Tag Archives: graffiti

Handling Vandals

3 Jan

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 to 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.

I Am Not a Graffiti Artist. I’m a Graffiti Bomber.

10 Aug

The way Blade tells it, the early days of New York subway graffiti were a cake walk. You’d post up in the train yard or at a layup Friday and Saturday nights, drink beer, smoke weed, play the radio and paint the trains all evening with no fear of serious reprisals. Big productions were the norm in those days, growing quickly from crude tags to whole car masterpieces by 1975. Competition was thin, style was in the process of being invented, and while the meeting of two or more city teens is never without its prevailing tension, the New York graffiti scene was a collaborative effort, pursued by pubescent runaways and prep school students alike, mastered by young kids of every ethnicity and from nearly every corner of New York City. Lee spent entire weekends at layups, sleeping in darkened subway cars under a fine mist of spray paint. Skeme stole from his mom’s apartment in the dead of night to paint trains, then returned to tell her all about it. Graffiti was kid’s stuff, a rite of passage so insulated from working society that it seemed unassailable. A victimless crime, except for the rush hour victims who had to stand asses-to-elbows in marked train cars the next day.


Then graffiti blew up. There’s probably no other event or artifact that can be directly linked to graffiti’s mainstream exposure more than the seminal documentary Style Wars by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant. Around the same time, there were other efforts to show people what was happening to New York City’s subways: the book Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant practically dropped the graf scene in everyone’s laps, while SoHo art galleries clamored to show spray painted canvases in their cramped, hot spaces. Rap music gained exponential popularity in the early 80s and partially brought graffiti into the limelight as a matter of course. We can look back now and say this all culminated in 1983, with the big screen debut of Style Wars and its subsequent airings on public television. In an instant, everyone knew how these graffiti writers were getting over on the transit authority, and they wanted in on the fun. Suddenly, available space became severely limited.


The graffiti that followed, the last generation of subway writers whose work ran regularly on the lines, was the ethical foundation for my early understanding of graf. You pick yourself a name and then put it up as much as possible, as big and ubiquitously as you can, using as many different styles and media as you are able to comprehend. It was a given that you’d catch beef, that ultimately you would get fame the fastest by going over someone else, and that by doing this you could become more revered than if you’d painted one massive, colorful production that might run for five working days. Cap taught us that. Graffiti and violence were almost synonymous to me, and the writers in my generation (the early 90s) were more respected for their daring and visibility than their can control. While I was too young to ever effectively write on the subway, graf having been defeated by a new MTA policy and seeding of stainless steel subway cars that could be easily washed, I knew well about this tough aspect of graffiti’s history. It wasn’t enough to be a talented artist when I was in high school. You also had to know how to intimidate others and get physical if necessary.


Paul “CAVS” Cavalieri’s book From the Platform: Subway Graffiti, 1983-1989 is the best account of this final generation of New York subway graf that I’ve ever seen. Packed with dozens and dozens of photos of pieces, tags, and throw ups that ran during the era, it easily tells the story of a scene that grew in numbers by a factor of ten and resulted in everyone going over one another, jockeying for position as Kings of the Line. It shows how “retired” writers came back to reclaim their titles, and how even they had to eschew masterpiece productions that might take all night in favor of two-color bombs more suited to the fast pace of late 80s graffiti. Unconsciously and without apology, the book shows page after page of styles cribbed directly from Dez and Dondi and past masters of the rolling stock. It is the last gasp of a movement, and anyone interested in pursuing the history of graffiti cannot do without this book. For every writer today who thinks there should be unity, every person who thinks that Banksy stencils should be protected and Saber AWK should be allowed to redo his Guinness record-holding piece on the L.A. river banks, this book has the answer: you’re wrong. Any retard can pick up a marker and scrawl something on the wall, or a truck, or the outside of a subway train. You imposed a stylistic standard on the medium that most practitioners of the art don’t recognize, and that’s your bad.

