Getting a shock factor reaction, especially in spaces where routine takes over the mind, is something that writers aim for. Amongst arguments around the individual originators of graffiti, whether in Philadelphia or New York, and the most coveted places, one place reigns above all: subway trains. If covering one panel of an MTA Subway car was a near impossibility in 2012, an entire M train sprayed and laid up at Metropolitan Avenue in 2020 seems only fitting. The accompanying recognition from train spotters and self-proclaimed “graffheads” being a relic of the 1980s and a gift to those who cry for “old New York.”
Like any artform, graffiti involves the artistic vision and expression of an individual or collaborators formed into a consumable form. Graffiti artists have considered themselves artists since inception, though their title hasn’t always been validated by the likes of Sotheby’s and SoHo galleries. Until the 21st century, graffiti was taken as a sign of urban decay by some and an indication of creative utilization by others. Now, graffiti’s ubiquitous presence in film and television and the creation of legal graffiti spaces speaks to the unfortunate efficacy of decades of broken windows rhetoric and the narrative of nostalgia, a view of the past that only remains evocative as long as it stays pasted. To create these narratives, on the screen and in the heads of city residents worldwide, graffiti artists have been shaped into street artists and contracted set artists in order to make their ends meet.
The original pioneers of graffiti never expected any monetary gain from writing. Norman Mailer, for all of his misgivings in textual and marital form, put it best in his 1974 Allure Magazine feature on Uptown graffiti artists: “For now your name is over their name, over the subway manufacturer, the Transit Authority, the city administration. Your presence is on their presence, your alias hangs over their scene.” It’s never really been about pay. Notoriety, rather, is the currency with which writers trade, a form of geographical and risk averse clout that accompanies jumping into active and electrified Subway tracks. In the Marshall Berman edited anthology of what was once New York, “New York Calling,” Joseph Anastasio recalls the anonymous stardom that could follow a successful night in the trenches:
“I remember the 1980s, the good old days of New York, when each and every subway car bore an exterior top-to-bottom coating of layers upon layers of graffiti. I remember growing up and riding the subway a lot with my parents, and being inspired by all of this artwork. Graffiti looked and smelled a lot like being a rock star. If you did it good enough and got your name up enough, everyone in the city would know your name. When the book Subway Art came out back then, it put a public face on the movement. If having your name up all over town wasn’t Rock Star enough, getting your work in such a book sure did the trick. Part of me wanted to be a rock star. I’d never learn to play an instrument well enough, but I could draw damn good.”
And don’t you dare call these talents street artists, at least not to their face or to the writers of the 20th century. Street Art, as defined by the graffiti clean up tips and tricks website GraffitiActionHero.Org, is constructive, adorning the urban landscape, and is done with a smile! Big, bad graffiti, on the other hand, is destructive, accelerates so-called urban decay, and “was done with an outstretched finger,” presumably the middle one. While these Not-In-My-Backyard guidelines to graffiti eradication are entirely laughable, they also represent the aggression, disdain, and potential for crime that graffiti artists apparently carry in their bags.
Promotional graffiti, on the other hand, exists with relative normalcy now. Contracted and composed by private businesses and city governments hoping to attract the attention of creative and, don’t forget, productive young people, graffiti or at least spray painted murals, if we’re splitting hairs, have come to represent a form of artificial city grit. The kind of grit that alludes to authenticity, an unchanged city, supposedly, that also allows the transplanted computer programmers or oil painters to create their own personal authenticity amongst the safety of a changed city. Now, before I am accused of vilifying city transplants(I am one myself, after all), I must clarify that the art forms and borough solidarity created around these expressions are cool! There is no harm in an audience who hasn’t lived, or even been in proximity of, graffitied infrastructure enjoying and growing to appreciate the artform. I applaud a well placed snippet of archival footage, a window-to-window tagged 6 train approaching Zerega Avenue, just as I applaud those writers actually scaling the 180th Street Train Yard fence and continuing to write, most recently honoring the perished 2 train operator Garrett Goble. I just thought we were supposed to be scared of graffiti.
