "I have to bomb harder than a guy, because I don't get the respect," she says. "I wanna make it so they have no choice."
Still, graf remains a male adventure, or as FOE describes it, "a full-contact sport." Your team is your crew, and there are dozens of them, each with its own collective tag. Though they battle fiercelyby writing over a rival's name or sometimes going hand-to-handthis is a more peaceful pursuit than it might seem. Fighting is not the source of fame, and fame is not the only criterion of respect. Old Skool writers wanted to be seen by multitudes, but for this generation, which grew up with graffiti, the true audience is one's boys. Consider SPOT, of Brooklyn's KMS (for Kriminal Mind Slaughter) crew. He will cover a handball court late at night, wait for sunrise, and then take a picture. By lunchtime, his work has been buffed. "Nobody gets to see it but us," he beams. When a van carrying his tag rolls by the window of Starbucks, where he is being interviewed, only his crew notices. But for SPOT, that's fame.
Though graffiti will always be a supremely social activity, its most revered practitioners are loners who write for reasons known only to themselves. The subway tunnels are their secret catacombs. Here, in 1994, the renowned REVS painted his life story in elaborate lettering. Here are tags from the origin of writing, going back 30 years. And here is the home of GHOST, a master of color in motion. His work helped turn the tunnels into a magic kingdom of graf. It's a passion GHOST has pursued since he was a child, drawn to the musty, rusty smell, the darkness, and especially the dirt.
Back in the 1980s, GHOST worked the lay-ups, and after a train was sprayed he would use any leftover paint to hit the surrounding walls. "It was a way of saying, here's where I do my damage," he recalls. But GHOST soon realized that the tunnels were a vast arena for adventure. He could dip down from any station, pry the covers off escape hatches, duck behind a signal box to skirt a passing train. Here in the quiet broken only by an advancing roar, GHOST would paint in peace. "I didn't go to school no more," he says. "All's I did was rack paint and scope out trains."
If that sounds like an addiction, perhaps it is. More than one writer uses the word fiendingto describe his need to tag incessantly. The walls of his room are covered, as are cereal boxes and anything else that isn't locked away. But getting up requires an alert mind in a sound body; it doesn't go with crack. And as for antisocial impulses, take it from GHOST: "Graffiti saved my life. I had a lot of anger as a kid, and it taught me to channel my energy." Like many former writers, he's now an artist.
You can argue that if GHOST hadn't been busted by the vandal squad, he'd still be fiending. But the war on graffiti raises the same issues as the war on drugs does. It's not about helping people manage their compulsions; it's about controlling a large population of young men. And as long as politicians are rewarded for their diligence at this unacknowledged task, graffiti will never play the part it can in beautifying schoolyards, abandoned buildings, and other markers of what Bobbito calls "the pale landscape of the poor." There's a wellspring of talent in these aerosol warriors, but the city is sending them to Rikers to learn about thug life.
"It's a mixed message," says Rooftop King. "On the one hand, Coke wants you, the galleries want you. On the other hand, they tell you it's a crime." This contradiction goes to the heart of why graffiti grabs people, for better or worse. Kids aren't the only ones who can read this stuff. It's a code for adults too, and whatever associations with chaos it might conjure up, graf also resonates with memories of a time when "styles of radical will," as Susan Sontag called them, were distinguished from other illegal acts. The world has changed, but writing remains an emblem of the troubling yet vital connection between art and crime. It's Kilroy and Nietzsche, abstract expressionism and Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Mortal Kombat and Yellow Submarineall getting up by any means necessary.