Even an innocuous graffiti toy like myself feared the Vandal Squad. As explained to me, the Vandal Squad was a division of the New York Police Department specifically tasked with eradicating graffiti and its composers. The exact nature of this force wasn’t imparted to me at the time, but graffiti historians implied that it was a sizable group providing round-the-clock surveillance using cameras with night-vision scopes. I was even told that graffiti king SANE was blown off the Brooklyn Bridge by Vandal Squad helicopters that cornered him in front of his most famous piece, a story which is completely untrue. The most insidious aspect of the Vandal Squad was that they encouraged snitching: they’d set up a hotline where writers could drop a dime on their enemies and eliminate their own competition. Any arrest of a graffiti writer was assumed to be the result of snitching, and would lead to further arrests when the suspect was questioned. The world of graf was a scary place in the 1990s, beset by knowledgeable authority figures, rival crews, and increasingly dangerous spots. It was not the casual, social event of the 1970s or the highly technical permitted work of this century.
Though I was loosely a part of it, I largely ignored graffiti in the 1990s when reading up about the outlaw art because, well, I used to think graffiti sucked in the 90s. After pieces ceased running on the subway, hundreds of writers took to the streets to bomb walls and gates. It was no longer a matter of standing around at the subway layup and spraying the insides and outsides of a train car all night, in the 90s you had to move through neighborhoods and hit as many spots as possible–multicolored works were a luxury that the fame-obsessed could no longer afford. The New York graffiti scene on the 1990s is, to my mind, exemplified by big black-and-silver throw-ups that layered over one another on every billboard and on every handball court, in the COST/REVS handbills plastered at every crosswalk and on every work shed. Quantity, not quality, was the order of the day, and as someone who lovingly pored over the pages of Subway Art in the desperate hope that I could create something as colorful and masterful as DONDI, it was a little disheartening. Not disheartening enough to stop me from scrawling my tag on light poles around the neighborhood, but disheartening still.
From the Platform: Subway Graffiti, 1983-1989 by Paul “CAVS” Cavalieri and Vandal Squad: Inside the New York City Transit Police Department, 1984-2004 by Joseph Rivera have helped rehabilitate my personal scorn for the 1990s graffiti era. I already wrote about the former book and described how it dawned on me that the late 80s era of graf was closer to my own personal experience than the 70s and early 80s graffiti heroes that I aped. Vandal Squad is a book I’d heard about when it was released in 2008, principally because of the writer-generated controversy surrounding it. I finally read it, and found it to be much more human than expected: it was not about a valorous defender of municipal property who sought to humiliate and destroy all writers, but a regular cop who was assigned a specific job and did it to the best of his ability. The book is full of humorous and eye-opening anecdotes about the underfunded and understaffed Vandal Squad, which, far from having a fleet of helicopters, only had one used squad car at its inception. The author makes no bones about being a graffiti aficionado, though it’s unclear whether he likes or dislikes it artistically. However, he does go down a hit list of writers he apprehended or with whom he had some dealings, effusing the same kind of gushing awe a fan might have after meeting their favorite celebrity. Whether he appreciated graffiti or not, it doesn’t seem to have stopped him from performing his duties, despite internal department conflicts and the unforgiving nature of the job.
Probably because Mr. Rivera owes no allegiance writers, and therefore isn’t compelled to keep secrets of the graffiti world, there is a list of New York subway layups with brief descriptions and accompanying stories. There’s also a detailed glossary that, unlike most glossaries at the backs of graffiti books, actually provides some useful information. The book is also crammed with full-color pictures of graffiti, including several two-page tiled spreads of tags, throw-ups and pieces that probably wouldn’t appeal to an oblivious observer, but which will be a treasure trove to any fan. It was interesting to get this perspective on a graffiti scene with which I was tangentially involved, even though I was dubious about the author’s assertions that most of his arrests were the result of careful police work and not other writers talking out of turn. I mean, I’m sure the police work was careful, but how careful do you have to be when you’re spying on writers via satellite with thermal vision and launching nuclear police robots to apprehend any kid with ink-stained hands? I can only imagine how the Vandal Squad’s budget ballooned under Giuliani.