American Graffiti

Glazer barely had an argument. "[W]hile I do not find myself consciously making the connection between the graffiti-makers and the criminals who occasionally rob, rape, assault, and murder passengers," Glazer admitted, "the sense that all are a part of one world of uncontrollable predators seems inescapable." Today, despite still scanty empirical evidence, the three-decade-old sound bite from City Hall that graffiti is a gateway act to violent crime has necrotized into unimpeachable truth.

Austin notes that by 1973 John Lindsay was spending $10 million a year in anti-graffiti efforts. Through the city's bankruptcy and continued train accidents, politicians still somehow found $20 million to establish "the Buff." The chemical washing of graffitied trains not only left cars a dull color, it was harmful: hundreds of workers became sick and one man died of exposure. And in 1983, Michael Stewart was killed by transit cops for writing on a 14th Street station wall, yet another fatal example of the effects of bad theory.

Shortly after the MTA's victory over subway graffiti, Quiñones warned, "If you buff history, you get violence." In New York, graf arrests have climbed nearly 200 percent since Giuliani revived the Anti-Graffiti Task Force in 1995. A quarter-million graf hits are still cleaned off subway cars a year, while 3 million square feet of graf is buffed off highways and bridges. Is this state violence or is it something else?

The writing on the wall: Vulcan, Beyond Control (Harlem, 1984), from Aerosol Kingdom
photo: Courtesy University Press of Mississippi/Jackson
The writing on the wall: Vulcan, Beyond Control (Harlem, 1984), from Aerosol Kingdom


Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City
By Joe Austin
Columbia University Press, 400 pp., $49.50 (cloth), $24.50 (paper)
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Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City
By Ivor L. Miller
University of Mississippi Press, 288 pp., $60 (cloth), $30 (paper)
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Broken Windows
By James and Karla Murray
Gingko Press, 180 pp., $39.95
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Some have argued that encouraging legal paintings and productions would be a socially just alternative to a scorched-earth policy of policing and punishment. That approach only encourages more intense vandalism and violence, they say, because crews turn away from creative competition toward attacking each other and the cops. As EWOK tells the Murrays, "When you push something down, it's going to pop up somewhere else. It's just natural progression."

But everyone seems to agree that graffiti's perpetual removal catalyzes innovation and ingenuity. Its countless deaths generate countless rebirths. Austin points out that when the MTA repainted its entire fleet in 1973, it launched a golden age of style. In graf's status hierarchy, piecers who don't bomb barely rate. ESPO sums up the ethic nicely: "Illegal work has to say 'FUCK YOU.' It can't say 'hello,' or 'how ya doing?' " In other words, what makes graffiti an art form is the ability to dangle itself over the abyss—and occasionally fall in. Graffiti needs to be championed, its practitioners seem to say, but it doesn't need to be saved.

"I think the greatness behind it is the fact that it doesn't last," EZO tells the Murrays. "You bomb and then it's like these are my walls, my throw-ups, my paintings and you can't fuck with it . . . but deep inside myself, I know that nothing fuckin' lasts. It just can't. It's not meant to."

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