Tag Archives: New York City

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.

Double Letters and Subway Slugs

7 Dec

My brother showed me a small metal disc–a “slug,” he called it–when I was in the fifth grade. He’d begun traveling to Manhattan to sporadically attend Stuyvesant High School, and brought back to our little aluminum-sided house in Flushing all manner of illicit, strange materials. “You use this to get on the subway,” my brother explained, and in a rare gesture of kindness, he allowed me to briefly handle the strange object. It was flat and round and looked like gunmetal. The edges were a little ragged, as if it had been hastily cut from a longer cylinder of this alloy, which may very well have been true. The implications were fascinating: this meant that there was an effort by an unknown number of people in an undisclosed location to fabricate counterfeit subway tokens. Where were they dispensed? What did they cost? Or were they given out for free, a subversive attempt by some anarchist group to undermine the Transit Authority? How was it determined that this slug would work? I imagined hundreds of people arrested for slipping aluminum can tabs and Canadian nickels into the subway turnstiles, to ultimately arrive at the conclusion that this miraculous material would do the trick. While these thoughts turned over in my fifth grade brain, my brother snatched back the slug and retreated into his darkened bedroom. Any discussion I might have wanted to have about this counterfeit token was preemptively concluded.

Things have changed in the New York City subway over the last quarter century. For one thing, subway tokens do not exist. They were slowly phased out in the late 90s for the slimmer and less intriguing MetroCard, a payment system where you fill a card with money and then swipe it at turnstiles’ electronic readers until it is bankrupt. It is, by and large, a better system than the subway token, particularly since it has allowed for unlimited weekly and monthly passes. Yet the disappearance of the token is a social loss, another case where the need to interact with each other is replaced by automation and self-involvement. My MetroCard isn’t handled by hundreds and thousands of people before being slipped into my pocket, it’s die-cut by a machine and shrink-wrapped specially for the mechanical dispensers which issue each card individually through an exactly-measured slot. I can’t give someone else a fare off of it without screwing my own entrance into the subway, there’s no evidence of this MetroCard’s past users for me to examine. It’s a perfectly useful, sterile, disposable item, worth no more scrutiny than a movie ticket or instructions on the back of a shampoo bottle. It’s a symbol for the modern New York City subway: almost all stainless steel cars with their respective lines displayed in brilliant, red LED lights visible from the last station. A computer-generated female voice announces the station location and possible subway transfers, followed by a booming male voice admonishing you to STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS. Subway mezzanines are adorned with sanctioned sculptures and mosaic tile pieces of New Year’s Eve revelers and students and commuters and every kind of person or dream-thing that might wander into a subway station except for MTA employees. They’re a necessary evil, the men behind the curtain that keep the Wizard of Oz afloat.

The first time I made a foray into Manhattan without the guidance of my parents, I was ten years old. My friend Brian convinced me that riding the subway into the city would be a kick. Heavily into trains and roller coasters, Brian would draw elaborate track systems, complete with switches and crossings, in number two pencil on scratch paper. I agreed to go along for lack of anything better to do, and because we’d already successfully navigated an adult-free trip to the Bronx Zoo on the Q44 bus. We walked to Main Street and got on the 7 train to Times Square, where, Brian explained, we would transfer to an uptown train and check out the Museum of Natural History. I’ve mentioned before that riding the subway was a scary prospect when I was young, and scarier than the flickering lights and calamitous noise and track fires and stick-up kids was the fact that there was barely any way to tell what the fuck was going on. The maps and windows were covered in graffiti, the public address system unintelligible, and when you finally stepped out onto a train platform and into the station, proceeding onward was like solving a befuddling and very wordy mystery. The mezzanine where the 7 train met the West Side trains was a confluence of signage of every shape and color, in every font and style, each one seeming to describe a different subway system entirely. Interborough Rapid Transit? Downtown IND? Why was there an RR train but no R train? What was an NQ train? I am grateful to this day that Brian knew what train to get on, because had it been left to me, we’d probably still be wandering around those concrete, piss-soaked hallways. Though today, the piss has been largely scrubbed clean.

