Extreme Graffiti

Xanax and dust 40 feet up, inside NYC subway tunnels, and "fucking up the city" (Continued)


We get near the billboard, and JA uses the bolt cutters to cut holes in two chain-link fences. We crawl through and walk along the railroad tracks until we get to the base of the sign. JA, with his backpack on, climbs about 40 feet on a thin piece of metal pipe attached to the main pillar. JD, after a few failed attempts, follows with the bolt cutters shoved down his pants and passes them to JA. Hanging in midair, his legs wrapped around a small piece of ladder, JA cuts the padlock and opens up the hatch to the catwalk. He then lowers his arm to JD, who is wrapped around the pole just below him, struggling. "J, give me your hand, "I'll pull you up," JA tells him. JD hesitates. He is reluctant to let go and continues treadmilling on the pole, trying to make it up. JD, give me your hand." JD doesn't want to refuse, but he's uncomfortable entrusting his life to JA. He won't let go of the pole. JA says it again, firmly, calmly, utterly confident: "J give me your hand." JD's arm reaches up, and JA pulls JD up onto the catwalk. Next, SET, the frailest of the three, follows unsteadily. They've called down and offered to put up his tag, but he insists on going up. "Dude, fuck that, I'm down," he says. I look away while he makes his way up, sure that he's going to fall (he almost does twice). The three have developed a set pattern for dividing the labor when they're "blowing up," one writer outlining, another working behind him, filling in. For 40 minutes I watch them working furiously, throwing shadows as they cover ads for Parliament and Amtrak with large multicolored throw-ups SET and JD bickering about space, JA scolding them, tossing down empty cans.

They risk their lives again climbing down. Parts of their faces are covered in paint, and their eyes beam as all three stare at the billboard, asking, "Isn't it beautiful?' And there is something intoxicating about seeing such an inaccessible, clean object gotten to and made gaudy. We get in the car and drive the West Side Highway northbound and then southbound so they can critique their work. "Damn, I should've used the white," JD says.

The next day both billboards are newly re-covered, all the graffiti gone. JA tells me the three went back earlier to get pictures and made small talk with the workers who were cleaning it off.

GRAFFITI HAS BEEN THROUGH A NUMBER OF incarnations since it surfaced in New York in the early 70s with a Greek teen-ager named Taki 183. It developed from the straightforward writing of a name to highly stylized, seemingly illegible tags (a kind of penmanship slang) to wild-style throw-ups and elaborate (master) "pieces" and character art. There has been racist graffiti political writing, drug advertising, gang graffiti. There is an art-graf scene from which Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiac, LEE, Futura 2000, Lady Pink and others emerged; aerosol advertising; techno graffiti written into computer programs; anti-billboard graffiti; stickers; and stencil writing. There are art students doing street work in San Francisco ("nonpermissional public art"); mural work in underground tunnels in New York; gallery shows from Colorado to New Jersey; all-day Graffiti-a-Thons; and there are graffiti artists lecturing art classes at universities. Graffiti has become part of urban culture, hip-hop culture and commercial culture, has spread to the suburbs and can be found in the backwoods of California's national forests. There are graffiti magazines, graffiti stores, commissioned walls, walls of fame and a video series available (Out to bomb) documenting writers going out on graffiti missions, complete with soundtrack. Graffiti was celebrated as a metaphor in the 70s (Norman Mailer's "The Faith of Graffiti"); it went Hollywood in the '80s (Beat Street, Turk 182!, Wild Style); and in the '90s it has been increasingly used to memorialize the inner-city dead.

But as much as graffiti has found acceptance, it has been vilified a hundred times more. Writers are now being charged with felonies and given lengthy jail terms -- a 15-year-old in California was recently sentenced to eight years in a juvenile detention center. Writers have been given up to 1000 hours of community service and forced to undergo years of psychological counseling; their parents have been hit with civil suits. In California a graffiti writer's driver's license can be revoked for a year; high-school diplomas and transcripts can also be withheld until parents make restitution. In some cities property owners who fail to remove graffiti from their property are subject to fines and possible jail time. Last spring in St. Louis, Cincinnati, San Antonio and Sacramento, Calif., politicians proposed legislation to cane graffiti writers (four to 10 hits with a wooden paddle, administered by parents or by a bailiff in a public courtroom). Across the nation, legislation has been passed making it illegal to sell spray paint and wide-tipped markers to anyone under 18, and often the materials must be kept locked up in the stores. Several cities have tried to ban the sales altogether, license sellers of spray paint and require customers to give their name and address when purchasing paint. In New York some hardware-store owners will give a surveillance photo of anyone buying a large quantity of spray cans to the police. In Chicago people have been charged with possession of paint. In San Jose, Calif., undercover police officers ran a sting operation -- posing as filmmakers working on a graffiti documentary -- and arrested 31 writers.