Fame as Fast as Your Frame Rate

3 Mar

When I was in high school, there existed a series of independently-produced video cassettes called Video Graf. They chronicled various graffiti scenes of the time, including footage of people bombing and interviews with writers. Attempts were made to disguise the identities of these writers, but I suspect the New York Police Department’s Vandal Squad scrutinized each frame of these VHS tapes, and much of the footage could have been used to prosecute, if not be admissible in a court trial.

Even in the earliest days of graffiti, writers’ need to capture and catalog their work was part of the experience. I always say that there are two basic components to writing: getting up, and then seeing yourself up later on. A photograph or film will help extend these transient experiences, it helps to make them more durable–and portable, for what that’s worth. I wonder how many graffiti scenes began when a writer took his piece book with him on summer vacation and showed hand styles to the locals.


I first became aware of graffiti on YouTube when a clip by Above1 was recommended by the site’s recommendation bots. Most clips of graffiti I had seen on YouTube to that point were either very old (and often footage from VideoGraf itself) or of unknown writers from other continents. Above1 was the first guy who was filming himself making clean bombs, hitting freights and walls with tags and various competent throw-ups. His style is both well-developed and well-executed, and though the clips don’t depict him risking life and limb for incredible spots, it’s still nice to watch someone who is good at his craft go to work. Plus, I like a lot of the music he uses in his videos.


After watching Above1’s whole queue, I was determined to find similar footage on YouTube. Most of it was absolutely ridiculous, a lot of badly-filmed video of ten year-olds slathering spray paint from a model car kit onto their parents’ garages and driveways. It’s amazing how many people love to show others footage of themselves doing things poorly. I am of the mind that one should practice on their own time before going public, so to speak, but here you’ve got pre-teen doofuses, all giddy with excitement that they’ve stolen their neighbor’s half-full can of Rustoleum, filming their first tag, which invariably looks like shit. The number of missteps inherent in that solitary act are so many that it would require a separate volume to define them all. Suffice to say, there are a lot.


Then I landed on some videos for oinkartltd.com. I was already aware that there existed brands of spray paint which catered to graffiti writers. What I didn’t know was that an entire, and seemingly robust industry exists to mass produce graffiti supplies for modern writers. It’s really mind-blowing to think about, that this once secret world of apprenticeships has been completely wiped away, everything laid bare. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, really, if wikileaks can erode U.S. diplomacy then showing people how to mix indelible ink isn’t that big of a deal. It’s just that there was once a real proprietary sense about graffiti, you took your lumps until you got up enough to start doling them out. Now it seems like graffiti is encouraged for everyone, as James of oinkartltd.com says, “go out and write on shit.”


And I’m not against commercial graffiti supplies, mind you. Really, I could care less. The mark made by an eraser mop is not inherently better than the mark made by a wide design marker. Whether you poked an aerosol cap with a hot pin for an hour or went out and bought a fat cap, the result is the same–probably better, when buying your supplies. It’s just the availability of it all, it kind of negates the outlaw aspect of graffiti. It’s more like weed in much of this country, where it’s technically illegal, but tolerated in the backs of counterculture magazines and through the creepy winks of head shop hippies. oinkartltd.com and other sites like it imply that “cool” parents everywhere are getting their sons and daughters their first cans of spray paint, and allowing them to tag the work shed only after their homework is done. You need to be a murderous junkie just to get some decent rebellion in these days.

I watched a lot of product review on YouTube, both by oinkartltd and by customers who have taken it upon themselves to display the qualities of their purchases. This is nothing new on YouTube, it’s full of people doing product reviews for practically everything. But again, it was strange for me to watch these young kids show me how various paint pens work on different surfaces. Just go fucking write already! I don’t really give a shit about how you hold your PenTel, I want to see your tag. If you’re not ready to show that, then don’t act like a knowledgeable graffiti artist!