The New York subway was once a mysterious city within a city, a world with its own economy and social graces, a mash up of different rolling stock and maddening line designations. Part of my youthful perspective was undoubtedly owed to my own naivete; as I struggled to comprehend an adult world, I floundered in grasping the subway, a world which many adults themselves struggled to understand. But the subway was a lot dirtier, a lot less accommodating, it was thronged with confidence men and marks, performers and audiences, the world-weary and those brimming with optimism. The New York City subway is better now, overall, I don’t think anyone can deny that. It gets you where you need to go in a reasonably predictable amount of time (except on weekends, when the subway is a fucking mess), it’s relatively clean, well-lit, and most of the stations are in good repair. It’s a system that a tourist can navigate after getting lost once or twice. But the extinction of the subway token, and it’s counterfeit counterpart, was an intangible loss to the subway, a loss which can be sensed all over the island of Manhattan, at least to those who have lived in New York for the last thirty or so years. It’s a lack of personality, a deficit in secrecy, a utilitarian drive to make New York City the most visited city in the world. I can understand why that happened and continues to happen. I just wonder what will be worth visiting when every nuance is ultimately stripped away.

Hey, folks: I ripped off two of the pictures used in between the paragraphs of this essay from the NYC Vintage blog, which you should visit here: http://nycvintage.blogspot.com/. It hasn’t been updated in a while, but it’s still a trove of great information and insight.

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.

All I Ever Needed to Know About Adolf Hitler, I Learned From Daffy Duck

7 Jul

In the days and weeks after 9/11/01, I recall being very disappointed in some of my friends and acquaintances who, through one instance or another, proved themselves to be racist assholes. I admit and have admitted that right after the Twin Towers fell, I had a little bloodlust, myself. I wanted to pound Osama bin Laden in his ugly face and carpet bomb whatever sand-choked hellhole he had squirreled himself away in. But I never felt like attacking Muslims, frankly I didn’t make the direct connection between Islam and the events of 9/11 until FOX News kindly pointed it out for me. When someone carries out hurtful acts in the name of a religion that otherwise preaches peace and moderation, then they are not representatives of that religion. They’re wackos.

So right after 9/11, I noticed that a lot of my peers and neighbors were fucking dickfaces. It wasn’t just the people around me, either, but all over America there were flags on car bumpers and anti-Muslim slogans and outbursts of racist violence that, quite honestly, scared the shit out of me. As our army was pulled from Afghanistan and sent to Iraq in order to ferret out those elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction, I wondered what the fuck is happening in my country? I felt powerless, the events that directly affected my life were out of my control and coalescing into something I could not understand. There is nothing wrong with owning and displaying the American flag, if that’s your thing, but the implied and actual jingoism of the early twenty-first century was a little much.

I got a similar sense reading In the Garden of Beasts by the engaging and talented Erik Larsen. It’s about a family of four, the Dodds, the head of which was a Midwestern university professor, tapped by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for travel to Berlin as an ambassador of America. He takes his clan: wife, son, and his free-spirited and sexually liberated daughter Martha, and when they arrive to Germany in 1933, Hitler has only just become Chancellor and the Nazi Party is gaining its footholds. In just one year, the Nazis break the Treaty of Versailles, remove practically every right of Jewish citizens, and stage a bloody coup in which as many as a thousand people are simultaneously assassinated. In the middle of it all is the Dodd family, beholden to American isolationist interests, but recoiling in horror at what is happening in Germany.

