First of all, I think I should start out by saying that I had big dreams for this particular post. During my first trip to New York City, when I was 18, I stayed with a guy who was living near Thompkins Square Park, I went to a Butthole Surfers concert, and I walked around marveling at what was on the street–the variety of people, that much noise, so much talk, and tons of graffiti. I had never really experienced street culture before, and I was smitten. Graffiti, in New York, is territorial, and I get that I’ll never understand the tags and what they mean. A lot of graffiti is now totally corporate, selling something I can’t even figure out. But even more of it is just beautiful or weird or messy in a way that I love because it clashes with all of the new condos going up in so many neighborhoods.
I wanted to get some of the beauty and mess down for you in this post, but I learned a thing or two in my hunt to capture some of my favorite New York graffiti. First off, it’s way more temporary than I thought. I mean, I know most graffiti is not here to stay, but some stuff gets painted over in less than a day. Often, when I went back to some little spot with my camera, it was gone. I’m still sad about missing that beautiful orange jellyfish on the black door of a building on Great Jones. I can hear my friend PG Kain yelling at me right now, “Would you just get an I Phone already!?” All, I can say, is, someday, I promise I will, but for now, I’m old school. I have a regular camera, which I often don’t have on my person, and a totally crappy phone. Second, most graffiti, upon closer examination is not as cool as I remembered it to be. That might be because I’m not around the really prime stuff (I think this is VERY likely), but it’s also because the medium is ephemeral, done with great speed, and not meant for lingering.
A couple of things I will not entertain in this post:
1. Banksy. He’s cool and all, but a tad overexposed, don’t you think? Also, I’ve read a lot of essays from my students about Bansky and while many of these essays were illuminating, I’m maxed out. The rat in Soho is cool. Obey, totally. But let’s move on.
2. Questions like: Is graffiti art? I dislike all manner of “Is it Art?” questions. People who ask this question remind me of Andy Rooney. Not good. It’s not a useful, interesting, or productive question. The answer is always, Sure! Maybe! Depends on whose asking! Why not? I’d rather ask, “Does it make me think? Can I stare at it? Is it in a gallery/musuem? Great! Someone else decided it’s art so I don’t have to… Is it weird, challenging, beautiful, boring enough to piss me off, does it implicate me? Ask me to do something? Cause me to participate in some way? Does it make me sick, queasy? Does it turn me on?”
I am also very partial to scratchiti, but my hunt for it proved even harder than my quest for graffiti (thanks to Madeleine and Alex for sharing their scratchiti with me!). I love the random, terrible, sometimes sexist, often pleasingly feminist things I find on bathroom walls. Please send me you favorite scratchiti and I will put it up!
I dedicate this post to the Mars Bar, which recently closed after countless years of serving drunks, underage kids, and pretty much anyone who walked in the door. I remember it as a landscape of scratchiti, a palimpsest of bad, good, crazy writing, a bar that became a notebook. I walk by the site most mornings on my way to teach, and it’s now totally demolished. It feels like a great loss to me, a final shifting away from the East Village I first saw when I was 18.
Now on to my photo gallery of graffiti. This is not exhaustive and it mostly follows my random walking paths which tend to place me around NYU (where I teach), in Windsor Terrace (where I live), and in Williamsburg (where I go out).