Radiant Children: The Construction of Graffiti Art in New York City [1]

Natalie Hegert

[1] A few months ago, at a bar, I got into a heated discussion with a good friend, an artist, about what graffiti constitutes art and what constitutes pure vandalism. When I mentioned my research into the history of "graffiti art," my friend—a very hip, open-minded liberal—told me knowingly, "Oh yeah, graffiti art; I love graffiti art." She told me of some beautiful murals she had seen recently and of some artful posters wheatpasted around her neighborhood. A little further in the conversation, however, her tone turned angry. She started raging spitefully against the "taggers" and their unsightly vandalism "showing up all over MY property." Bemused, I watched as she reiterated every cliché one finds in the comments section under any article written about graffiti by any mainstream news outlet—"They're marking their territory like dogs pissing on the street;" "How would you like it if they wrote all over YOUR wall?" "It's just senseless, ugly vandalism;" "If I caught one of those damn taggers defacing my property, I'd break his arm!" What interested me was the difference in her reaction when speaking about "graffiti art" and when speaking about "taggers." Why is graffiti art considered so benign and graffiti vandalism so reviled? The dichotomous classification imposed upon the practice of writing graffiti enables us to avoid any real discussion and masks a much more complex reality about graffiti. For many, to talk of graffiti as vandalism is perfectly uncomplicated, as they view it all as vandalism, no matter how "artfully" it may be applied. What's more fascinating is the view that some of it is art, though it's not so easily defined beyond the simple "I know it when I see it" argument.

[2] Graffiti is a phenomenon found in nearly every era and location of human culture and civilization, from the famous walls of Pompeii to the Great Wall of China. Yet it was only in the late 20th century, in New York, that graffiti became viewed as art, and those who wrote it, as artists. [2] The classification of graffiti art was first signaled when, in a bid for legitimacy, graffiti shifted from the walls and subway cars of the city onto canvases and into galleries and museums. This paper will consider this relatively devalued and "disunderstood" area of art history, the rise of graffiti art, and the problematized relationship between graffiti's illegal status and the art object as commodity. The New York graffiti writers' first forays into the commercial art world in the 70s and 80s provide the standpoint from which to deconstruct the packaging of the graffiti art movement, look at the roles that galleries, museums, dealers, collectors, art historians, and critics played in its construction, and investigate the various "mythconceptions" that were propagated and perpetuated in the construction of this art movement, which, in effect, excluded graffiti from its own art history.

[3] The form of graffiti under consideration is of a very particular sort, which emerged in Philadelphia and New York City in the late 1960s. [3] The term "graffiti" itself is contentious among its originators, who referred to themselves simply as "writers" and what they did as "writing." "Graffiti" was a misnomer used by the media to describe the practice, "stigmatizing it into an abominable controversy," to use the words of one of the progenitors of the movement. [4] The term "writing" defines the activity as an action, as a practice, as a performance; while "graffiti" denotes the after effect, the thing left behind, the relic, the trace. The term "writing" also offers a crucial clue as to the subject matter and formal concerns of these particular artists: it is a strictly letter-based art, a form of publicly performed calligraphy. Writing is an action that can be completely every day, like writing a shopping list; or something profound, like writing a novel; or in this case, writing with no object—just going writing, or hitting, or tagging, or bombing. Always moving; always a verb. Graffiti, on the other hand, is a thing: a scratch, a scrawl. Graffiti forms binaries, like graffiti art, or graffiti vandalism.

[4] Writing is different from other forms of graffiti—like protest or political graffiti found in public spaces, graffiti found in the privacy of lavatories, or graffiti of malicious intent driven by racism or homophobia—in that its content and message is comprised solely of the nickname of the writer. [5] This form followed from the practice of inner-city kids writing their street aliases on the walls around their neighborhoods and in the schoolyards. In this way, writing is more closely related to other graffiti precedents—such as the pervasive "Kilroy Was Here" graffiti popularized by American soldiers in World War II; Los Angeles gang graffiti placas, which marked territory and often took the form of a written "roll call" of the gang's members; and hobo monikers found written on train cars across America—with some significant differences. [6] Unlike "Kilroy," writers each adopted a unique, individual name, which functioned as an indexical mark for that particular writer. These names were often drawn from the writer's actual name or a given nickname (Joe 182, Junior 161), or were self-aggrandizing and self-appointed pseudonyms (Super Kool 223, Evil Eddy), with street numbers and Roman numerals often appended to the name as further identification. Unlike gang graffiti's territorial function, writers applied their nicknames everywhere they went, the objective being to become "famous" by writing one's name in the most number of places. In order to spread their names to the farthest corners of the city in the early 1970s in New York, writers began to focus on the function of their support, moving from stationary walls to public transportation as the (literal) vehicle for their work. Writing one's name on a bus or a subway car enabled it to travel and to be seen by more people. Thus, the relatively common practice of nickname writing, once relegated to the schoolyards and neighborhood walls of ghettoes like Washington Heights and the Bronx, spread through the heart of the city via the subway system. Hobo graffiti applied to the sides of boxcars traveled in a similar fashion, but on a much smaller, more spread-out scale. In New York City the sheer numbers of writers, and the ever-increasing size of their signatures, made for an overwhelming visual experience.