It’s easy to pretend that the Nazis rose to power overnight, confounding an otherwise peaceful public who went to bed one evening and discovered Stormtroopers goose-stepping down their streets the next morning. But it didn’t happen like that, and political coups are rarely that abrupt. We remember the acts of violence: Kristallnacht, concentration camp murders, the bombing of London. But we don’t recall the legislation put into place years earlier that forbade gentiles to marry Jews, or made it mandatory to salute parades and any Nazi officers that happened to pass within one’s field of vision. It’s a subtle ramp up to accepting a fascist dictatorship, so sneaky that you barely realize anything’s changed until you discover that all of your Jewish neighbors have disappeared. And then you remember that they had an awesome radio in their living room.

I wonder how far along this path we Americans went in the years following 2001. We accepted the Patriot Act, we accepted an unjust military foray into Iraq, we accepted that we would have to sacrifice some of our personal freedom for the hope of safety. Often I wonder if we’re still headed down that path. We subject ourselves to a degrading experience every time we travel by air, is it impossible to think that at the end of a line of people taking off their shoes and belts, wearily but willingly being prodded by metal detectors, there might be a communal shower filled with Zyklon B? Would you step into the shower if you thought that it would stop another 9/11 from happening, or would you resist? At that point, would resisting even be an option?

I’ve heard from a few people that don’t know what the title of this essay is about. I’m surprised at all of you! See below.

Genteel Days of Racism and Classism

26 Jun

Just finished reading Tales of Gaslight New York, which blended nicely with my bathroom perusal of The Flatiron by Alice Sparberg Alexiou. I wouldn’t recommend either book. The latter is a terribly boring story of an opportunistic real estate magnate and his dealings with labor leaders and shareholders–really, the author could have just published his company’s ledgers and saved the writing. Tales of Gaslight New York is a collection of magazine articles about New York from around the turn of the twentieth-century. If you like that sort of thing, it’s pretty cool, and has some fascinating photos and line drawings. It’s not a picture book, though, and the reproductions aren’t great. The book is very dense with words, so you’ll probably want to break up the monotony of reading article after article where the word “today” is hyphenated with something that’s less eye-straining: I chose The Flatiron and Batman: The Man Who Laughs.

Titling the book Tales of Gaslight New York is somewhat of a misnomer, since virtually all of the articles are from after 1902 when much of Manhattan was electrified. I enjoyed the writing within, authors with names like Clay Meredith Greene and Richard le Galliene, writing for periodicals with titles like Munsey’s Magazine and Everybody’s Magazine at what must have been a per word rate. There are a lot of topics covered by thirty-four articles, but they can largely be lumped into one or more of three groups: pleas for social reform, descriptions of buildings and locations (sometimes illustrated), and essays about New York City’s social elite, full of wry commentary about ingenues and robber barons, much of which is lost on me since I don’t know particulars about the intended targets. Still, I enjoyed these glimpses into a world over a century past, mostly to see what has changed (our collective vocabulary has worsened) and what has not (apparently we’ve always loved to build up celebrities only to watch them self-destruct).

I enjoyed one author’s description of “succeeding waves of Italiany children” near a cabby’s hack stand on the East side, which “broke and splashed at our feet.” I trudged through the scrutiny one author gave the building of the IRT subway, affording the reader a view as clear as if he’d been peeking at the construction from between plywood slats. Most moving was an article about the General Slocum disaster, written by Mr. Herbert N. Casson as “the exact facts of the most shocking and pitiful tragedy in the annals of the sea, with the damning evidence of criminal indifference and despicable dishonesty on the part of directors and inspectors.” Many of the articles in this book are or include indictments of penny-pinching landowners and unscrupulous corporation boards, missives that clamor for more official involvement, more laws, more restrictions in place ostensibly to protect the common man. The demand for this kind of institutional compassion is a hallmark of the twentieth century, and in the articles contained within this book show us some of the geneses of that demand.

