Writing Back to the City

Joe Austin
Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became An Urban Crisis in New York City
(Columbia University Press, 2001)

Writers saw themselves as embodying an (illegal) urban beautification and education program for a fading city bent on dying its own magnificent cultural dynamics and destroying its own “local color,” both figuratively and literally. In taking the trains, writers created a new mass media, and in that media they “wrote back” to the city.

—from Taking the Train

I’ll begin my review of Joe Austin’s fascinating new book right where he does, with the following brief, an illuminating and little-known New York story.

It was the night before July 4, 1976, the eve of the U.S. Bicentennial. New York City stood at the epicenter of that paradoxical era, a mad mix of patriotism, global recession, post-’60s hangover, and urban fiscal crisis. As part of their new tourism-focused economic strategy—and deep state of denial—New York officials were preparing a multimillion-dollar extravaganza: Operation Sail 76, a harbor parade of navy flotillas and fireworks, which would attract thousands of visitors and national TV coverage.

Meanwhile, in a subway storage yard in outer Queens, a crew of graffiti writers named CAINE, MAD 103, and FLAME ONE, had also decided to participate in the July 4 festivities. Equipped only with spray paint, they were busy transforming a fleet of cars on the 7 line from Flushing to Manhattan into a “Freedom Train.” As Austin puts it, the final multi-car work, 10 feet high and longer than two football fields, was “by all accounts … magnificent.” It consisted of “several whole-car paintings of the earliest designs of the U.S. flag, symbols that usually decorate high school textbooks.” According to the writers’ plan, “the train was to fly through the shared public spaces of New York City on the morning of the nation’s 200th birthday like a patriotic steamer.”

Yet the Freedom Train was never seen. Besides the writers, the only ones who got to lay their eyes on it were a few Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) workers and Transit Police, who promptly pulled the cars out of service, destroyed the paintings, and arrested the writers in their homes the next day. MTA officials “steadfastly refused to be upstaged by what they felt was vandalism—no matter the work’s patriotic appeal—and they would not risk the public’s mistaking the Freedom Train as part of the officially sanctioned celebration. Reportedly, the cops took photos, but none have ever been found, and no mention was made of the train in all of the reporting of the Bicentennial celebrations. Thus, “CAINE, MAD 103 and FLAME ONE’s gift was refused. In that refusal their ‘place’ in the city was made clear.”

And herein lie the conflicts that animate the following pages of Austin’s ambitious, revisionist history of New York between the late ’60s and early ’90s. How did a seemingly insignificant act of youthful rebellion and self-expression become a full-blown “urban crisis” in the eyes of city officials and the media, inspiring a $500 million plus war against it, a war still raging after 30 years? And how at the same time did graffiti achieve such a rapid aesthetic development in NYC, long before it even appeared outside the city; and then go on to ignite a cultural phenomenon that is also still raging in cities worldwide? In tracing this “co-evolution” of graffiti and the “war” against it, Austin sheds light on key struggles underlying New York’s recent history. Among them are struggles over access to public space and the public sphere; over the (re)definition of art, style, and “quality of life”; over the city’s obsession with image in the face of mounting social problems; and over the power of youth culture versus those who would contain or commodify it.

A Little Technical Difficulty

On the whole, Austin’s effort pays off, but the reader must first wade through some wordy opening chapters. The book was written as a Ph.D. dissertation and it starts off reading like one. Concerned with legitimating graffiti to an academic audience, it bends over backwards to frame basic aspects of writing within a dense thicket of cultural theory. These detours often feel overly long and self-indulgent—using the subject to prop up the theory, rather than the other way around. As a result, the vibrant spirit of the writers themselves often recedes into the background, or gets buried in text, effectively silenced.

For example, in describing the experience of working in a graffiti “Crew,” BAMA notes: “You know, you sit there in the train yard at two o’clock in the morning with four other people and you’re spraying and you look down the track and you see all these brothers working on one goal—to make this train beautiful. There’s so much peace in that. You got that creative feeling, that vibe that comes out of all that work happening.” Austin, however, follows this poetic meditation—which seems to jump off the page, alive and breathing—with a deadening analysis. He writes, “The existing forms of peer sociality (best friends, the clique, the gang, the team) shaped and influenced the early organization of writing and, in turn, were adapted to accommodate the situations, conflicts, and pleasures of writing. These social relations informed and structured  the ways in which writing skills have been circulated among writers, new and old, and the ways in which the ‘work’ of writing has been accomplished at the everyday level.”