[5] In 1971, the New York Times ran a small article profiling one of New York's most prolific writers, Taki 183. [7] The now-seminal article, "'Taki 183' Spawns Pen Pals," was the first media attention devoted to one writer, signaling the possibilities of fame and recognition in the wider world outside the limited peer group to which writing was mostly directed. For outsiders, the article offered the first glimpse into a nascent subculture surrounding the writing of graffiti, with its own specialized codes and language. After the Taki article, writing spread throughout New York and the tags grew in scale, style, and complexity.

[6] In short order, the writers' designs were also translated from the outsides of subway cars onto the time-honored support of canvas. The canvassed graffiti art genre is generally considered a phenomenon of the 1980s, but writing's transformation from performative act to static, collectible art object occurred as early as 1972. Initially construed as an attempt to reform young vandals and rechannel their energies to more lucrative and less precarious venues and mediums of expression, the entrance of writing into the commercial art gallery was soon touted as the hottest new thing since Pop. Commercial graffiti art appeared early on, as a way to package, label, and "tame" writing as a practice. Yet it was not uncommon for writers to engage in both illegal writing and legal graffiti art, finding no conflict of interest therein. Many writers transposed their colorful spray paint signatures onto canvases for wealthy collectors by day, while entering the train yards to paint masterpieces on the subway cars by night. While the city aggressively erased the illicit subway murals, collectors bought up graffiti art canvases on speculation, and art critics bemoaned the canvases' lack of "authenticity."

[7] Art critics' attitudes toward graffiti art on canvas generally fell into one of two categories, as illustrated by the opinions of Rene Ricard on the one hand, and Hal Foster on the other, both writing in the early 1980s. Ricard's aesthetic valuation of graffiti art canvases made distinctions between what "looked like art" and what didn't; he quickly relegated canvas works by writers into the "lower" realm of design, even kitsch. For Foster, it wasn't a matter of whether or not the graffiti art canvases retained the same aesthetic quality as the subway paintings, but whether or not they retained their original radical strain once recuperated into the mainstream. Graffiti art in this case was used to support the author's polemics regarding cultural cooptation.

[8] Before analyzing these authors' views, it is important to introduce the themes of an essay written by Jean Baudrillard in 1976 (translated into English in 1993) entitled "Kool Killer, or the Insurrection of Signs." [8] In this essay Baudrillard contends that graffiti writing functions as a revolutionary counter to mass media, an attack on the code of cultural hegemony, "a savage cultural process with neither goal, ideology, nor content, at the level of signs." [9] For Baudrillard, writing is significant in that it contains "no content and no message," in that, rather than convey political messages, it takes the form of pseudonyms, "empty signifiers," as he calls them, inscribed on walls and subways. [10] He asserts that writing's recuperation can take one of two forms: that of a "bourgeois humanist interpretation" that imposes upon it the meaning of an assertion of identity; and that of art, which imposes an "aesthetic reduction," thereby negating its revolutionary potential. [11] It is particularly important to note this last assertion—that writing's recuperation as art denotes a diffusion of its seditionary impetus.

[9] In a 1982 article in Art in America, Hal Foster discusses graffiti (recuperated as) art along with other postmodern styles of painting prevalent at the time. The future editor of October's discussion of graffiti references Baudrillard's analysis, yet, Foster laments, "This reading is romantic now: graffiti is largely mediated...Not only are these 'empty' signs filled with media content, but a few are invested with art (economic) value, anonymous tags become celebrity signatures." [12] In other words, graffiti's raw, primitive form had been appropriated by the art world, mediated, absorbed, and stripped of its subcultural significance. As with Baudrillard, Foster insists on graffiti's anonymity, its "emptiness," as the key to its power against the code of the media.

[10] Writing holds no revolutionary implications for Rene Ricard; for him, it's all about pop culture. In the first lines of his 1981 Artforum essay, "The Radiant Child," Ricard illustrates the common association that was forming between graffiti writing and the as-yet-unnamed music and dance style of hip-hop: [13] "I remember the first Tags (where is Taki?), Breaking (where you spin on your head), Rapping (where I first heard it). I know the names, but are the names important? Where is Taki?" [14] The question, "Where is Taki?" recurs throughout the article, a plea to the "lost" history of graffiti writing. Ricard accepts this lost history as inevitable, "reminiscent of the way the origin of blues is lost, the simple expression of the individual followed much later by full-scale commercial exploitation." [15]

[11] Interestingly, when discussing graffiti art, both Ricard and Foster only mention the names of two artists: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, two artists who did graffiti, but were not considered writers. Haring and Basquiat's work differed from the subway graffiti writers in scale, purpose, medium, and location: Haring drew pictures rather than letters and used chalk rather than spray paint; Basquiat wrote the name "Samo," but it was the legible yet inscrutable phrases and poetry accompanying it that were the primary subjects, rather than the name; neither wrote on the outsides of subway cars, and their work had little to do with the "empty" pseudonyms that so intrigued Baudrillard.

