Writing on the Wall
A new academic book on graffiti offers a far too uncritical look at the art form.
To many New Yorkers in their twenties, the word graffiti is one that evokes nostalgia more than any other emotion. So, being one such New Yorker, hip-hop fan, and—let’s hope the NYPD vandal squad doesn’t read Campus Progress—a former dabbler in graffiti writing, it was with great interest that I picked up Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground by Gregory Snyder, a sociologist and anthropologist at Baruch College in New York City.
Snyder’s thesis is that New York graffiti remains a constantly growing and improving art form and subculture. This is an underwhelming argument upon which to hang an entire book. Snyder writes in an essentially reportorial, albeit heavy on the first-person, narrative tone. The book is mostly a primer on graffiti with a little social science thrown in. In the end, Graffiti Lives ranks far below graffiti staples like Henry Chalfant’s Subway Art and Spraycan Art. With its flawed social science, dated anecdotes, and refusal to delve into where graffiti stands today, Snyder’s argument is nothing more than a fan’s panting praise of the art.
Snyder’s social science theories about graffiti are mostly obvious statements to anyone familiar with even the vaguest contours of graffiti culture. For instance, Snyder devotes a chapter to supporting his "suggestion" that "Graffiti writers can create a career path out of their subculture experiences." This has been old news since the breakthrough, circa 1980, of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was tagging the outside of buildings in SoHo before his paintings were mounted on their interiors.
For a fan of graffiti, Snyder came to it relatively late in life, discovering it as a young adult living in New York City in the 1990s. (Most graffiti writers and fans start around the age of fourteen.) He relates the details of his first encounters with graffiti artists, whom he approaches with the trepidation and excitement of a colonial explorer discovering an aboriginal tribe, in painstaking detail. Here’s a representative sample:
On a rainy November afternoon in Midtown Manhattan, Tim walked up to me at the Donnell Library, took off his headphones and shook my hand. In that handshake I felt a confidence I hadn’t yet known, and when our eyes met I saw my friend in a whole new light. The person I knew before as Tim had changed into VERT, the graffiti writer. At that moment I also changed, from a man whose identity as a graduate student was grounded in independence and knowledge to an ignorant neophyte stepping into a strange, new world.
Snyder’s buoyant take on graffiti’s vibrancy is perhaps just a subset of the book’s overall flaw; it is completely uncritical. Not only does Snyder proclaim its health as art, but he is a total defender of graffiti as social force. Snyder engages with some criticisms of graffiti, but he shows no willingness to concede any of their merit.
In fact, even some graffiti writers will acknowledge that graffiti is a corrosive social force in many ways. It does, after all, involve the vandalizing of someone else’s property, be it public or private. If you write graffiti, someone is going to have to clean up after your mess. That’s why, as one of them named PSOUP tells Snyder, “Writers talk all the time that they won’t write graffiti on churches, on private property, on people’s houses.”
Snyder, because he admires graffiti’s visual qualities and rejects its alleged harmful influence on society, would presumably argue that no one needs to clean it up anyway. But Snyder does not even acknowledge that some people may simply not share his pleasure in seeing teenagers’ nicknames in bright colors and funky letters and may not want them on the side of their van or store.
Many criminologists believe that a community filled with graffiti experiences a sense of social disorder that encourages criminal behavior. This is known as the “Broken Windows” theory. Snyder addresses this criminological argument but dispatches it with too much haste. Snyder’s only evidence is that one wealthy neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, SoHo, has more graffiti and less violent crime than Prospect Heights, a more diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn. Case closed, Snyder declares; there is no link between the prevalence of graffiti and serious crime.
Snyder doesn’t even pause to consider the possibility that SoHo is an exception and not the rule. The neighborhood’s unique status as a former artist enclave of such wealth and pedestrian vitality makes it uniquely suited to having both a lot of graffiti and very little crime. SoHo is perfectly positioned to be an exception to Broken Windows theory.
Snyder isn’t making an apples-to-apples comparison. He could have looked at the crime rates in two neighborhoods with comparable demographics but differing levels of graffiti, or two different cities with identical demographics, or the subway system before and after graffiti was removed to more accurately compare crime. The discussion of whether graffiti does, in fact, help perpetuate a culture of more serious crime is one to which a social scientist studying graffiti could make a real contribution. But Snyder makes no effort to find anything other than the evidence he wants.
Snyder does a much better job on the straightforward description of graffiti culture. Graffiti is, of course, related to other aspects of hip-hop culture. In the 1970s and ‘80s New York City saw the development of graffiti alongside break-dancing, MCing (better known these days as "rapping"), and DJing. Like graffiti, students of their history will tell you that all these elements are generally on the wane. Break dancing may continue to exist in the popular consciousness as a cute, dated practice, DJing has been largely supplanted by "producing" in mainstream hip-hop, and while there may be more self-described rappers than ever, many long-time hip-hop fans will tell you that the heyday of great rhyming is over.
Graffiti predates the emergence of hip-hop, having first been found in Philadelphia in the late 1960s. Or perhaps, as KRS-ONE argues in “Out for Fame,” the greatest song ever written about graffiti, it was invented by the ancient Egyptians, “Writing on the walls mixing characters with letters, to tell the graphic story about their life.”
Graffiti Lives could have addressed graffiti’s current vitality by engaging with the naysayers who have been proclaiming its death in 1989, when the Metropolitan Transit Authority announced the last graffiti-covered subway car was running, or Rudy Giuliani’s 1990s war on “quality of life crimes.” But a factor that complicates Snyder’s assessment is that he did much of his research prior to 2000, so his photos and anecdotes are dated. REVS and AMAZE were, indeed, doing great work in the late 1990s. But researching graffiti giants from the ‘90s doesn’t tell you much about graffiti’s status today. Snyder’s discussion of graffiti magazines devotes much space to discussing defunct print publications, and less than a page to the Internet.
But, as Snyder recounts, graffiti was always a bit distinct from the rest of hip-hop culture. Although it was embraced, developed, and disseminated primarily by young people of color in New York City in the 1970s, in conjunction with hip-hop, not all graffiti writers are, or ever were, non-white or hip-hop fans. Punk rock kids wrote graffiti. Latinos and whites were among the most important graffiti writers back in the 1980s. Writers are judged solely by where they get ups and the quality of their work. As Snyder writes, “white kids writing graffiti should not be construed as an act of cultural thievery or imitation; it is not the same as white kids playing the blues or rapping.”
Most writers start when they are teenagers and for them it is usually part of their immersion in a youth subculture. Snyder sees graffiti instead so much on its own terms that he sometimes misses the proper context. For instance he refers to “a graffiti collective, which writers call a ‘crew.’” Crews in New York are often cliques that have plenty of members who do not write graffiti and some that do. You cannot truly understand New York graffiti unless you attempt to understand the whole pastiche of New York’s unique youth cultures. For an academic who had did not know graffiti even existed until he moved to New York, that would have been a tall order, and not necessarily the most valuable application of his academic training.
So rather than attempting that, I wish that Snyder had devoted some space and energy to seriously examining questions he should have tackled: Can graffiti be harnessed as a force for social change? Do political pieces like this one awaken the minds of the disengaged? Did the “No More Prisons” campaign, which dispatched writers with stencils and spray cans to raise awareness of incarceration rates, have any impact? That could be the subject of a fascinating sociological study for a popular audience. The social justice, sociological, and artistic arguments about graffiti remain untouched, or even much embellished by, Graffiti Lives.
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