This sometimes-turgid style risks turning off readers who (lucky for them) have no stake in the underlying academic debates. This is a pity because it may keep people from reading an otherwise courageous and timely work, and the only major study of graffiti since Craig Castleman’s Getting Up in 1982. And it also may obscure what strikes me as Austin’s base theoretical point, which is a Marxist one: That people create their own culture through struggle with historical circumstances, and in so doing they develop the power—imaginatively and in reality—to transform those circumstances. Thus, if you can just keep this point in mind while weeding out some of Austin’s jargon, the book will yield many rewards. What follows are my favorites.

The Mother of Invention

Austin takes youth culture and its history very seriously. His first book, the acclaimed edited volume Generations of Youth explored the 20th century invention of “youth” and “teen” cultures, and the paranoid backlash against “juvenile delinquency” they inspired. He thus argues that in order to become a mass underground phenomenon, graffiti writing had to speak to a generation of urban youth on many levels. This was a generation “inspired by political mass movements of the ’60s, by the utopian strains swirling within the contradictory mixture of counterculture and commercial popular culture, [by their] own sense of the narrowing possibilities for social acceptance and economic mobility in a postindustrial city, and by traditions created within earlier youth formations, which they inherited.” As one writer put it:

Shit was mad deep. You had Viet Nam and all types of protests, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, racism and hatred at a peak and others fighting inequality and dying trying to put a stop to it. You can’t be unaffected by all that.

While never mentioning it, Taking The Train actually helps explain the simultaneous urban invention in the mid-’70s of basically all of the major artistic forms still underlying U.S. youth culture to this day: Hip-hop in the Bronx, punk in the Lower East Side, and skate/surf culture in the “Dogtown” neighborhood of Venice Beach (which was recently explored and exploited in the recent documercial by Vans, Dogtown and Z-Boys). Like writing—which Austin dubs an “alternative public broadcast system”—all these forms were born as creative and critical responses to the deteriorating conditions of post-industrial neighborhoods that were ignored by government and misrepresented by mainstream media.

That said, it’s unfortunate that in his passion for graffiti Austin isolates it from other youth movements of the time—particularly hip-hop, which aside from a few pages three-quarters into the book, is barely mentioned. He does make reasonable arguments for this—graffiti is too often simplified as the visual arts component of hip-hop, as one of the “four elements” alongside DJing, breakdancing, and mc-ing/“rapping” (of which rapping always gets the most play). This obscures writing’s distinct culture—it’s less-commercial “economics of prestige,” its racial diversity, the fact that many writers prefer heavy metal and Salsa to rap, etc. Nevertheless, I think it would strengthen Austin’s New York-centered book to go deeper into hip-hop’s common survival strategies and neighborhood roots. He indeed quotes Jessica Green, a former editor of Stress Magazine: “New York City has at least 500 neighborhoods (depending on your definition of neighborhood)… [And t]he neighborhood is arguably the first influence on the formation of all Hip-Hop/ Urban Culture.” Austin, though, leaves these neighborhoods and their shared culture out of his genealogy.”

The Power of Appearance

Austin is at his best when analyzing elites’ manic obsession with cleaning up the image of a crisis-torn New York. Representations of Gotham—from ethnic melting pot to crass commercial center, from artistic bohemia to violent gangland—always epitomized the ambivalent place of the modern city in the popular imagination. Yet Austin asserts that by the ’70s “a standardized binary…emerged[d] out of a rich panoply of representations of the city”—one between the “New Rome” and the “Naked City.” On one side were the remnants of the classically glamorous “New Rome,” of Park Avenue, Rockefeller Center, and the 1930s Hollywood sound stages. And on the other side, “this mythic New York [was now] stalked by its Other, the Naked City, the Asphalt Jungle, the Rotten Apple, where the story is one of living in the shadowy crevices of the modern metropolis.” Those already inclined to blame “urban crisis” for the woes of the 1960s found in the “Naked City” their legitimation, and in “graffiti” their arch nemesis—a sign of barbarians at the gates, and a nation out of control.