[12] In the early 1980s, both Basquiat and Haring had been involved in exhibitions alongside some writers who had begun painting canvases in addition to their subway work. Ricard picked out Basquiat and Haring from among the other graffiti artists in these "communal exhibitions," thereby inextricably linking their work with those of the subway graffiti writers, while distinguishing it as something aesthetically superior ("Jean-Michel's don't look like the others. His don't have that superbomb panache..."). [16] Ricard's evaluation certainly enhanced these artists' reputations, and soon it seemed that they were the only "graffiti artists" who mattered. Even Foster refers only to Basquiat and Haring, despite the fact that his entire discussion of graffiti is indebted to Baudrillard's examination of a type of graffiti that Basquiat and Haring did not engage in. The reason why the view of Basquiat and Haring as graffiti art stars has persisted has to do with context and framing; they were often romanticized as artists who had "started on the streets" and become successful artists in the gallery world. Yet, they had both come from an arts background and made gallery work that reflected knowledge of art history. [17] The artists who got their start by writing graffiti on the subway, on the other hand, often had no arts training. In the context of the streets and subways, their work was difficult to defend as art because of its illegal status; in the context of the gallery, the paintings they made with spray paint on canvas were rather startling in their wholesale departure from the history of painting, and was problematic to place as art because of their "egregious lack of art history." [18]

"A lot of people don't like it, man, but like it or not, we've made the biggest art movement ever to hit New York City." —Super Kool [19]

[13] The very first exhibition of graffiti as art was held at the City College of New York in December 1972, and was organized by a sociology student named Hugo Martinez. Convinced of writing's "potential as a means of communication and alternative to [the] alienation" endemic among urban, immigrant youth, Martinez yearned to provide an "environment that would protect and channel the movement's energies and an organization that would develop an ideology." [20] To that end, Martinez formally organized the United Graffiti Artists (UGA). Membership to the UGA was restricted to writers who demonstrated the highest aesthetic ability and had achieved "king" status in the subculture. It was limited to an elite group of "style masters," to role models "rechanneling" their graffiti into the products of fine art. One of the stipulations of group membership, established by Martinez from the outset, was a forfeiture of illegal graffiti writing. [21]

[14] The very first instance where writers were identified by the term "graffiti artists" in the media was in the New York Times' review of the UGA's first exhibition. In this article, Martinez outlined his goal to the reporter: "Maybe if people see graffiti on walls inside buildings instead of on walls outside buildings, they will think it is art." [22]

[15] The UGA went on to mount three more exhibitions at commercial galleries over the next few years, at the Razor Gallery in New York, at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, and at the Artists Space in New York, even contributing live painting during performances of the Twyla Tharpe's "Deuce Coupe" with the Joffrey Ballet. The UGA's exhibitions received ample, though not usually positive press coverage. Critics were disappointed with the UGA's studio work, finding more authenticity, more excitement, and more pleasure in the writers' illegal embellishments of their urban environment. Ironically, it seemed that the "gallery-ization" of graffiti simply led more critics to appreciate the "spontaneously emerging public art" that the writers performed on the subway. [23]

[16] The difference between graffiti on canvas and on the trains was debated not only in the arts media, but between the writers as well. The tensions between legal canvases and illegal graffiti—one form seen as less authentic, pure, or true than the other—would define the art, and continues to be an issue. Before Hugo Martinez and the UGA, the dialectics of illegal graffiti writing and legal, "legitimized" canvases was not a possibility. As Mike 171 would later express, "The graffiti changed once that dollar figure came in...It took the purity out of the graffiti of us artists, of what we were doing." [24] To many, the formation of the UGA meant a certain "loss of innocence" in the writing culture. Shortly after the Artists Space show in 1975, the UGA disbanded.

"UGA was the first to organize graffiti art. The first to do collective work; to exhibit; and to work on canvas. It just wasn't time for it to be accepted."—Coco 144 [25]

[17] In the mid-to late-1970s, in the wake of the UGA's art shows, many new writers consciously came to the movement with the intentions of being "graffiti artists." Subway painting progressed from masterpieces to whole-car productions, to whole-train endeavors, in effect becoming traveling mural works demonstrating a high degree of sophistication in design, planning, and execution. One artist that epitomizes this development is Lee Quiñones, a Lower East Sider who, with his crew, the Fabulous Five, painted innumerable whole cars and even an entire subway train in 1976. His style seemed to stem as much from a mural tradition as a graffiti writing tradition, and his work was always addressed to the public at large, rather than an exclusive cadre of other writers. After mastering a whole train with his crew, Lee, looking for a fresh challenge, began to paint handball courts in his neighborhood in the Lower East Side. [26] About the endeavor, he said, "I wanted to go from something that was moving to an object that was not. So now...the work was totally open to analysis—it had to be well executed as opposed to the trains, where imperfections could be eclipsed by the noise and motion." [27]

