American Graffiti


On a quiet morning two months ago, Mayor Bloomberg took his paint roller and press corps to Williamsburg, a burgeoning node on the graffiti-writers’ map that is now a target for intensified policing, punishment, and cleanup. “Even with limited resources, we are not going to walk away from the needs of this city,” he said. “Graffiti poses a direct threat to the quality of life of all New Yorkers. . . . It’s not just an eyesore. It is an invitation to criminals and a message to citizens that we don’t care.”

Graffiti has been the scourge and scapegoat of every New York mayor since John Lindsay. Indeed, Bloomberg’s photo-op represents something of a mayoral rite of passage. But three new books, Joe Austin’s Taking the Train, Ivor L. Miller’s Aerosol Kingdom, and James and Karla Murray’s Broken Windows, let the graf writers talk back to the haters, while offering a nuanced reassessment of New York City’s graffiti scene.

The contemporary movement spawned in the subways and streets of Philadelphia and New York in the late ’60s has had a symbiotic relationship with academics, journalists, and photodocumentarians almost since its inception. Graf’s insularity attracts anthropological curiosity, its rebel codes ferment sociological inquiry, and its eye-burning virtuosity and butterfly ephemerality demand documentation and cataloging.

Books on graffiti have always played a major role in the movement. Norman Mailer, Jon Naar, and Mervyn Kurlansky’s Faith of Graffiti (1974) celebrated great Broadway stylists and time-forgotten toys alike, carrying the graf gospel into the boroughs like a virus. Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper’s Subway Art (1984) captured the peak years of train graffiti and catalyzed the post-buff global explosion. Early academic works on graffiti have had just as profound an effect on the emerging generation of hip-hop intellectuals, who claim graf’s tradition as their own.

Unlike academics who study rap, a serious graf scholar can’t simply flip on BET for raw material. Ivor L. Miller’s Aerosol Kingdom is the product of a 15-year journey through the New York scene, capturing his sense of awe and admiration for the risk, skill, and ambition of the graf-writers on every lavishly illustrated page. In “Night Train: The Power That Man Made,” Miller meditates on Ògún and Rakim, gandy dancing (by 19th-century black railworkers), and white flight. Here the book appears like a freshly painted 5 roaring out of the tunnel onto a Bronx el, a Flash of the Spirit for the hip-hop gen. Soon after embarking on the study, Miller tossed out his theories and decided his job was to act as interpreter and disseminator. The result is an unprecedented record of graf’s subway years, told in definitive interviews with artists like BLADE, James TOP, DOZE, and IZ the WIZ—writers whose names have become myth but whose stories have not. The reclusive Lee Quiñones seems to drop poetry every time he speaks: “Subways are corporate America’s way of getting its people to work. And the trains were clones themselves, they were all supposed to be silver and blue, a form of imperialism and control. And we took that and completely changed it.”

This drive to beautify is a logic that, like the trains, runs in circles. It’s a desire to create “Art for art’s sake,” as the husband-and-wife photographers James and Karla Murray put it. What Aerosol Kingdom does for the subway era, Broken Windows does for the new school, allowing COPE 2, VASE, KING BEE, and DIVA to talk about intent, technique, risk, and reward. Some, like LADY PINK and SEEN, provide continuity between the eras. All share a do-or-die spirit that can’t be stopped.

Broken Windows documents the Giuliani-era explosion of “productions”—the usually legal, multi-writer pieces that began appearing on store gates, buildings, walls, and train tunnels—and “bombs,” the illegal, controversial signatures that seemed to swarm the city. Like Chalfant and Cooper’s Subway Art, Broken Windows becomes a salute to the graf-writers’ visual genius.

With the constraints of time, color, surface, and size loosened, post-subway aerosol art has explored bold new conceptions of space. In Aerosol Kingdom, Robert Farris Thompson argues that subway wild style’s “gorgeous lariats of color and line” have influenced not only Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, but also Frank Stella. Even Zaha Hadid’s architecture now seems unimaginable without the late-era subway graf. Some of the wall productions in Broken Windows make you wonder what buildings might look like in 30 years.

After the MTA declared victory in its war against train graffiti in 1989, the center of the movement seemed to disperse to far-flung locales like Los Angeles and Sydney. But when Giuliani renewed the war on graffiti as the centerpiece of his “quality of life” campaign, graf-writers mobilized to create bigger, more stunning pieces and wage relentless bombing campaigns. The Giuliani crackdown influenced a new generation of mayors across the country, and gave back to the New York graf scene its frontline urgency.

The Murray book gets its title from the “Broken Windows” theory that provided the pseudo-intellectual backbone for Giuliani time. As Joe Austin’s Taking the Train makes clear, the ideological war between quality-of-lifers and aerosol advocates has been as viscerally gripping as the graffiti itself. In the spring of 1973, journalist Richard Goldstein famously called graffiti “the first genuine teenage street culture since the fifties.” But by 1979, the backlash began to cohere through an astonishingly disingenuous Public Interest article by sociologist Nathan Glazer. He outlined an idea that Harvard criminologist James Q. Wilson would later develop into the Broken Windows theory: If one broken window was allowed to go unfixed, a neighborhood’s fall would soon follow. To these neocons, graf represented the signal moment of a neighborhood’s plunge into Fort Apache.

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?

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.”