Hidden cameras, motion detectors, laser removal, specially developed chemical coatings, night goggles, razor wire, guard dogs, a National Graffiti Information Network, graffiti hot lines, bounties paid to informers -- one estimate is that it costs $4 billion a year nationally to clean graffiti -- all in an effort to stop those who "visually laugh in the face of communities," as a Wall Street Journal editorial raged.

The popular perception is that since the late 1980s when New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority adopted a zero tolerance toward subway graffiti (the MTA either cleaned or destroyed more than 6,000 graffiti-covered subway cars, immediately pulling a train out of service if any graffiti appeared on it), graffiti culture had died in the place of its birth. According to many graffiti writers, however, the MTA, in its attempt to kill graffiti, only succeeded in bringing it out of the tunnels and train yards and making it angry. Or as Jeff Ferrell, a criminologist who has chronicled the Denver graffiti scene, theorizes, the authorities' crackdown moved graffiti writing from subculture to counterculture. The work on the trains no longer ran, so writers started hitting the streets. Out in the open they had to work faster and more often. The artistry started to matter less and less. Throw-ups, small cryptic tags done in marker and even the straightforward writing of a name became the dominant imagery. What mattered was quantity ("making noise"), whether the writer had heart, was true to the game, was "real." And the graffiti world started to attract more and more people who weren't looking for an alternative art canvas but simply wanted to be connected to an outlaw community, to a venerable street tradition that allowed the opportunity to advertise their defiance. "It's that I'm doing it that I get my rush, not by everyone seeing it," says JA. "Yeah, that's nice, but if that's all that's gonna motivate you to do it, you're gonna stop writing. That's what happened to a lot of writers." JD tells me: "We're just putting it in their faces; it's like 'Yo, you gotta put up with it.'"

Newspapers have now settled on the term "graffiti vandal" rather than "artist" or "writer." Graffiti writers casually refer to their work as doing destruction." In recent years graffiti has become more and more about beefs and wars, about "fucking up the MTA," "fucking up the city."

Writers started taking a jock attitude toward getting up frequently and tagging in hard-to-reach places, adopting a machismo toward going over other writers' work and defending their own ("If you can write, you can fight"). Whereas graffiti writing was once considered an alternative to the street, now it imports drugs, violence, weapons and theft from that world -- the romance of the criminal deviant rather than the artistic deviant. In New York today, one police source estimates there are approximately 100,000 people involved in a variety of types of graffiti writing. The police have caught writers as young as 8 and as old as 42. And there's a small group of hard-core writers who are getting older who either wrote when graffiti was in its prime or long for the days when it was, those who write out of compulsion, for each other and for the authorities who try to combat graffiti, writers who haven't found anything in their lives substantial or hype enough to replace graffiti writing.

The writers in their 20s come mostly from working-class families and have limited prospects and ambitions for the future. SET works in a drugstore and has taken lithium and Prozac for occasional depression; JD dropped out of high school and is unemployed, last working as a messenger, where he met JA. They spend their nights driving 80 miles an hour down city highways, balancing 40-ounce bottles of Old English 800 between their legs, smoking blunts and crack-laced cigarettes called coolies, always playing with the radio. They reminisce endlessly about the past, when graf was real, when graf ran on the trains, and they swap stories about who's doing what on the scene. The talk is a combo platter of Spicoli, homeboy, New Age jock and eighth grade: The dude is a fuckin' total turd. . . . I definitely would've gotten waxed. . . . It's like some bogus job. . . . I'm amped, I'm Audi, you buggin . . . You gotta be there fully, go all out, focus. . . . Dudes have bitten off SET, he's got toys jockin' him. . . .

They carry beepers, sometimes guns, go upstate or to Long Island to "prey on the hicks" and to rack cans of spray paint. They talk about upcoming court cases and probation, about quitting, getting their lives together, even as they plan new spots to hit, practice their style by writing on the walls of their apartments, on boxes of food, on any stray piece of paper (younger writers practice on school notebooks that teachers have been known to confiscate and turn over to the police). They call graffiti a "social tool" and "some kind of ill form of communication," refer to every writer no matter his age as "kid." Talk in the graffiti life vacillates between banality and mythology, much like the activity itself: hours of drudgery, hanging out, waiting, interrupted by brief episodes of exhilaration. JD, echoing a common refrain, says, "Graffiti writers are like bitches: a lot of lying, a lot of talking, a lot of gossip." They don't like tagging with girls ("cuties," or if they use drugs, "zooties") around because all they say is (in a whiny voice), You're crazy. . . . Write my name."

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