[18] In June 1980, Lee and a few other graffiti writer friends took part in the Times Square Show, a month-long art show housed in an old massage parlor on 41st Steet. A spectacular gathering of artworks from a diverse spectrum of art makers installed in a haphazard, crowded fashion over four floors, the Times Square Show was the first exhibition that included the work of graffiti writers with other artists who engaged the public realm through work made on the streets, like Jenny Holzer, Christy Rupp, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat (billed as SAMO). By appearing in the context of the Times Square Show, organized by members of the artist group Colab, graffiti art was then allied with the alternative art group's populist mission of including formerly excluded minority groups as a means to open up the art world, their anti-establishment aesthetic of Neoexpressionism and "punk" or "New Wave" art, as well as the Times Square Show "art store" extension's decidedly ambiguous relationship between art and the late-capitalist marketplace. Graffiti art, in this fashion, joined the collective Zeitgeist that would define art of the 1980s.

[19] A wave of graffiti art exhibitions would soon follow, with some of the most significant appearing at Fashion Moda in the South Bronx, the New Museum, P.S.1, and downtown "art clubs" like the Mudd Club. In 1981, underground film star Patti Astor opened the Fun Gallery in the East Village, with a decidedly lighthearted approach, as opposed to the "serious" art galleries of SoHo. Astor's intent: "to open up the ivory tower and make art an expression open to everyone." [28] Graffiti art would define the young gallery, along with its party atmosphere and mixed audience of downtown hipsters, uptown art collectors, and cadres of graffiti-hungry youths. When the Fun Gallery opened, the art world snapped to attention. Big time collectors started showing up in limousines and snapping up the art. The graffiti art craze was soon in full swing. Twyla Tharpe's "Deuce Coupe" was restaged in September 1981, this time with live graffiti performances by the new cast of graffiti art stars (Significantly, the original UGA members who had exhibited canvases during the 70s were essentially left out and forgotten during the resurgence of graffiti art in the 80s).

[20] As the 80s continued, more and more galleries opened, and other dealers jumped onto the graffiti art bandwagon, like Mel Neulander, a self-described "art pimp," who started Graffiti Aboveground Gallery as a purely entrepreneurial endeavor. [29] Along with fine art canvases, Graffiti Aboveground licensed graffiti art images for items like T-shirts and coffee mugs. This commercial orientation was not atypical for graffiti artists or galleries at the time: Fashion Moda created a storefront-style exhibition selling T-shirts, posters, and knick-knacks at Documenta in 1982, and the Fun Gallery sold graffiti art T-shirts and belts. Graffiti art was quickly becoming the "hot new thing," and canvases and commissions were treated as commodities just as much as coffee mugs.

"We are toys in a new yard."—Fab 5 Freddy [30]

[21] As graffiti art ascended into popularity, art dealers simultaneously made the claim for it as fine art. The Post-Graffiti show of 1983 at the Sidney Janis Gallery, curated by Dolores Neumann, the wife of a prominent art collector, was one of the most talked-and written-about group exhibitions of graffiti art, as it signaled the total shift in the placement of graffiti art from the gritty Lower East Side galleries to the realm of "high art."

[22] Firstly, the title of the exhibition, with the addition of the qualifier "post," defined the works on display as an advancement of graffiti. At least one writer took umbrage with the imposition of the new nomenclature and with what it suggested. Phase 2 (a former UGA member, who did not exhibit in the Sidney Janis show) would later write:

This "Post" concept created and concocted by the so-called authorities dismisses writing/subways as the infantile or adolescent stages of what was to be...thus indirectly claiming and stating that the "after" is of more significance that the before that is in fact the ever evolving element of its existence.

The problem with post-graffiti, in other words, is that it established a direction and a progression in graffiti writing—but one aimed away from the streets and subways.

[23] The term post-graffiti, as well as the umbrella term "graffiti art," superficially grouped together artists of diverse backgrounds and styles, including artists who had no link at all to the subway graffiti writing culture. The participant list of the Sidney Janis exhibition exemplifies this, where Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others are identified as post-graffiti artists. The curatorial decision to include these artists on the basis that they partially disseminated their artworks on the streets reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the politics and particulars of writing. Equating the street with the subway ignores the importance writers placed on the trains as the primary locus and arena of writing, and disregards writing's hierarchy and method of conferring status. Duster, a writer who had painted many impressive whole-car compositions in the early 80s, protested that,

All of a sudden, everyone starts jumpin' on the bandwagon claiming they've been writing for years and I had never even heard of 'em! The Sidney Janis Gallery blows the whole art scene out of the water...[but] collectors really didn't know their ass from their elbows; they would go by word of mouth as to who was good and who wasn't...They would sit there and talk about who was great and who wasn't when they never even rode a train, never even know how much dedication a writer actually had. [31]

