The Joy of Bombing

Graffiti’s Next Generation Gets Up By Any Means Necessary

"This is our culture," the supreme SKUF proclaims. "Graffiti will never die."

from old skool to no skool

Al Diaz spent a lot of time in the 1980s writing with his friend Jean-Michel Basquiat. Their common tag was SAMO. Now, at 41, Diaz regards his progeny with the air of a silent-movie star in the age of talkies. "There are no real innovators now," he says. "It looks generic. We were definitely about style—and pretty."

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

He's right, in a way. Graffiti has lost its respect for beauty and ritual. Gone is the code of borough consciousness that gave the world Bronx Bubble Style as well as the loopy Brooklyn look. Platform Style (easily mistaken for Arabic) signified Manhattan—and nothing stood for Staten Island. These days, one's borough is more or less beside the point.

The meaning of respect has also changed. "There were certain people I didn't think I should write my name next to until I had gained enough recognition," says Old Skool master COCO 144. He remembers how important placement was—the way a piece fit across a train—and proper procedure: markers on the inside, aerosol on the outside. All that has been lost in the rush to get up, along with the cardinal rule in COCO's day: "Not going over anyone else's name. It was a samurai thing."

There are several reasons why the code of graf has changed. First and foremost is its status in society. Criminalization has sullied what Norman Mailer called "the faith of graffiti," replacing it with a cutthroat environment in which writing over someone seems less a violation than a dare. And high-tech surveillance has made it all but impossible to hit a train, except as it pulls into the platform (considered a mark of honor among writers today). "Speed is of the essence now," as COCO says.

But some things never change. There's still a feeling at the core of graffiti that writing is the only way to stake your claim. "Back in the old days, what you had?" asks JOE 182, the writer who started it all. "You either got fame from the gang, or you went to jail for shooting some guy. This is doing it the cool way."—R.G.

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