In Praise of Graffiti: The Fire Down Below
December 24–30, 1980
John Lindsay hated graffiti. He vowed to wipe it off the face of the IRT, and allocated $10 million to its obliteration. But the application of vast resources is no match for disciplined determination, as we should have learned in Vietnam. Graffiti survived Lindsay’s defoliation plan, and it has thrived on every subsequent attempt to curb its spread.
In 1973, there may have been a few hundred ghetto kids writing in a few definable styles. Now thousands call themselves “writers.” They come from every social stratum and range in age from nine to 25. Their signatures — called “tags” — have transformed the subway into what the Times calls “some godawful forest.” And now that the perpetrators have moved above ground, trucks and elevators, monuments and vacant walls look as if they have suddenly sprouted vines.
It is, says Claes Oldenburg, “a big bouquet from Latin America.” It is, says Richard Ravitch of the MTA, “a symbol that we have lost control.”
The great debate over graffiti, and what ought to be done about it rests on the assumption that its intention is to defile. “It’s the feeling that an antisocial element has been in the system and had its way,” says an MTA spokesman, defending his department’s annual $6.5 million anti-graffiti budget — money, after all, that might otherwise be used for repairs. The Times has rounded up the usual assortment of social workers and shrinks to bolster its contention that graffiti is “an effort to deal with deep feelings of fear by seeking out an experience that involves facing that fear.” Psychologists who treat these incipient felons “believe their patients, virtually all of whom have less-than-perfect relationships with their fathers, are intent on defacing his car, the car of authority.”
The casual rider might conclude that perp and victim share an inability to control the danger in their lives. Says the indefatigable Ali, who, like many graffiti writers, has a ready capacity to articulate the ideas behind his work: “Graffiti takes away the placenta, and reminds people of how violent the subway is. The real vandalism is what you’d see if you scraped the windows clean.”
The debate over graffiti has been conducted by people who are unwilling to decipher the message it conveys. Once you learn to interpret the medium, it becomes clear that no single intention is involved. Some kids do write to deface — to “bomb” a car, as they say; but the wholesale obstruction of windows and maps is a sure way to perpetuate your status as a novice, what serious writers call “a toy.”
Entering a graffiti zone — and these now include schoolyards, stairwells, and selected intersections — is like reading a newspaper. A writer can tell who has been there, which parts of the city are represented, how long since the site has been buffed, and whether there are any startling innovations — “isms” — he wishes to incorporate. This communicative function, says Ali, puts graffiti in “the griot tradition” of African storytelling — whether or not you grew up close to your dad.
But tagging is only the most elementary form of graffiti, and the insides of cars are a practice zone in which aspiring writers fashion the techniques they will need to do “a piece” — i.e., masterpiece. The idea is to impose yourself on an entire car, to move from “a throw-up” to the carefully delineated blend of tints and lines graffiti writers call “a fade.” This riotous effect can be achieved on the car while the paint is wet, or in midair, when a writer sprays two cans at once to see the fade as it forms in the mist.
From the time a surface is sighted — usually a train laid up on the center track — it can take 12 hours to complete a piece. Often working from sketches prepared in advance, a writer and his “crew” may spend a weekend in tunnel light, drinking, smoking, listening to the radio. Most writers return with cameras to document their work, since the TA’s buffing machines can reduce the most ambitious effort to a swampy blur. In graffiti, the dimensions of space and time are beyond control. All things must pass, usually within a month.
There are two ways to look at this stuff. From the platform, mammoth letters roll by like frames in a stereopticon. Seen a block from the el, bands of color undulate like the tail of a kite: At that speed and distance, one becomes aware of how important motion is to the spirit of graffiti. A willful transformation occurs as the ravished train is forced to boogie. The harder trick is to throw something up that looks good standing still.
Among writers, Lee is regarded as a master of freehand rendering, perhaps the first to execute a top-to-bottom, full-car design. But on the Lower East Side, where some graffiti aficionados are too young to frequent the subways, Lee is regarded as a prophet. He works anonymously, in the dead of night, covering handball courts with apocalyptic messages and monumental imagery. If you want to glimpse the future of this form, run right down to the playground on Madison Street, off Clinton. A bilious dragon awaits you, hovering over a skyline on the verge of eruption. Talk about Gulley Jimson: This vision was executed by a teenager with a ladder and a little paint.