The magazine sections in Tales of Gaslight New York were penned before the American labor union movement, before women’s suffrage. There was much talk about health and vigor but seemingly little knowledge in the way of how to achieve them. Desegregated water fountains and establishments were still half a century away when magazines published loving articles about the Human Need of Coney Island or an expose on the “white wives” of Chinatown in Slumming in New York’s Chinatown. It’s easy to sit here from the vantage point of the twenty-first century and chuckle, being that we’ve assuaged some of the public need since the time of these old writings. We provide more social services, afford more equity overall. Yet century-old calls for more corporate culpability and better living conditions seem to ring truer than ever. There may not be millions of immigrants swarming New York’s Five Points, among rats and refuse and firetrap wooden shanties, but hundreds of thousands if not a million people still live in substandard housing in New York City, in some of the most deplorable conditions you won’t see beyond an episode of Hoarders.

What I got from reading this book was that there are no limits on man’s inhumanity to man; the powerful will always exploit the weak as much as they are allowed. This is why we must always be vigilant and pursue our ideals, no matter how futile they might seem, because if you don’t fight then you’ll simply be taken advantage of. Compassion exists freely only among the have-nots, from those who give our lives its structure it must be forcefully extracted. Assume nothing, safeguard yourself, be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. Moreso now than in 1900, there seems to be plenty of grease to go around, and yet the aggregation of wealth in the world is held by fewer people than it was a hundred years ago.

You Would Be the First to Get Vicked

26 May

Nostalgia is big business. The biggest concert tours in the world are, for the most part, fueled by people’s nostalgia for their youth, when they gave a shit about music. eBay exists primarily to supply upwardly-mobile adults with rescued and rehabilitated toys from their childhoods. I think that the business of nostalgia was invented by Joe Franklin, who used to have a late night talk show on WWOR TV that ran for something like ten billion years. People have always gotten wistful for the good ol’ days, but it was Joe Franklin who dusted off those relics of the good ol’ days and stuck them under harsh studio lights for people to fawn over. Stories of yesteryear no longer need to be passed down from generation to generation, you can now record and relay the actual artifact for future historians and pop culture junkies to puzzle over for all eternity. So you have many lenses through which to view history, be it through the land disputes and wars which have created the world’s borders we know today, or through a subtle progression of the Coca-Cola logo.

There’s so much media reference for the twentieth century that it’s difficult to know which memories are our own and which have been created by nostalgic reverie. I remember when the space shuttle Challenger blew up, I was in the sixth grade and a special assembly had to be hastily arranged to inform students and allow teachers a space to cry. In my mind’s eye, I can recall sitting in a classroom with a bunch of students, watching the space shuttle lift off and soar towards the clouds, then suddenly vanish in a bright puff that spewed two other smoke trails to either side of the craft. I can recall everyone gasping and holding their hands up to their mouths, my teacher wide-eyed in shock at the occurrence. The thing is that I didn’t watch the Challenger lift off live on television, my sixth grade teacher didn’t arrange for us to watch it during class like some other teachers had. However, I saw repeats of the disaster after school and for many days afterward, viewed footage of classrooms around America watching the horror unfold on television sets rolled in by maintenance. So my actual memory of the event, which should include that I knew nothing of the space shuttle’s planned takeoff or that it had civilian passengers until after the fact, is faulty.

Despite my not actually being aware of its scope, I was alive and cognizant for Challenger’s fatal flight. But I can’t remember a thing about the 1970s. In fact, one of my earliest memories is watching President Ronald Reagan speak on television, Jimmy Carter a forgotten footnote already by the time I was five years old. I grew up on the Northeastern end of Queens, and if my parents took me to Manhattan before I was in kindergarten, I don’t remember it. I recall going into “the city” with my parents during the 80s, terrified of the rocking subway with its windows and maps darkened by spraypaint and indelible ink, the lights flickering off for minutes at a time, conductor announcements crackling loudly through distended speakers that rendered them completely inaudible. I remember a lot of filthy winos and fat cops who lazily watched people drinking and smoking dope outdoors from behind inscrutable mustaches. It all scared the shit out of me and made me want to rush back to my native Flushing with its endearing neighborhood drunks and white trash weirdos. These were the last vestiges of 1970s New York, though I couldn’t comprehend that at the time. And it looked fucking awful.

