The New York Times recently published an article about an upsurge in graffiti in cities across the country. I have kept a close eye on the graffiti of the J train for the past few years and I agree that the amount of graffiti in my area has increased, but I can’t disagree more with them about the cause of this increase.
The officials interviewed in the piece come to the conclusion that the cause for the upsurge is “a tough economy.” As someone who has had a window into the secret world of graffiti for a good while, I feel I am coming from a strong position to be making these observations. Contrary to the beliefs of the interviewees, I believe that it has little to do with the economy and everything to do with the internet and the wider acceptance of graffiti as an art form.
Graffiti exploded in New York in the early 1970s. Kids from every race and economic background were writing their names on walls and subway cars across the entire city. The vast majority of the early graffiti writers ranged in age from about twelve to eighteen; that would put them in their mid 50s today. Like Rock & Roll before it, graffiti has become more widely accepted by society because the generation that grew up with it is now adult. Even though not all of them are still bombing, their kids are growing up in households that are more accepting of this phenomenon.
Even art institutions are starting accept graffiti onto their walls. The recent “Art in the Streets” exhibition at MOCA is the first of its kind—a major museum survey of graffiti and street art. This is a huge jump towards accepting graffiti into the history books as a modern art movement and yet another reason graffiti is on the rise.
Another contributing factor to this upsurge is the Internet. The widening availability and affordability of digital cameras hasn’t hurt either. Don’t get me wrong: graffiti has been fairly well-documented since the early days, but never has it been so public or available. When I first started paying attention to graffiti, I was barely able to understand any of it and very few names stuck with me. This was the case only until I started browsing through Luna Park’s flickr photostream and eventually posting my own photos for the community to educate me on. With the growing popularity of photography sites like flickr, an extremely transient art form has suddenly become more permanent. Graffiti pieces can now live on long after they get buffed or dissed or weathered.
Take subway artist Jilly Ballistic for example. She has said her stickers could last as little as a couple hours and as much as a few days if she is lucky. What’s the point? Ballistic posts all her work to flickr where it can live long after it gets torn down by the MTA. Jilly is a new breed of artist that relies on the internet to get her work out there.
The same applies for graffiti writers as well. While many of them do not post photos to flickr themselves, they do pay attention to the site to look at photos of their work posted by other users. This gives writers new incentives that didn’t exist a short time ago.
I am convinced that graffiti’s association with economic downturn can be added to the long list of stereotypes about this art form. There is more at work here than just high unemployment and slashed maintenance budgets. If The Times widened its scope, this article might have been very different. it would be plain to see that graffiti is on the rise because Graffiti is on the rise.
To demonstrate how much graffiti has popped up over the past several months, lets look at this one wall that is viewable from the J train:
The first time I flicked the wall in December 2010, SHIFT and EGGYOLK had throw-ups on it.
By the end of December, I was surprised when OVERUNDER and CASH4 roller pieces appeared on the top of the wall.
A couple months later, VIL and BAK had dissed the SHIFT piece—these guys have serious beef.
The wall had stayed the same until June of this year when BOWS and RAST painted this huge, colorful mural.
Most recently, SYKE has covered up RAST. It’s unclear if this was due to beef between the writers. My guess is no, because SYKE got a shout on the top left of the mural.
All photos by Jowy, through the windows of the JMZ.
I noticed a few fresh tags when I hopped on to the F train at 23rd Street the other day. This writer goes by the name JA. I saw the tag again just a few days later in an unexpected place—Joe Rivera’s book called “Vandal Squad: Inside the New York City Transit Police Department, 1984-2004.” The book is a look at the graffiti scene through the eyes of one the cops on NYC’s anti-vandalism task force.
JA, VEEFER WKS, NEMZ?, JAONE
JA is one of the graffiti writers Rivera recalls catching in Vandal Squad:
In 2003, JA caught a stupid tag on a gate out in Brooklyn and got collared by a couple of patrol officers in uniform. We went to the precinct just to talk to him.
“Hey, what’s up?” he said when he saw us. “I know you guys. You guys are Vandals! I ain’t saying nothing about nothing. I know you guys—you’ll put me through the bookings!”
Ultimately, Rivera says they did not have enough of a case to lock up JA, because they had no hard evidence of him in the act, like photos or videos.
JA, or JAONE as seen above, has been active for a long time! In Vandal Squad Rivera says he had some convictions for graffiti from as far back as the 80s.
Check out more of JA’s work on Luna Park’s flickr!
Update: Luna points me to a really great Rolling Stone article from 1995 in which the author details his experiences tagging along with JA and friends.