[25] This "bandwagon effect" had been in place since the first exhibitions at Fashion Moda, Fun Gallery, the Mudd Club, etc., but when it extended into a blue chip environment, as at Sidney Janis, it became clear that few in the art world cared to devote any research to writing's own lineage or hierarchy. By 1983, it seemed that the only acknowledgement of writing's history in the art world had been mustered limply by Rene Ricard with the rhetorical question, "Where is Taki?" [32]

[26] The Post-Graffiti exhibition, instead, inserted writing into the trajectory of Western art history. [33] Tacitly making the claim that graffiti, by gracing more lasting surfaces, could be elevated into the realm of fine art, Sidney Janis stated affirmatively in the catalogue, "Today [the graffiti artist's] painting, no longer transitory or ephemeral, joins the tradition of contemporary art and is recognized as an existing valid movement." [34] He makes explicit what the context of his gallery space made implicit: that graffiti art was now recognized, validated, and joining in the prestige of the art world—as long as it was executed on canvas, rather than the surfaces of subway trains.

[27] Reviews of Post-Graffiti were many and mixed. Grace Glueck in the New York Times dismissed graffiti writing as a "scourge" and the works in the show as "eyesores," [35] while Kate Linker in Artforum confessed to "finding graffiti less an urban blight than a city bliss;" [36] yet nearly every reviewer agreed that something was lost in the transition from the context of the city streets and subways to the white box on 57th Street. Linker puts it this way: "What had had raw vitality, a rugged vibrancy in its native locale, acquired a forced immediacy and studied nonchalance." [37] Glueck puts it even more bluntly: "The very idea of enshrining graffiti—an art of the streets impulsive and spontaneous by nature—in the traditional, time-honored medium of canvas, is ridiculous." [38]

[28] The writers themselves expressed some of the same sentiments, denying the equivalence between works sprayed on a subway train and the same work sprayed on canvas. These distinctions of context, purpose, and valid questions of authenticity, however, didn't seem to trouble the curators or collectors who were invested in generating a demand for graffiti art canvases. Yet, while exhibitions of the newly dubbed post-graffiti art movement continued to proliferate following the Sidney Janis exhibition, the mystique wore off for the critics and their reviews became fewer and even less favorable. The Sidney Janis show meant to introduce graffiti to the blue chip, high art world, to insert it into contemporary art history, packaging it for museum acquisitions, yet the Post-Graffiti exhibition seemed to mark the end of the road for graffiti art on canvas.

"People might say graffiti looks really out of place in a gallery. But I think it's good if graffiti is out of place. Sneaking into these places is just what graffiti is supposed to do."—Zephyr [39]

[29] Since the day Hugo Martinez first ventured to bring graffiti into the gallery, graffiti art has been defined by outside mediators with varying agendas. These mediators affected the public view of graffiti as well as writing culture itself. Whether by curating shows, writing articles and catalogue essays, selling graffiti art canvases, or by organizing symposia and demonstrations of graffiti, these mediators participated in the packaging of graffiti art. [40] By this token, graffiti writers often had very little say in the packaging of their own art form.

[30] In the midst of the New Wave/East Village art scene expansion, the cool cross-cultural commingling of the early 80s served to marginalize graffiti writing's unique origins and aesthetic criteria as it was subsumed into the New Wave. When writers made the transition from subway to canvas, their works entered the gallery system not as a completely unique approach to making art, but simply as another style of painting. Instead of the art world learning to appreciate writing on its own terms, the writers' canvases were thrust into a dialogue with the history of art, especially the fraught history of painting, the nuances of which writers had trouble navigating. Their naiveté (and their dealers' attempts at contextualizing graffiti art within art history) was rarely tolerated by critics. Futura 2000 asserts, "The thing about graffiti, before we forced our way into the art-world or however we got into it, was that there was already our own art-world. We had our own rules." [41] Inserting graffiti into the gallery caused a collision of two quite different art worlds. While the dealers, curators, and critics struggled to contextualize writing to fit the conventions of contemporary art traditions, the writers' own aesthetic standards and rules by which they judged their own work went disregarded and diminished.

[31] With the first appearance of graffiti art in a gallery context, negative comparisons were continually drawn between the canvas works and the artists' subway paintings, not only in terms of aesthetics, but especially in terms of what constituted the "authentic." The art world vacillated between celebrating the "raw," "primitive," and "spontaneous" graffiti writers and expressing anxiety over the authenticity of the galleried graffiti product. Rene Ricard brought up the obvious—"It is impracticable to enter a gallery carting the F train" [42]—but critics rarely addressed the real issues and logistics of the subway paintings. Critic Arthur Danto imagined a wing of the Metropolitan Museum devoted to preserving subway paintings, but by the time he wrote this the subway murals were being destroyed by the MTA's Clean Car Program at an astonishing rate. [43] Predicted for years, the real death of writing on the subways was truly nigh—killed not at the hand of cultural cooptation directly, but by the aggressive "graffiti-free" train policy of the MTA. [44]