It’s easy to romanticize New York City of the 1970s, what with all of the books, movies and music that make it seem like a hedonistic utopia. Sure, flicks like Taxi Driver and The Taking of Pelham 123 ain’t all sweet. There’s a lot of anger and tension in the works of The Last Poets. But the ideal is that 1970s New York was a place where you could get away with shit, where you could drink a beer while walking outdoors past peep shows, savoring the aroma of unwashed junkies. The subways were glittering canvases of color, punk rock an urgent expression of malaise. One gets the impression that budding artistic geniuses populated every block in Manhattan, each of them coiled and ready to splatter game-changing mindfucks on a street smart populace thoroughly jaded by repeated mindfucks. This was a time before AIDS, a time before crack cocaine, when potential rewards appeared to outstrip their respective risks.

I love it when some goatee-having hipster dressed like Sammy Davis, Jr. on vacation complains about the current state of New York City and whines that he wishes it were more like it was in the 1970s. What the fuck do you know about it, dude? You like the Talking Heads and you watched The Warriors and thought you had it all figured out. Buddy, you would be the first to get robbed. The very same cop who might look the other way while you smoked a doobie in Lincoln Center would likewise ignore the four teenagers digging through your pockets while holding a box cutter to your throat. Is not being able to read any signage or see out of subway windows worth bringing back graffiti on trains? Because from my experience in the 80s, for every spectacularly-painted train car there were twenty that looked like they’d been through a war. Yeah, you’d like to have seen Blondie’s inaugural performance at CBGB’s but you probably aren’t willing to be on the receiving end of a Doc Marten steel tip to the mouth. Your version of 1970s New York City mercifully dismisses the homicides, the disenfranchised non-white people living on blocks of burning buildings, the squalor. Your favorite bagel joint on Bushwick Avenue. was once a looted storefront when the neighborhood was held under siege for two weeks in 1977. And if you resided in that neighborhood then, you would be dead.

Today New York City is homogenized, pasteurized, fortified with vitamin D. Its teeth have been capped, its nails have been tastefully filed, and you can enjoy a shopping mall experience like you might in almost any other major American city on the map. What made New York interesting has all but been eradicated. But what made the place interesting was never the danger, it was not the filth and grime. It was the people who challenged the status quo, who refused unjust and pointless laws and who knew the value of minding your own business. I know you like running around Bedford Avenue with your can of Montana spray paint, scrawling inanity on the sides of buildings and on lamp posts. But you should know that if you tried that thirty-five years ago, you could have gotten your meat lumped. Not by picky residents on a coalition for neighborhood beautification, but by other writers who wanted to steal your shit. And that would have been a blessing, because if the Savage Nomads caught you out there, it would be over.

Let’s Dispel Some New York Myths

18 Apr

New York: The City that Never Sweeps. Amid the piles of refuse and swarms of man-eating rats, there are enduring myths that have carried from one generation to the next like old wives’ tales. Not necessarily myths like the origin of the word “knickerbocker” or how the Dutch fleeced local Indians with a trunk of beads and some pelts, I’m talking about the lies we tell ourselves which make living in a city of nine million people remotely palatable. We don’t have to live with the lies any longer, only the soul-crushing misery of being anonymous yet surrounded at all times.

Living in New York City, I don’t need to have a car.

You hear this one mainly from young professionals who live in crowded neighborhoods where discovering a secure parking spot is less probable than finding a winning lottery ticket. Let’s be real now: living in New York City, it isn’t reasonable to have a car, whether you want one or not. And while it is relatively easy to travel around the city on mass transit, it is goddamned near impossible to get any further than Yonkers or Jersey City without some planning. So let’s not act like New York has done you some kind of favor by making it prohibitive for you to own a car. Whether it’s via sky-high insurance rates or draconian alternate side of the street parking rules, the choice has been taken away from you, and your exuberance over this fact is reminiscent of Stockholm Syndrome.