The final straw was when I found a set of videos by WickiyWickiy. This guy is so thorough, that when you search for “oink art” on YouTube, his videos are the first to show up. His videos consist mainly of him opening boxes of graffiti supplies and testing them for the camera. At no point have I seen him write a word, much less a tag, though he claims to write. I don’t buy it, though. Graffiti supplies are disposable and usually last for a very limited time. One should be ready to ditch their markers and caps should the authorities show up. But these videos by WickiyWickiy, they exhibit a total fetishization of these supplies, so that the receiving and opening of a package trumps actually getting up on a wall. The guy might as well be showing off his Pokemon for all I care. On top of that, he shows an inability to grasp the mechanics of many commercial graffiti supplies. Perhaps he should learn to make flow pens.


So what does this all mean? Is getting graffiti fame through YouTube some toy shit? It certainly could be argued that it is, but at the same time you can broadcast your simple tags worldwide and become more well-known than anyone. It’s safe to say that more kids around the world know about Above1 than Los Angeles-based Above, who has been doing his thing for about ten years now. Writers uploading video of themselves tagging are taking a bigger risk than writers who hit it and quit it, essentially amassing evidence which could eventually be used against them in a court of law. I’ve got no problem with commercial graffiti supplies, but if you buy them, you should use them. If you don’t want to show yourself tagging for obvious legal reasons, then don’t post videos of yourself fondling Magnum markers! It’s like taking all of the risk in posting personal YouTube videos without netting any of the fame. And if I ever see you testing supplies in my area, I’m taking your shit.

If You Don’t Watch These Movies, You’re Racist

15 Feb

Fifth Avenue was slow in adopting hip-hop, but once ad agencies and marketing departments realized there were Big Buck$ in that beat, they took to it like gangbusters. Today, it’s hard to imagine a jingle or pop song without the familiar boom, snare, boom boom, snare, a beat that backs many forms of modern music, from country to country western. T-shirts emblazoned with logos and designs are common fare for the Wal-Mart rack, while graffiti seems to grow and grow worldwide. Hip-hop is a culture that has intermingled with so many mainstream cultures that it’s become the undercurrent to our daily lives. It’s hard to imagine a time that hip-hop wasn’t ever present in our society.


But such a time did exist, and relatively speaking it wasn’t that long ago. Hip-hop didn’t get absorbed into popular culture until Bill Clinton’s second term, though it had, by then, made significant inroads. When I was a little kid, hip-hop didn’t even exist, at least not in my cloistered world. I didn’t hear a rap song until radio station Z100 played “Jam On It” by Newcleus around 1985. In fact, rap music and hip-hop culture had to be presented to much of America, white or otherwise, before it took hold and spread like wildfire. The following four movies were earnest attempts at doing just that.


Style Wars, 1984
Of the four movies presented in this essay, Style Wars can be said to be the most “real,” in that it is a documentary instead of a fictionalized account of hip-hop culture. Originally planned as a documentary about break dancing, producers Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant began concentrating more on graffiti and rapping as the fad of break dancing started to die down (this film, along with Flashdance, helped revive it for a little while in the mid-eighties). You don’t have to be a fan of hip-hop to enjoy this engaging and well-made documentary, so quotable that some of my friends and I can speak solely in Style Wars language. We greet each other with “Gigolo! What you know?!” and describe a weekend plan as “everybody getting united at the bench, 149th Street, Grand Concourse.” This is probably my second favorite movie of all time after The Human Tornado.


Wild Style, 1983
This movie has been called an addendum to Style Wars, and it may be, at that. Featuring everyone in the hip-hop scene that wasn’t in Style Wars, Wild Style is a kind of Romeo and Juliet story about a graffiti writing couple’s struggle between staying true to the underground or blowing up and becoming minor celebrities among Lower East Side phonies. Or something like that. It’s an indie film at its most indie, which means it’s short on plot and technical ability, but it is long on actual footage of rap parties and writing graffiti in train yards. It’s rather touching that this movie attempted to be a crossover film to the mainstream by including Patti Astor in a miniature role. Wild Style is so bumbling, it’s adorable, and that’s besides the fact that Lady Pink is an 80s cutie throughout the movie.