[32] "I've had arguments with people over this: was it the MTA that defeated it, or was it the Graffiti writers that were defeated because they lost interest and their objectives were different?" wrote Zephyr in 1992. No clear consensus, however, can be found in the opinions of the writers, still. In 2000, Futura wrote:

The oldest argument in the book is still a good topic for debate. There's no question of the difference between the two. "Bombing" and "getting paid." Both provide a release of certain pressures, yet mix like oil and water in the minds of so-called "true writers." This is a myth. Don't you think, that in the future, beyond the horizon of your thinking, you might mature and want to achieve something greater? From a purist point of view, the raw work done in public spaces is still the most powerful element to date, everything else is inspired by that energy and taken to various levels. [45]
"You have been led to believe that a culture that has been adopted by the youth of the world in gross proportion, and continues to grow, is a dead issue due to its rejection by those unable to stabilize its marketability."Phase 2

[33] Since the 1980s, the New York-style graffiti writing has spread worldwide, taken up by youths who were inspired not by exhibitions of graffiti art canvases, but by books like Subway Art and movies like Style Wars. The practice of writing is remarkably resilient. It can't be destroyed by stamping it out with aggressive anti-vandalism enforcement or by insidiously and tactically recuperating it as art (I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari's analogy of the animal rhizome of a line of ants "that can rebound time and again after most of it has been destroyed" [46]). The critics predicted (as early as 1973!) that the "gallery-ization of graffiti" would be its downfall; that it would be destroyed by commercialization; that it would go the way of all fads; that it would lose its subversive nature when co-opted by the hegemony. Yet writing could never be fully absorbed by the media or by the art world—the sheer number of writers could never all have their energies "rechanneled" onto legitimate surfaces and into legitimate venues; the art market couldn't support the influx. And writing was never dependent on the art world for legitimation—it was (and is) its own self-contained art world. [47]

[34] Graffiti art canvases of the 70s and 80s never ascended into the reaches of high art as some had predicted. There is no "Graffiti Art" wing at MoMA; there are no subway cars at the Met. This episode of art's recent history proves how little the traditional art world can actually assimilate outside of its own strictures. If we are to speak of graffiti as art, it must be approached on its own terms, with its own critical vocabulary, within its own particular context, rather than trying to arrest it and scrutinize it within the confines of the white box of the gallery or museum. [48]

[35] The label of "graffiti art" is more about rhetoric than art. Just as the label "graffiti vandalism" serves to excite fear and rage in the populace, "graffiti art" was a vehicle for pushing the boundaries within the art world, whether it was about the reintroduction of painting in the era of post-minimalism and post-conceptualism; ideologies of multi-culturalism, pluralism, populism and accessibility in art; issues of the subcultural, the marginal, the primitive, and the authentic; the resurgence of pop sensibilities; or just the making of a quick buck. Now we see interest in street art resurfacing in conversation with issues of the ephemeral and the performative, public space and interventionist tactics, pranksterism and new media, etc. Yet no matter how many times writing is recuperated as art it will still exist in its illegal form on the street, and no doubt raise ire from your neighbors.

Works Cited

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Becker, Howard. Art Worlds. 25th Anniversary ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

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Deitch, Jeffrey, Roger Gastman, and Aaron Rose. "The Birth of Wildstyle." In Art in the Streets, 43–61. New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2011.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus : Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

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Gastman, Roger, and Caleb Neelon. The History of American Graffiti. New York: Harper Design, 2010.

Glueck, Grace. "On Canvas, Yes, But Still Eyesores." New York Times, December 25, 1983, sec. B.

Hoekstra, Froukje. Coming from the Subway: New York Graffiti Art: Geschichte Und Entwicklung Einer Außergewöhnlichen Bewegung. German ed. Erlangen: Karl Müller Verlag, 1992.

"International Graffiti Times", March 1984.

Janis, Sidney, and Dolores Neumann. Post-Graffiti. Exh. Cat. New York: Sidney Janis Gallery, 1983.

Linker, Kate. "'Post-Graffiti'." Artforum, March 1984.

Miller, Ivor L. Aerosol Kingom: Subway Painters of New York City. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.

Moseley, Bill. "Graffiti." Omni, February 1982.

Pearlman, Alison. Unpackaging the Art of the 1980s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Ricard, Rene. "The Radiant Child." Artforum, December 1981.

Shirey, David L. "Semi-Retired Graffiti Scrawlers Paint Mural at C.C.N.Y. 133." New York Times, December 8, 1972.

Small, Michael. "When Graffiti Paintings Sell for Thousands, the Art World Sees the Writing on the Wall." People, August 22, 1983. «http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20085742,00.html».

Smith, Howard. "Outlaw Art Mart." Village Voice, November 4, 1981.

Stampa Alternativa. Style: Writing from the Underground: (re)evolutions of Aerosol Linguistics. Viterbo: Stampa Alternativa, Nuovi equilibri, 1996.

Stewart, Jack. Graffiti Kings: New York City Mass Transit Art of the 1970s. New York: Melcher Media/Abrams, 2009.