Only in New York City.

This is often uttered by passers-by having witnessed something abominable, like a homeless guy shitting into a coffee can at a crowded intersection or some lunatic being hog-tied by cops after sexually assaulting random women on Forty-Second Street. These things don’t happen only in New York City, in fact you can see incidences like these happening in rural America all the time on television shows like COPS and World’s Wildest Sexually Assaulting Lunatics. But the real issue here isn’t that it’s erroneous to claim certain sickening events as being indigenous to New York, but that we really shouldn’t accept this kind of shit anywhere. The attitude is that the city is too crowded, we’re too busy, there’s too much visual stimulation to worry about some guy having a stroke with his eyes bugging out in Washington Square Park. The full phrase should go, “Only in New York City would we watch some toothless, piss-soaked maniac heckle grade school girls and do absolutely nothing about it.”

If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.

Okay, so this is actually a song lyric, but it does also appear to be a popular delusion among New York City dwellers. The idea of New York being a boundless city of endless opportunity is a pervasive one that goes back almost to its very inception. And perhaps it was true, at one time. Now, there may be just as many opportunities as there were in 1911, but there are about fifty times as many people competing for them. And lord help you if you want to make it in the arts in New York City, you’ve never seen more disaffected live crowds or dismissive art patrons in your life. You’ll be breaking your neck to churn out high-quality canvases and meanwhile some undergrad art student will become the local darling for spray painting bird stencils on old blocks of wood or something. If you enjoy being a small fish in a big pond, then New York City is for you. Not just for the dearth of opportunity but because it will really excite your masochistic side.

My apartment is very cozy.

No, your apartment is not very cozy. It’s very small. You’ve stuffed it with high-end electronics and expensive cooking utensils that you’ve no idea how to use, but it hasn’t made the space any larger. If anything, you’re just whittling away at the little real estate you’ve got with kitschy throw pillows and oversized, shitty paintings your friends did. There are people in third world countries who’ve got more living space than you do, and despite the fact that they have to poop in a hole in the ground, at least that doesn’t unexpectedly back up and splash toilet water everywhere once a week. If you weren’t captivated by the encompassing New York lie that makes you eat shit and like it, you’d probably rebel. But as it is, you’re so shell shocked from having to stand elbow to elbow with smelly people during your commute home every evening, the two-hundred square feet of space you’re renting for an exorbitant sum seems like a relief. Just imagine what kind of car you could get with the rent that you pay.

A Bedtime Story

7 Apr

Edna Sharp woke each morning at five thirty, without the aid of an alarm clock. She would sit up in bed and swing her legs over the right side, dipping her naked feet into strategically placed slippers. Edna would then plod off to the miniscule bathroom of her tiny studio apartment, take care of her morning business, and emerge from the bathroom door at a quarter to six. After getting dressed, preparing her lunch for the day, then making and eating her daily breakfast of two pieces of buttered whole wheat toast and a grapefruit, she’d leave her house at six AM and walk the half block to Queens Boulevard, where she could catch the number seven train into Manhattan.

Edna arrived at the subway platform anytime between five or ten after six, but whenever she arrived the train would always just be pulling into the station. She’d enter the same car every morning–fourth from the front–through the middle doors and sit down in the first seat to her left, which was always empty. The subway car itself would largely be empty that early in the morning, and due to her strict schedule, Miss Sharp would often see the same people at that time every day. After sitting down, she’d retrieve her latest pulp paperback from a battered tote bag and read until the seven train reached its last stop, Times Square.