This stereotype was not helped by the spate of movies—from Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Superfly (1972), to Death Wish (1974), The Warriors (1979), Escape from New York (1981)—that showed poor black and Latino communities as incurable cesspools of vice spreading, virus-like, through the streets and subways to infect the rest of the city. Images of criminal youth were firmly established as “malignant icons of the Naked City.” These were duly exploited in the local and national news—even though the city’s crime statistics never made the F.B.I.’s top ten list at the time. And the hype contributed to a “conjuncture of fears” of urban youth and crime on subways, which framed the “graffiti problem” as a major social epidemic.

The problem, Austin shows, is not simply that such sensationalist, racist images were created, but that city officials actually believed them, and then used them as a scapegoat for the city’s real economic crisis. Under Lindsay, and then again under Koch, the city launched two “Wars on Graffiti,” which took on the epic proportions of Captain Ahab’s hunt for the great white whale. Graffiti writers evolved from “juvenile delinquents” to “terrorists engaged  in a semiotic guerilla war”; graffiti was transformed from a misdemeanor to a serious criminal offense; “anti-graffiti coalitions” and “vandal squads” were institutionalized across city agencies at major taxpayer expense; “image-enhancing” spectacles and voluntary citizen actions were sponsored citywide; massive anti-graffiti ad campaigns were launched; and repressive, paramilitary technologies were developed to clean the trains and secure the yards my any means necessary.

This multimillion dollar assault on a few hundred kids with spray paint by a cash-strapped city was vigorously defended by Koch, the MTA, and the Times. They all saw graffiti causing a deteriorating sense of “quality of life,” and creating among residents “a passive, hopeless attitude” that increased crime  and triggered economic crisis. Their belief—at once reactionary and postmodern, as Austin points out—that the cause of collective social order is a matter of appearances and aesthetics rather than material inequalities, was the precursor to the “Broken Windows” theory brandished by the Guiliani administration in targeting “quality of life” crimes. According to this theory, crime in a neighborhood will continue to increase if the visual evidence of minor infractions is left unchecked. “Writing on the walls,” as Austin puts it, became “in effect assaults and riots waiting to happen.”

A prime example of how the prevailing wisdom was formed on the issue can be found in a Times front-page article from the era. Ominously titled “Vandals Take Psychological Toll,” the story linked graffiti to all forms of vandalism as assaults on the visual order. “No shift in position…will afford an unspoiled view in New York City. Vandalism is underground in the subways, above ground in the parks and schools… The cost to New Yorkers is in the millions of dollars a year for the cleanup and in the psychological effects of cynicism, sadness and in some neighborhoods, a feeling of hopelessness and neglect.” However when, in 1984, the city, using razor wire, guard dogs, and infrared sonar, finally reached its goal of “graffiti free” subways (a “historic achievement” publicized worldwide), crime on the subways actually worsened—in response not to visual cues, Austin argues, but to years escalating unemployment and citywide recession, which remained unchecked.

Style Wars

Ultimately, Austin is a passionate defender of graffiti’s status as the “major American art form of the late 20th century.” Unfortunately, he only touches on its contradictions, like a sexist, territorial attitude that made it harder for women artists to rise up; and he never actually interviews any woman artists, like LADY PINK, who managed to rise up anyway. But his main focus is on writing’s aesthetic and social power. Through interviews with and quotes from a number of the major subway writers, including PHASE2, LEE, and ZEPHYR, and a few of the later ones, including DONDI and SEEN, who took back the walls when the trains were off limits, Austin begins to unravel how writers saw their world. As he says, this is not a detailed insider history of writing as an art form—“a history best left to the writers themselves to debate and record”—but it nonetheless fills a void by raising a number of critical questions, occasionally in the writers’ own words, about the production, reception, and wider circulation of graffiti as art.