"'Taki 183' Spawns Pen Pals." New York Times, July 21, 1971.

United Graffiti Artists. United Graffiti Artists 1975. Exh. Cat. New York: United Graffiti Writers, 1975.

Waclawek, Anna. Graffiti and Street Art. World of Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 2011.


[1] *A note on the quotations: Unless otherwise noted, the statements made by the artists have been drawn from "Art from a Spraycan," the original English-language manuscript for the 1992 exhibition catalogue for a survey of graffiti art canvases at the Groninger Museum, Coming from the Subway – New York Graffiti Art, found in the Martin Wong Papers at NYU's Fales Library. The catalogue was printed in Dutch, German, and French, but never English (demonstrating how little interest American audiences have for canvassed graffiti art); I have used the original manuscript rather than translate quotations myself from the German version (Froukje Hoekstra, Coming from the Subway: New York Graffiti Art: Geschichte Und Entwicklung Einer Außergewöhnlichen Bewegung, German ed. (Erlangen: Karl Müller Verlag, 1992).)

[2] Jack Stewart, "Subway Graffiti: An Aesthetic Study of Graffiti on the Subway System of New York City, 1970-1978" (Ph.D. Dissertation, New York University, 1989). Stewart's dissertation offers an excellent overview of the forms of graffiti, from historical examples to graffiti found in different cultures, finding that the graffiti that appeared in Philadelphia and New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s constituted a wholesale departure in appearance and content than graffiti prior to 1970. It is true that many artists have been inspired by graffiti, among them Brassaï and Jean Dubuffet, yet the era of subway graffiti marks the first time that the graffitists themselves are regarded and treated as artists.

[3] The development of New York-style subway painting is well documented. See especially, Jack Stewart, Graffiti Kings: New York City Mass Transit Art of the 1970s (New York: Melcher Media/Abrams, 2009); Gastman and Neelon, The History of American Graffiti (New York: Harper Design, 2010); Stampa Alternativa, Style: Writing from the Underground: (re)evolutions of Aerosol Linguistics (Viterbo: Stampa Alternativa/Nuovi Equilibri, 1996); Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, Subway Art (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1984). Philadelphia and New York graffiti styles occurred almost simultaneously (Philadelphia a few years earlier) and developed independently of each other. Philadelphia graffiti writers, however, received neither the media attention, nor the renown of the New York writers. See Gastman and Neelon, The History of American Graffiti, 48–53.

[4] Stampa Alternativa, Style: Writing from the Underground, 7. I acknowledge that many graffiti writers, especially those who came of age after the mid-70s, have no problem with the term "graffiti." Since we are concerned here, however, with origins, I use the original term "writing" and "writers," to distinguish the specific style and culture of New York subway painting from the term "graffiti art," which refers to the mediated conception of said style and culture, and served as an umbrella term covering not only subway painting, but also various other types of street art and "graffiti-style" canvas paintings.

[5] Very rarely did political messages appear in the context of New York subway graffiti. A few writers, however, did engage in political graffiti on the subway, usually protesting the police or the mayor, such as Spin's DUMP KOCH piece, 1982. One early writer, Mico, often accompanied his subway pieces with political messages, such as FREE PUERTO RICO or HANG NIXON, in the early 1970s.

[6] Gastman and Neelon, The History of American Graffiti, 34–45.

[7] "'Taki 183' Spawns Pen Pals," New York Times, July 21, 1971, 37.

[8] Jean Baudrillard, "Kool Killer, or the Insurrection of Signs," in Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London: Sage Publications, 1993), 72–86.

[9] Ibid., 80.

[10] Ibid., 79. He refers specifically to the new name-based graffiti movement taking over the city—writing—drawing a clear distinction between this graffiti of names and neighborhood murals and other forms of graffiti.

[11] Ibid., 83.

[12] Hal Foster, "Between Modernism and the Media," in Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1985), 51.

[13] Though there exists many points of crossover between hip-hop music and writing, the two are not as inextricably linked as they are portrayed to have been in the media and in popular culture. Many early writers dispute the association of writing with breakdancing and rap. Crash asserts: "The relationship between these forms is that the general public first noticed them at the same time." [Ivor L. Miller, Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2002) 163.]

[14]  Rene Ricard, "The Radiant Child," Artforum 20, no. 4 (December 1981): 35.

[15] Ibid., 41.

[16] Ibid., 41.

[17] Haring studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Basquiat never had any formal arts training, but he frequented art museums as a child, studied art history voraciously as a young man, and though never enrolled, he often hung out at art schools.

[18] Ricard, "The Radiant Child," 41.

[19] David L. Shirey, "Semi-Retired Graffiti Scrawlers Paint Mural at C.C.N.Y. 133," New York Times, December 8, 1972, 49.

[20] Hugo Martinez, "A Brief Background of Graffiti," in United Graffiti Artists 1975 (New York: United Graffiti Writers, 1975), n.p. Exhibition catalogue.