In over twenty years of work, Edna had never, not once ever, been late. It was no wonder, really, since she arrived at Times Square every morning around seven o’clock, but work didn’t begin until eight-thirty. This hour before work was Edna’s most treasured time: in warmer weather, she’d park herself in one of the plazas on Broadway and peer at all the commuters and tourists exiting from their respective subway holes from over the top of her opened book. When it was cold, Edna liked to sit in a little coffee shop on Eighth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street and read her book while sipping tea. Very rarely, she would get a cheese danish; even more rarely, she would get a cheese danish with strawberry jam. During Edna’s morning excursion, anything could happen. It was the only time she might deviate from an otherwise iron-clad schedule.

At ten to eight, Edna would start walking to her job at the New York Public Library on Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue. She enjoyed this walk but didn’t dally at it. Edna reached the front door of the building promptly at eight and then the door of the gift shop she managed by five after eight. Her job was to unlock the door, turn on the lights, and begin setting up the shop for a business day. Other employees would begin arriving at eight twenty and keep coming until about a quarter to nine. Miss Sharp couldn’t understand lateness–she had never been late, why were others continually lagging behind?–but she rarely took the employees to task for it. As long as they showed up by nine, she didn’t complain. Edna realized she was more pragmatic and ordered than most, and took it for granted that she would be on time while others would not.

At twelve o’clock, Edna took her lunch. Despite this being a free hour, she did one of two things every day: on warm, sunny days, Edna Sharp sat behind the library in Bryant Park and ate an egg sandwich on whole wheat bread with a cream soda purchased from the nearest hot dog cart. During inclement weather, she ate the same lunch in the employee break room. She would finish eating in about twenty minutes and spent the rest of her lunch hour reading. Regardless of where she had her lunch, she’d be back to work by one o’clock, on the dot. Miss Sharp didn’t even wear a wristwatch, and she didn’t need to. Edna was in a groove.

Edna’s workday ended at four o’clock, though she often stayed for twenty or thirty minutes longer for one reason or another. After giving her most trusted employee instructions for closing the gift shop, Edna left the library and walked the three short blocks to Grand Central Terminal where she would catch the number seven train home. She could have easily taken the subway entrance right on the corner of Fifth Avenue, the seven train stopped there, too. But Edna liked to take a look at Grand Central, look at the reversed canopy of constellations and walk by the Oyster Bar before going home to Queens. Depending on the day, she reached the subway platform a little before five o’clock. Despite being so close to evening rush hour, Edna always got a seat riding home.

Edna arrived at home at or close to five-thirty every day. A creature of habit, Miss Sharp would then do some variation of a handful of possibilities, depending on the season and her mood: if it was warm and sunny, she might take a walk around the neighborhood until six o’clock. If it was cold and dark, she’d go right home and tidy up, or sift through her mail, or boil several eggs in preparation for a week’s worth of egg salad sandwiches. Regardless, she would get home by six o’clock, and began preparing supper: either a can of vegetable soup with crackers or a leafy, green salad and a tablespoon of Thousand Island dressing. By seven PM, Edna had finished dinner and, after cleaning the dishes, she’d slip into her bedclothes and slippers, sit in her padded chair, and finish the book she’d been reading all day–or begin a new book, if that was warranted. At nine o’clock, Edna Sharp would brush her teeth and then sit down on the right side of her bed, kick her slippers off directly beneath her feet, and lie down. Edna continued to read until half past nine, when she fell asleep.

Edna Sharp’s dreams were not the stuff of surreal fantasy. Commonly, Edna dreamed about her workday schedule, egg salad sandwich and all, rarely with any variation. Sometimes she dreamed she was reading the most incredible book in the world while laying in bed, then Edna would awake with a start and become disappointed in the growing realization that her dream book didn’t exist–and worse, she couldn’t remember any details about it. A good dream might be where Edna found unclaimed money while lunching in Bryant Park, which actually happened one time. Not very often, Miss Sharp dreamed of her youth: of lost loves, of academic achievements and failures, of running around barefoot in the warm sun, trampling cool blades of grass underfoot. Though she often remembered them very well, Edna didn’t place too much importance on her dreams. They were, after all, just dreams. Everyone has them.

And when New York City dreamed, well, New York City dreamed of Edna Sharp.