Krush Groove, 1985
A fictionalized account of record label Def Jam’s early days, Krush Groove is different from the previous two movies I mentioned in that it doesn’t bother with many other elements of hip-hop besides the rapping and deejaying. Blair Underwood stars as Russell Simmons, and Russell Simmons stars as a nightclub promoter, and that’s just about the only thing coherent in the film. There’s a whole story about how Simmons’ acts get poached by another label and then the meat heads from House Party 2 beat the snot out of him for a while, but you can content yourself with watching a teenage LL Cool J in his big screen debut, as well as Fat Boys gluttonous montage “All You Can Eat,” a worthwhile reason to watch the movie by itself.


Beat Street, 1984
This would be the White Devil of the four movies presented here, being that it had the biggest budget and was distributed by MGM. Featuring Rae Dawn Chong and practically no one else worth mentioning, Beat Street is a kind of amalgam of the other three movies, featuring the most interesting elements of each film and discarding the personality. Oddly enough, though it’s the most mainstream of these four movies, it has some of the best scenes of urban blight of any of them, including a main character living as a squatter with his family, something which was a reality for many more New Yorkers during the 1970s than were Adidas sneakers. Of the four movies, this is probably the most watchable, but it’s the least interesting from a contextual perspective. Watch it only after watching the others, but don’t watch them all in the same day. You’ll probably want to go out and break dance after such a marathon.

I Didn’t Know Nothing About No Graffiti

3 Feb

Unless you live in some wooded glen or on a remote iceberg or something, chances are good that you have encountered some graffiti in your time. What was once a form of vandalism relegated to urban centers has become an explosive, worldwide form of art that is as ubiquitous as it is contested. Almost since its inception, well-meaning gallery owners (and some outright assholes) have tried to legitimize graffiti by exposing what they think are its best examples to the mainstream. It never works, because for every genius with an aerosol can, there are a thousand talentless kids who effusively ejaculate their acrylic haphazardly.


What mainstream society doesn’t seem to get is that being a big graffiti artist doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with having technical prowess. It helps, certainly, and being a more well-rounded artist will make your status more unassailable, but the object of graffiti is to put your mark in as many places as possible. I have always said that there are two components to graffiti: putting it up somewhere, and then seeing it in that spot later on. To be seen yet unknown, to have made a mark signifying nothing except that you were there, it brings an indescribable thrill, part of which is certainly knowing that you have probably pissed somebody off.


If the object is to get up as much as possible, then logically you’re eventually going to write in the same space someone else has already written. Some would say that this, beef, is a third component of graffiti–and it’s certainly arguable. Many taggers are more interested in fighting that writing. Really, it’s just an extension of the first component of graffiti, getting up as much as possible. If there was one graffiti writer in the world, then there would be no issue. But since there’s more than one, eventually they’re going to have to confront one another.


And here is the disconnect between the world of graffiti and mainstream art: you can make a nice canvas featuring your tag, sell it for a few grand, and be a professional artist, but I can spray over that canvas and ruin it in seconds. An art collector might wonder why someone would want to deface a work of art, and there’s where collusion between the two worlds crumbles. Taking someone else’s spot and consuming his fame, that’s all part of the game. If you want to keep your painting safe from vandals, make it a landscape or something. This confusion even settles among graffiti artists, notably Los Angeles writer Saber MSK, who held the Guinness World Record for largest graffiti piece until it was buffed two years ago. It was an interesting project, completed over a month’s span with bucket paint, but it was destroyed not long after its completion by two New York City writers, JA and Foe. Saber acted like they had defiled something sacrosanct (and was able to fix his piece later on anyway), but he was wrong. You put your shit up on a wall, it might get dissed. If you can’t handle that, then stay out of the streets.


Right now there is some contention in the art world: graffiti vs. street art. According to fine artists, graffiti is vandalism but street art carries a bold statement which can fetch a high price at Sotheby’s. Graffiti is done with spray paint, while street art is done with wheat pasted posters and sculpture installations and stencils…which are done with spray paint. Street art is sometimes spray painted as well. It’s a debate which will wage on until there are no more surfaces to vandalize. Considering graffiti writers’ propensity to go over one another repeatedly, it doesn’t look like that will happen any time soon.

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