One of the work’s primary strengths, in fact, is that it airs the long war that raged within the writing community itself. In one corner were the “piecers” who labored hours over large-scale, sophisticated works built around elaborately stylized names, designs, and pop references. In the other were the “throw-up” kids, writing scrawled tags for the quantity and speed, and purposely defying the piecers’ ethic by covering over full-car masterpieces.

The early years gave piecers the time and space to develop skills, experiment with increasingly illegible forms of “wildstyle” lettering, and even philosophize about it. Here PHASE2 describes how his innovations subverted traditional Western notions of art and language:

I’m absorbing and devouring language in its co-existing state and creating something else with it…The English language isn’t much, especially in its current state. By comparison (to Chinese and Japanese) it’s like a dot. Why not go beyond that and just create an alphabet or language? You can’t put a limit on communication.. You’ve always got to look forward, that’s how style began.

Yet by the late 1970s, as the chemical “buffing” of trains created for “free canvas” and thus competition for space, and as increased surveillance forced writers to work faster, piecing became and endangered species, and “throwups” began to take over. Writers like IN grabbed instant fame for being the only “king” of every subway line, “writing 10,000 throwups before other writers had written 5,000.” JAMES TOP describes the chess-like strategy of the Throwup crew.

We would put IN’s, TO’s and 01’s in the corner panels…and floated spots [above the windows]. After we established ourselves we would then aim for the king of the target line. We’d absorb the king. We’d put the pieces on top of him and strip the line of its identity…The basic concept was to use the throwup as a weapon of offense and defense on all lines and neighborhoods. This...approach was radical for its time.

Piecers, being survivors, found other outlets for their artistry. There was the brief fling with the downtown gallery scene, which for a hot second launched writers to the pinnacle of the ’80s art market. That status dropped once the market discovered Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat—two traditionally trained fine artists inspired by graffiti. The exposure, however, forced writers to look critically at themselves and their goals. To quote PHASE2 once more: “One’s love of the culture won’t pay the rent, but money and your picture in a gallery catalogue won’t make you legit.” In collaboration with supporters from the outside culture, writers sought out and created more autonomous, if often short-lived, spaces to develop and exhibit the craft. These included the Nation of Graffiti Artists; Graffiti 1980 Studio in Manhattan; Fashion Moda in the Bronx; the cafeteria tables of High School of Art and Design; vanguard publications like International Graffiti Times and later Stress Magazine; as well as the “Style Wars” documentary and “Subway Art” book by photographers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant; and guerrilla video like Video Graf.

***

Austin’s story ends in the early 1990s—before Guiliani’s sweeping crackdowns on writing; before the rise of “scratchiti” and billboard liberation; before hip-hop became a transnational corporate empire; before the Internet globalized the notion of “going all city.” But by focusing on the early era, Austin leaves us with a history lesson that resonates deeply today, in this new period of fiscal crisis cutbacks and “quality of life” campaigns:

Recognized for what it was—an important grassroots urban mural movement, a movement that could have complemented the already significant cultural tourism that supports the city’s economy—writing could have been promoted as a homegrown public arts movement and its energies directed to the drab concrete and brick walls…the filthy and faded shells of the subway trains…the empty and burned-out buildings that signify the city’s deep social inequalities…This is debatable, but a debate worth having [and one] most appropriately addressed to New York City—because of writing’s unrecognized significance in the history of contemporary art; because New York City claims to be the art capital of the world and indeed “the capital of the 20th century,” and because New Yorkers are no known for holding their tongues.

Postscript

In mid-July of this year, Mayor Bloomberg launched a citywide graffiti cleanup program. A Times photo showed him posing with a paint roller in hand, covering up writing on a wall at North 7th and Berry here in Williamsburg. “Graffiti is not just an eyesore,” Bloomberg proclaimed. “It’s an invitation to criminals and a message to citizens that we don’t care.” Yet the particular intersection he chose for the photo op is not  known to be a high-crime area at all. However, it is one passed through frequently by the legions of Williamsburg’s self-identified artists. Thus, Mayor Bloomberg’s real goal may have been to remind artists of the boundaries of what constitutes permissible art in an increasingly commercialized city.

Contributor

Miriam Greenberg

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