At least, that’s how it was marketed to us by City Municipalities and Police Departments. In their journal article titled “Criminal but Beautiful: A Study on Graffiti and the Role of Value Judgments and Context in Perceiving Disorder,” Gabry Vanderveen and Gwen van Eijk both acknowledged and tested this spoon-fed rhetoric flaunted by leaders like Former New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Guilani and NYPD Police Commissioners Ray Kelly and William Bratton. “The broken windows theory suggests that graffiti and other signs of disorder in neighbourhoods cause not only fear but also crime, because fear would weaken social control and thus signal opportunities for crime to motivated offenders,” Vanderveen and van Eijk wrote, “We showed that underneath a fairly neutral attitude towards graffiti there is great variation in evaluations, both between and within people, which indeed demonstrates graffiti’s ‘interstitial’ nature.” Vanderveen and van Eijk shied away from taking bureaucratic rhetoric as a given and, in doing so, showed that graffiti is not presumed upon negatively and actually is subject to perception based on environment and aesthetic quality. Similarly, as graffiti writers of the 20th century are neutered and baffled by the public acceptance of street art over graffiti, Vanderveen and van Eijk confirm that this phenomenon is tangible: “A more lenient policy may signify awareness to different views on what public space should look like and who may legitimately contribute to and alter it, but it may also be embraced merely because some graffiti contributes to the marketing of cities as creative places.” And while these social changes driven by industry expansion wash in, the criminality of graffiti hasn’t been pulled out, keeping the nails in the coffin for now.
“New York City subway graffiti died in May of 1989, when the last graffiti-covered subway cars were retired, replaced by trains with paint proof surfaces,” Claudia Barnett writes in her Studies in Popular Culture journal article, “The mayors and the masses simply wanted to see it disappear.” It wasn’t just broken windows policing, felony sentencing, and paint proofing that killed graffiti, however. To Barnett, galleries aided in the process of commodifying graffiti, speculatively in order to keep the subversion of graffiti to a minimum. “While the painted picture may appear similar, the experience, in the processes of painting and of viewing, has been profoundly altered,” Barnett rightfully complains, “Graffiti has changed from a vision to be looked at to an object to be consumed.” Curiously, this distinction of public and private spaces defining the validity of graffiti continues today, only a literal big screen.
The Get Down, 20th Century Women, and other 21st century renditions of the 20th century undoubtedly use graffiti as a signifier of the era. Enough time has passed that even the most fearful of Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers can look back at the era of graffiti from the current safe haven of a graffiti-less society, one where a tag may last 24 hours at best. In fact, the sight of fictional or digitally created graffiti may even elicit a story or two from Mom’s years of living in Park Slope before it was, well, Park Slope: “Nobody even took the F train into Brooklyn back then!” To create this illusion in a graffiti adverse society, however, requires the expertise of a writer from back then. Enter the graffiti consultant, a Netflix paid position on The Get Down held by John ‘Crash’ Matos and Chris ‘Daze’ Ellis. If any show needed to get it proper, The Get Down couldn’t be phony under the highest of Bronx standards. Interviewed for the BET Style section, Crash and Daze said, “This amazes me that our influence and inspiration has gone on a global level.” The show’s graffiti and the appearance of the writers in the show are directly influenced by Crash and Daze, the kind of acknowledgement and payment that wasn’t even considered when they started writing 30 years ago.
Crash and Daze aren’t the only writers to cash checks. In fact, almost two dozen current New York City graffiti artists are set to split 6.75 million dollars in settlements after their art was demolished along with the structure carrying it. Known as 5Pointz, the former Neptune Meter factory in Long Island City, Queens became a haven for graffiti artists after building owner and developer Jerry Wolkof began allowing tagging and painting to occur in the abandoned buildings, according to Gothamist. In the time since, Wolkof has died but not before demolishing the 5Pointz structure at 45-46 Davis Street, at least 20 graffiti artists work going with it. While it was commonplace for other writers to paint over each other’s work at 5Pointz, they were always allowed to document it before it was gone. Demolition, on the other hand, gave them no warning. “Unhappy with losing their work, a group of artists filed a lawsuit against Wolkof’s development company G&M Realty, alleging their rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) had been violated,” an article in ArchPaper states,“Under VARA, the plaintiffs argued, their work was protected against willful “destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right.” In October, this claim was affirmed by the Supreme Court, meaning these writers are each owed thousands of dollars.
Even so, and I’m sure this payout is appreciated, writers will continue to write whether they get a check or not. As the pandemic continues and the MTA faulters, writers get up more often, as depicted on Instagram accounts like @NYCGRAFF.HEAD. Retired stainless steel R32 train cars become akin to the box trucks sitting in Westside Highway traffic and the occasional J or M train rolls through stations, dripping paint enroute to the wash. There are no silver linings to the current time but a painted train is a nice thing to look at, a welcome change of pace.