Iconography has figured in graffiti since the early ’70s, when Stay High pilfered the stick figure logo from The Saint and appended it to his tag. But a growing segment of this movement would like to see graffiti abandon representation for an open assault of color, a fauvism-on-wheels. Futura 2000, who took his name from a Ford, serves up a fade that resembles cosmic soup. Within this Day-Glo cauldron, triangles glide by — the edges carefully defined with the aid of masking tape — and clusters of circles that clearly suggest Kandinsky, perhaps because that’s where Futura first encountered these shapes.
Graffiti draws from every form of pictorial information that has entered the ghetto over the past 20 years: billboards, supergraphics, wall murals, underground comics, and custom car design. Sci-fi illustration — especially the lurid romanticism of Frank Frazetta and Vaughn Bode — was an early source of inspiration, but now that the most ambitious writers are taking classes in drafting and going to museums, there is a deliberate attempt to work in references to artists who command respect. Lost to the buffers now is Blade’s rendition of Edvard Munch’s scream, and Fred’s assemblage of Campbell’s soup cans. It is possible to imagine a car decked out to resemble something Jackson Pollack dreamt (although, to accomplish that, a writer would have to overcome the traditional graffiti disdain for drips). Or figures out of Klee riding shotgun on the IRT. These artists share with graffiti an interest in what Kandinsky called “the effect of inner harmony” in a childish line.
A writer appropriates an image made famous by an artist the way he incorporates another writer’s line. It’s all out there, like cans of paint waiting to be “racked.” But image-theft is not the only reason writers raid the museums. A subway Munch raises the heady possibility that art can happen anywhere. Like conceptual art and Pop, graffiti questions the context in which art is appreciated. It renews the dream of work for its own sake, the idea of creation as a democratic process — in short, radical humanism. Ali speaks of “taking responsibility for your environment” by creating a surface on a subway train. “The production of art,” wrote Jean Dubuffet in 1947, “can only be conceived as individual, personal, and done by all.”
There’s a lot of positive mythology floating around what some writers call “the graffiti community.” Aspiration runs high when you’re living in a project on Columbus Avenue, 10 blocks north of the gentry line. You walk into Fiorucci and mutter, I can draw like that. At the same time, there’s a feeling that graffiti is some sort of revolutionary act. A writer hauls out a book of Soviet art to show me photos of what he calls “a propaganda train.” These cars rumbled across the countryside, decked out in heroic iconography designed by artists who were committed to the revolution. The graffiti writer is clearly impressed by one tableau, featuring a rising sun. “Look at that fade,” he sighs.
Graffiti is a setting from which art may emerge, as was rock ‘n’ roll back when everyone on my block sang doo wop with an absurd intensity, and some of us got respect for it. Mourning John Lennon, it is hard to remember that rock musicians were once commonly regarded as delinquents, or if you were liberal, rebels without a cause. The music didn’t cover up subway maps, but there was aggression to burn among its staunchest fans. Alan Freed was arrested after a riot at one of his shows, and charged with incitement to anarchy. Ten years later, the music inspired a more visionary insurrection.
SE3, a/k/a Haze looks a bit like Buddy Holly, black hair spilling over his brow — but neatly. The son of a West Side analyst, he took to the Bronx at an impressionable age, commuting to hang out. But to get over, he had to earn respect in the subway yards, swimming upstream with all the other toys. One night, SE3 was busted in the South Bronx. “We have your son on a graffiti charge,” said the cop at 4 a.m. The ride home from the station house was silent — like an iceberg — but the friction it produced sent SE3 into exile at a school in Massachusetts. He was forced to pass up acceptances from the high schools of Art and Design, Music and Art, and Brooklyn Tech. In New England, he repressed his interest in graffiti, studied architecture, worked in oils; but once back on the pavement, SE3 returned to hanging out. He renewed the old connections — with Dondi, Crash, Zephyr, Futura, Ali — and began incorporating his fine-arts training into graffiti. This was like Buddy Holly playing the Apollo. SE3 had become what Zephyr calls “a pioneering white boy.”
