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.”
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.)
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 fronting—and 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 Istanbul—not to mention TOP Crew of Paris, CTC Crew of Venezuela, and Aerosol Warriors of the Czech and Slovak Republics—is 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 writers—the best and brightest on their blocks—who 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 sake—the music of sheer celebration, the art of personal obsession, the dance of connection with one’s ancestors—has 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 element—music—came 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.
“Hip-hop is a mentality of the sneak,” says Bobbito, a/k/a DJ Cucumber Slice, who hosts The CM Fam-A-Lam Show Thursday 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 exclusivity—like 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 writer—she’s subject to the rumor that her boyfriend does her tags—but 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 fiercely—by writing over a rival’s name or sometimes going hand-to-hand—this 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 fiending to 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 Submarine—all getting 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.”
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.