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Graffiti: Why are graffiti and vandalism became related bad words?

Why are graffiti and vandalism became related bad words?
Since the late '60s--and especially since hip-hop culture became a global youth force in the early '80s--millions across the world have been writing and piecing on public and private property, entering into complex "wars" with authorities and vigilantes. But as Joe Austin documents in his new book, Taking The Train: How Graffiti Art Became An Urban Crisis In New York City, over the past two decades, mayors, politicians, and police in major U.S. cities found graffiti a powerful symbol of decay. They began "wars on graffiti" which, at their root, were conflicts over the use of public and private space. In these wars--in which young people were declared the enemy--they developed the ideological and legal tools to wage bigger wars on behalf of corporate capital.

By the late 90s, these "quality of life" campaigns enabled massive gentrification. Where there once was a graffiti mural and a stable if struggling community of color, there was now a Starbucks and a quickly assembled, pricey loft building. Whitewashing is what happened in between.

Worse, these campaigns always carried the threat of violence against youths of color. Graffiti writers with long memories won't forget the day in 1983 when black Brooklynite Michael Stewart was beaten to death by transit cops for tagging Manhattan's 14th Street subway station, nor the day in 1998 when Jonathan Lim was killed by a gunman as he was making his way up a fire escape to piece a San Francisco roof.

Back then, many progressives rightly rallied against the brutalization of youths of color whose only crime was to carry a marker and a spray can. But these days, under the mantra "no broken windows," progressives have made vandalism the protest movements STOP sign, a word that signals descent into chaos. On the other side of that slippery slope, bad things are supposed to happen--danger, violence, causelessness, the disgust of the people. Vandalism is simply the point of no return.

But this is exactly the same message that 90s mayors--from neocons like Los Angeles' Richard Riordan and Chicago's Richard Daley to fallen liberals like San Francisco's Willie Brown and Philadelphia's John Street--have used since John Lindsay allocated the first $10 million for anti-graffiti efforts in 1973. History itself has been whitewashed.

Out of Rebellion

Like "Peace, Love, and Linux" (and both the World Economic Forum and its discontents, for that matter), the modern graffiti movement has its roots in youth rebellions of the late '60s. Unlike the revolutionary and hippie strands, urban graffitiists were guided by a distinctly nonutopian impulse. According to graffiti writer and activist Steve "Espo" Powers, Cornbread, the black teenager first credited with tagging his name across the Philadelphia subway lines, was trying to attract the attentions of a beauty named Cynthia.

As the '70s began, new youth movements combusted on the streets of New York. The Black Panthers and Young Lords were crushed by COINTELPRO efforts, and youth unemployment had suddenly become an urban crisis. Gangs sprung up in the vacuum, dividing the streets into a matrix of allegiances and loyalties. The graffiti writers saw an opening.

Roaming across gang turfs, slipping through the long arms and high fences of authority, violating notions of property and propriety, graffiti writers found their own kind of freedom. Writing your name was like locating the edge of civil society and planting a flag there. In Greg Tare's suggestive words, it was "reverse colonization."

Soon, tens of thousands of youths--first inner-city youth of color, then an increasingly polycultural, cross-class, multi-racial cohort--were tagging their name in marker or spray can and piecing trains in bold, provocative color and style. They scaled barbed wire fences, leaping over instant death on electrified third rails, and running from police. The competitive development of style would be called "style wars." In the words of black, one-armed style king, Kase 2, "When they see you got a vicious style, they wanna get loose about it. And that's what keeps it going."

Greg Tate writes in an essay accompanying the Bronx Museum's recent One Planet Under A Groove: Hip-Hop and Contemporary Art exhibit: "They were, instead, thinking about ascension in terms more lofty than even Saint Coltrane--Mister Giant Steps himself--had imagined. Rising from the depths of hell onto the el...the system moving those pieces, against its will, out to where the whole rush-hour workaday world might see the writers' handiwork."

By the late '70s, graffiti had moved from the trains to the walls, and become a key symbol in the efforts of mayors to gentrify low-income communities of color. But as Mayor Ed Koch stepped up the "war on graffiti," New York's spray-can writers presented a stunning defense, per a Lee Quinones burner--"If Art is a crime, may God forgive me." Authorities took graffiti as a guerilla attack on civility. In a sense, they were right.

The First Broken Window

If the revolutionaries and hippies had taken for granted a shared public discourse to move, graffiti writers always situated themselves in society's shadows. They had no higher goal than to turn symbols of work towards play. Likewise, they held no illusions about power. Even before Black Power became mass disillusionment, no graffiti writer ever hoped to run for mayor. Little wonder that the writers would make their mark on a post-COINTELPRO world of sellout politicians and corporate multiculturalism.

North-bound trains had once been a symbol of black freedom. But now, in decaying postindustrial cities, subway trains were merely the beginning of the daily circuit of alienating labor. In a new book, Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City, Quinones tells author Ivor Miller, "Subways are corporate America's way of getting its people to work. It's used as an object of transporting corporate clones. And the trains were clones themselves, they were all supposed to be silver blue, a form of imperialism and control, and we took that and completely changed it."

Some saw it much differently. Jim Prigoff, co-author of the groundbreaking 1987 collection of graf murals, Spraycan Art, notes that anti-graffiti sentiments did not merely reflect outrage over visual pollution, "Think about billboards. They're the ugliest graffiti of all. But they're OK. They have to do with money, the transaction of the advertising company getting money, the transaction of them selling you something. But there was no outcry there."