The big lie is that graffiti is confined to “antisocial elements.” Increasingly, it is the best and brightest who write on subway walls, tenement halls. They travel in bands with names like Crazy Inside Artists (CIA), Children Invading the Yards (CITY), Rolling Thunder Writers (RTW), Out to Bomb (OTB). Unlike the newspaper that has called for their demise, these bands are racially integrated, which gives writers access to the same cross-cultural energy that animates rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, the graffiti sensibility has a musical equivalent in “rap records” — another rigid, indecipherable form that can sustain great complexity. I’m sure Ali would agree that rap records are also part of the griot tradition.
For me, the real mystery about graffiti is why this generation has chosen to express its ambitions in pictorial terms. The answer may lie in the changing nature of prestige in New York. This has become a visual city, with photography, video, and graphic design emerging as hip cultural forms, and with Soho replacing Greenwich Village as the paradigmatic neighborhood. Thousands of visual artists migrated to New York in the ’70s, many settling in high-graffiti neighborhoods. There is an unvoiced connection between these groups, as there was in the ’60s between bohemians and rock musicians. With little formal training or access to galleries, how does one get in on the art action? One shows on the subway.
“I sold a piece tonight. For $200.”
Futura is dressed in downtown formals — a white Lacoste over baggy black slacks and clean white sneakers. He’s accompanied by his father, his cousin, and his girlfriend Rennie. They’re standing before a monumental fresco in a spray paint, bearing the unimpeachable Futura logo. The crowd is in a pre-Christmas, buying mood.
“Sígame,” says 16-year-old Lady Pink, one of the few female writers to have earned respect. She leads her father, who is holding an Instamatic, by the hand. She wants him to take a picture of her piece — fluorescent orchids — which hangs next to one in which Ali has borrowed Stay High’s stick figure and placed it on a Dali cross. These canvases suggest the sentimentality graffiti is prone to when it tries to go imagistic, but also the extraordinary use of color, and that “effect of inner harmony” — is it in the paint, the way it’s applied? The secret is safe with Ali, who roams through the gallery in the baggiest of slacks, the floppiest of jackets, a chino rainhat, and wrap-around silver-slitted specs, cruising girls who could be Debbie Harry.
Clearly, this is not a typical opening at the New Museum, the visual extension of the New School annex, where you might expect to find an enigma in aluminum and sand but not an original Lee. Through January 8, however, the New Museum is throwing open its doors to Fashion Moda, an international art conspiracy located in the South Bronx. The resulting show is unlikely to strike Hilton Kramer as having anything to do with art. But New Wave is about cross-cultural referencing, if it is about anything. With its ghetto rep and its eclectic eye, graffiti is an authentic element in New Wave aesthetics. Says one artist, “It’s our reggae.”
The point of departure for “graffiti as an alternative to standard art” was provided by a New Wave musician named Jean-Michel Basquiat, who joined forces with two friends a few years ago to tag Soho and the Village with phrases like the one above. Samo, as this crew called itself, combined rants against consumerism with assertions about textual ambiguity — all of it copyrighted. It’s unclear whether conceptual artists began picking up on Samo’s strategy, or whether Samo borrowed its m.o. from conceptual art. At any rate, a number of young artists are undertaking phantom installations that can only be called graffiti. Keith Haring began by drawing crawling people and dogs in black marker; lately, he has taken to embellishing Johnny Walker ads with flying saucers. Last summer, when Ronald Reagan spoke in the South Bronx, he pointed to a wall that said BROKEN PROMISES, and expounded at length on what could have driven the residents to write such a thing. The actual perpetrator was John Fekner, a conceptual artist who transfers phrases onto abandoned autos and tenement walls.