[21] Though the first tenet of admission to the UGA was the renouncement of illegal graffiti writing, only a couple of UGA members had actually quit writing on trains, while the others continued or even increased their illegal work, often signing their subway pieces with "UGA." Within the writing culture, the UGA members were considered masters, not because of their recognition in the galleries, but because of their continuing work on the subways, though the coverage of their exhibitions in the media certainly enhanced their reputations.

[22] Shirey, "Semi-retired Graffiti Scrawlers," 49.

[23] Lawrence Alloway, "Art," Nation, September 27, 1975, 286.

[24] Gastman and Neelon, The History of American Graffiti, 73.

[25] "Interviews: Phase, Amrl, Coco, WG, TB, Stan, Vinnie, Livi, Sahara," in International Graffiti Times 2, March 1984, n.p.

[26] See Austin, Taking the Train, 227-249. It should be noted that pieces rarely appeared on walls prior to Lee's handball courts, as the subway was writing's primary locus of competition and display. Since the MTA implemented its aggressive plan to rid the subway trains of graffiti in New York in the late 80s the city saw more graffiti executed on the walls.

[27] Lee in "The Birth of Wild Style," in Jeffrey Deitch, Roger Gastman, and Aaron Rose, Art in the Streets (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2011), 47.

[28] Astor in "The Birth of Wild Style," 61.

[29] Howard Smith, "Outlaw Art Mart," Village Voice, November 4, 1981, 19.

[30] Bill Moseley, "Graffiti," Omni 4, no. 5 (February 1982): 115.

[31] Duster, interviewed by Tempt One, "DUSTER UA Takes it Back to the Essentials," 24, quoted in Austin, Taking the Train, 194.

[32] Ricard, "The Radiant Child," 35-43.

[33] Around the time of the Sidney Janis show, the original UGA members were making a comeback in the galleries. The revisionist-minded exhibitions likely arose from the fact that early UGA writers like Coco 144 and Phase 2 had become more vocal about the loss, or at least the glossing over, of writing's history. Coco 144 and Phase 2 had also become involved with the new writers' zine, the International Graffiti Times, which provided a much-needed alternative perspective into the world of writing, a perspective opposed to that of the mainstream media's.

[34] Sidney Janis and Dolores Neumann, Post-Graffiti (New York: Sidney Janis Gallery, 1983), n.p. Exhibition catalogue.

[35] Grace Glueck, "On Canvas, Yes, But Still Eyesores," New York Times, December 25, 1983, B22.

[36] Kate Linker, "'Post-Graffiti'," Artforum 22, no. 7 (March 1984): 92.

[37] Ibid., 92.

[38] Glueck, "On Canvas, Yes, But Still Eyesores," 22. The idea of writing being a wholly impulsive, spontaneous art is also somewhat of a misconception. The largest masterpieces were pre-planned, with sketches and studies providing the models for their large-scale implementation on the trains—hardly a spontaneous gesture.

[39] Michael Small, "When Graffiti Paintings Sell for Thousands, the Art World Sees the Writing on the Wall," People, August 22, 1983, http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20085742,00.html.

[40] Alison Pearlman, Unpackaging the Art of the 1980s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 3. According to Pearlman, packaging is "the mutually reinforcing processes of art achieving prominence in the marketplace and art becoming defined in the media. Packaging requires consensus among influential people about particular art."

[41] Emphasis added.

[42] Ricard, "The Radiant Child," 39.

[43] Arthur C. Danto, "Post-Graffiti Art: Crash and Daze," Nation, January 12, 1985, 26.

[44] See Austin, Taking the Train, 207-226. The entire fleet of subway trains was pronounced "graffiti-free" in 1989.

[45] Futura, Futura (London: Booth-Clibborns Editions Limited, 2000), n.p.

[46] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 9.

[47] This follows from sociologist Howard Becker: "Wherever an art world exists, it defines the boundaries of acceptable art, recognizing those who produce the work it can assimilate as artists entitled to full membership, and denying membership and its benefits to those whose work it cannot assimilate. If we look at things from a commonsense point of view, we can see that such large-scale editorial choices made by the organizations of an art world exclude many people whose work closely resembles work accepted as art. We can see, too, that art worlds frequently incorporate at a later date works they originally rejected, so that the distinction must lie not in the work but in the ability of an art world to accept it and its maker." [Howard Becker, Art Worlds, 25th Anniversary ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 226-227.]

[48] Yet, just as the removal of the subway paintings did not inhibit the growth and dispersal of writing culture, which largely moved to walls and rooftops in lieu of the trains whilst simultaneously spreading throughout the globe, writers and street artists continue to show in galleries. In contemporary exhibitions of graffiti and street art the artists themselves largely take control of the curatorial context—rather than leaving it in the hands of traditional managers, curators, or dealers. And Phase 2, considered one of the more militant purists and a writer who has witnessed the many incarnations of galleried graffiti art, still finds value in gallery shows as "free spaces of intellectual discussion" and a means of educating the public. See Austin, Taking the Train, 255.