A 1979 Public Interest article by neoconservative Nathan Glazer articulated the beginnings of what would come to be called "the broken windows" theory. If one broken window was allowed to go unfixed, the theory went, a neighborhood's violent fall would soon follow. Glazer wrote, nor a little disingenuously, "(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, the sense that all are a part of one world of uncontrollable predators seems inescapable."

Graffiti represented the first broken window, the signal "there goes the neighborhood" moment. So a new generation of mayors perfected the "quality of life" campaigns of surveillance, harassment, and propaganda that would later grow into "wars" against youths and communities of color. While New York City struggled through bankruptcy, Austin notes, it spent $20 million to establish the "buff." This chemical washing of graffitied trains not only left cars an aesthetically dull color, it was harmful: hundreds of workers became sick and one man died of long-term exposure.

Police stepped up intelligence on the youths, monitoring the proliferation of crews, confiscating writers' black books, interrogating graffiti perps, and raiding writer's homes. In the media, the war on youth and the war on graffiti converged. The subway became a symbol of anarchic ruin, ruled over by criminally undisciplined dark-skinned youths.

In 1984, self-styled "subway vigilante" Bernhard Hugo Goetz shot four black teenagers at point-blank range, paralyzing one, and becoming a national hero overnight. It was a climax that SKEME, a frustrated black teenager with talent to burn, had foreseen a few years earlier, telling subway riders in a piece: "All you see is...CRIME IN THE CITY."

Adding More Color

By the end of the decade, the city and the transit authority declared victory in the war on graffiti, instituting a full-system buff and forcing writers off the trains. Even graffiti's flirtation with a jaded, post-Minimalist, post-Conceptualist downtown gallery scene ended abruptly. But spray-can art thrives as a global youth movement.

Artists continue their work on walls in train yards and industrial districts, on freight cars and walls, even exhibiting in self-run galleries. Over 230 magazines, including Mass Appeal, 12 Oz. Prophet, and While You Were Sleeping, feature photos of local scenes across the world, and websites like Artcrimes (, and At document the history and breadth of the movement.

Along with the occasional hip-hop museum exhibit, graf artists circulate along a global network of edgy galleries, magazines, music shops, and clothing boutiques. Artists such as MEAR, DISNEY, and SPIE render bold, politically charged murals and canvases.

In Chicago, the youth organizing group, the Southwest Youth Collaborative, sponsors a program called the University of Hip-Hop. Young people teach each other the hip-hop "elements" along with revolutionary history, with the aim of creating politically conscious graf murals in the Southside's Englewood neighborhood. Hekter Gonzalez, one of the organizers, says that they "try to beautify the neighborhood. We bring more color into it besides just the black and white areas that they're living in. Adding more color, instead of destroying it."

He continues, "The only place where we're outcasted from is the Northside of Chicago. Everywhere down South, graffiti is respected, because it's always been a lift for the youth. And in the North, because it's getting gentrified because all these yuppies are moving in, they don't want to see a scratch of graffiti."

In New York, muralists like Queens' Lady Pink and Smith and the Bronx's King Bee, practice an alternative to "broken windows" and the gentrification process. They coordinate crews of talented spray-can artists to paint large, beautiful, permitted murals--called "productions"--on buildings in their neighborhood. If taggers deface the murals, they quickly touch them up. The idea is to reclaim the wall for the community. "It works. The kids respect us," says Pink. "If we let one wall be destroyed and stay destroyed, then it'll just catch on and all the other kids will want to disrespect. We don't let disrespect sit around because it catches on."

Photojournalists Jim and Karla Murray--the authors of a new book on late-'90s wall burners in New York City knowingly entitled Broken Windows--argue that this process brings writers into the community. "What it does is inspire the competition on that level," says Jim, "They'll look up to Pink and say, 'wow she burned that wall."

"Since we introduced doing a lot of murals to this neighborhood, the people are a lot less scared of it. We've opened the doors for other artists to feel free to go ask for the space. The neighborhood absolutely loves us," Pink says, with a laugh, "which makes it impossible for us to go and tag our names everywhere." But she adds, neighbors were not so open at first. "When we start painting a wall, they start screaming, 'Oh my god! Crime is coming! You're gonna call your drug-dealer friends and some hookers.' It's just a mural, man."

In fact, Pink argues, the murals are the proof in many communities of color that someone in the neighborhood cares." Against gentrification, productions are a form of community preservation.

Fighting for Urban Space

Of all the hip-hop elements, graffiti remains most vulnerable to surveillance and profiling. During the '80s, productions could be easily found in inner-city schoolyards and parks across the country. But concomitant with the corporatization of urban space in the '90s, many of these walls were buffed, and thus given back to the taggers. Vandal squads, the Murrays say, not only routinely arrest writers who are painting fully permitted walls, but they pressure building owners, school principals, and community center leaders not to allow graffiti on their walls.

The results have been devastating. Anthropologist Susan Phillips has asked, "Is graffiti a life-or-death issue?" The list of those who have been murdered at the hands of cops or (always white male) vigilantes is long--Stewart, Lim, Jesse "PLAN B" Hall (Oakland, CA), Cesar Rene Arce (Los Angeles). In these deaths, the war on graffiti and the war on youth--converging on the ground of race--become all too real. Make no mistake: "quality of life" campaigns have had a body count.

Amidst pressure from the state, productions and pieces are now harder to see in public than ever. Writers become more defiant, go over each other's productions, or unleash mass-tagging campaigns bent on "total destruction." Jim Murray says writers have told him, "You push it down hard here, it's gonna come back twice as hard somewhere else. If you take back one of their walls, it'll just pop up on five more walls. They're not gonna stop.

Neither will the corporate march on urban space, whether through gentrification or through sidewalk stencil tags. But does anyone believe the vandal squad will start working the IBM boardrooms?
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