When asked to comment on graffiti, Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers were unavailable, but Andy Warhol confided, “I like it.” Curatorial types were also queried. “I have no feelings about it, one way or another,” said Thomas Hoving. “I really don’t know enough to make a statement,” added Alicia Legg at the Museum of Modern Art. When a photo from the series that accompanies this piece was submitted by MOMA’s publications department for use as a Christmas card, Kathleen Westin, co-chairman of the museum’s Junior Council, put her foot down. “I thought it was the most revolting idea that ever came up,” she volunteered. “The people who do graffiti ought to be shot at dawn.”
But a number of galleries — the Razor, the O.K. Harris, the 112 Workshop — have shown work by writers, and the movement may soon make its debut in Paris and on 57th Street, under the aegis of the Pierre Cardin galleries. There are at least three graffiti documentaries making the rounds of distributors, and New Wave filmmaker Charles Ahearn is now working on a film with Fred. Fred and Lee are stalwarts of the Fabulous Five, a group that writes on the number five line of the Lexington Avenue IRT. When I caught up with Fred, this 24-year-old veteran expressionist was en route to Milan, for a show at the Paolo Seno gallery. This is his second Italian exhibition; the first was warmly received by Unita, the Communist Party paper, which suggested that the Fabulous Five be hired to paint the Victor Emmanuel monument (built by Mussolini and contemptuously known as “the wedding cake”).
“My art is like an artifact,” Fred says. “Like, the paintings I do, I want people to look at them as an art based on graffiti.” He has started reading Artforum. He has developed a fondness for Dada. He has cut a rap record. “With a little time and paint,” Fred says, “anything is possible.”
The Soul Artists, an amalgam of 21 writers, including many of the best to have surfaced underground, want the MTA to give them carte blanche on the outsides of cars. In exchange, they propose to regulate what goes on inside and to impose a ban on writing over windows and maps. Passengers might welcome such a compromise — assuming it could be enforced, since graffiti inspires a lot of very independent toys. Imagine a contest in which the best artists select the most original designs submitted by graffiti writers, creating a new emblem for New York, attracting tourists from all over the world, and freeing millions of dollars now used to buff the stuff.
With or without the MTA’s cooperation, we may soon be inundated with graffiti, as the Soul Artists attempt to transpose the form onto fabric, video, posters. Writers are beginning to regard graffiti as something you can do on paper, or in a book. A lot of these kids carry “piece books,” the kind you used to whip out in high school for autographs at the end of the year. At special events like the New Museum opening, they stand around tagging each other — but not the walls. The best writers copyright their major pieces. Many carry portfolios; a few have even begun to buy their paint.
Though some writers would agree with Fred that “graffiti dies when it’s legalized,” the possibility of a career in fashion, graphic design, or even art is making inroads into traditional assumptions about what graffiti is. Or might be. Graffiti may enter the commercial mainstream and bestow itself on haberdashery, like punk. Or its simultaneous discovery by artists and kids at large could change the way we think of public space. Imagine workshops dotting the ghettos, and in the quiche districts, thousands of otherwise benumbed adults taking to the streaks.
You can collect graffiti, wear graffiti, make graffiti. It’s not a form, but an attitude toward form. “Thunderism,” Fred calls it. Imagine! ■
Where To See Graffiti
Given the MTA’s churlishness (a John Lennon memorial car, executed last week, has already been buffed), the best way to evaluate the potential of graffiti is to seek it out on walls. “Monumental graffiti works” by Lee are viewable on handball courts scattered across the Lower East Side: on Madison Street between Clinton and Montgomery, Cherry between Clinton and Montgomery, and Cherry between Pike and Market streets. The Bronx Graffiti Disco, on 204th Street and Jerome Avenue, features a facade by Crash, Medi, Mitch, and Noc. Connie’s Supermarket, at 148th Street and Brook Avenue (near Fashion Moda), has been embellished by Crash. Closer to quiche, Unique Clothing Warehouse on Broadway near Bleecker has a piece by Lee. And a half-dozen graffiti canvases are at the New Museum, Fifth Avenue corner La Catorce. (If you’re driving home to — or past — Ohio stop at the Canton Art Institute, for an audio-visual graffiti spectacular, featuring photos by Henry Chalfant and a rap-tape by Fred.) R.G.