I Romanticize the Shit Out of the 1939 New York World’s Fair

17 Mar

Growing up in Eastern Queens, seeing the towers of the New York State pavilion from the 1964 World’s Fair rise above the Grand Central Parkway like twin homes from the Jetsons cartoon, I had an inkling that something a little weird had happened here, before I showed up. The decommissioned rockets standing proudly outside the psychedelic edifice of the New York Hall of Science, the ice skating rink housed in a building that might have looked more at home in ancient Rome, all of these strange relics that implied something had happened right in Flushing Meadows Park. Something important. And because I am just that kind of asshole who can’t let nagging questions go unanswered, I eventually found out that New York City had hosted not one, but two World’s Fairs a couple of miles from my house! And most of the relics I was familiar with were from the shittier one that my parents’ generation recalls so fondly!

It’s not really, well, fair of me to venerate the 1939 World’s Fair over the 1964 World’s Fair, considering I wasn’t alive to attend either. At the same time, I am afforded a vantage point where I can compare the two events, as if that needs doing, and in the end it’s my personal decision. My appreciation for these auspicious occasions does not affect their respective facts. However, I’m not alone in elevating the 1939 World’s Fair to a legendary, untouchable status, and it’s not difficult to see why. The ’39 fair was built on a garbage dump that was converted to park land in three years; the ’64 fair simply built on the grounds that were already established. The ’39 fair happened at the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II; the ’64 fair seems to have precipitated years of protest and civil unrest. Trinkets surviving from the 1939 World’s Fair are mainly of silver and porcelain; surviving junk from the ’64 fair is almost all plastic crap.

Twilight at the World of Tomorrow by James Mauro is another brick in an ethereal monument to the grandeur of the 1939 World’s Fair, and Mauro pays homage without having to compare it to 1964 at all. There’s little in the way of new information in this title, but if you were thinking you’d like to read some kind of comprehensive narrative about the ’39 fair, well you need look no further. It’s reasonably well-written, and I could tell that the author really enjoyed writing about some of the famous New York characters that populate the story behind the story of the fair. James Mauro takes a rather worldly point of view, contrasting the fair with bubbling political events abroad. The problem is that you never know how he means to contrast the two occurrences: is the fair a microcosm of European political tensions and war, or a beacon of peace and democracy that is the reverse of fascist oppression happening in the other hemisphere? The point is never made clear. Perhaps the World’s Fair can be both, or neither, or whatever you’d like it to be when viewed through the petroleum jelly-smeared lens of retrospect.

My gripe with Twilight at the World of Tomorrow is that it so desperately wants to be Devil in the White City, which is a brilliant book about the Chicago Exposition of 1893. It wants to be that book, but it’s not, and in trying to be that other book (and match its success, naturally), Twilight at the World of Tomorrow sells itself short. Devil in the White City is, loosely, about ambitious men who are able to capitalize during the last decade of the nineteenth century as the Industrial Revolution took hold. The 1939 New York World’s Fair also occupied a sliver of history which somehow illuminated and magnified the preceding and following events. However, Mauro seems keeps projecting a kind of naivete on the masses that attend the Fair, one that doesn’t seem to apply to a generation that would go on to fight in World War II. For all of his romanticizing of the fair, Mauro’s story is more about the aristocratic men who created and operated the World’s Fair, not the faceless rubes and yokels that paid admittance.

While I’d recommend Erik Larsen’s book to just about anyone, I’d only recommend Twilight at the World of Tomorrow to people for whom this topic is remotely within their sphere of interest: fans of New York City history, people interested in the American Jewish reaction to Adolph Hitler, or (as is my case) folks who romanticize the shit out of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. I admit that fantasizing about a defunct, overblown carnival is a little strange, but I’ve been hooked ever since I first glimpsed those Jetsons homes so many years ago. I was even mildly annoyed when they were used as part of the central plot to the movie Men in Black.

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.

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