I watched Style Wars the other day, a documentary about graffiti “writers” in New York City during Ed Koch’s reign as mayor. As I rode the train this afternoon I realized what a stark contrast there was between the reaction to kids’ graffiti on the train and private advertisements. The former is viewed as defacement and vandalism. People in the documentary felt like their tax dollars were being misspent on cleaning up these trains.
Now these trains are shiny and silver and no one is disgusted when the entire train (inside and out) is covered with a pink T-Mobile advertisement. People are not bothered, in fact they’re pleased, when they’re deluged with these “choices” of what aftershave to buy. I’ve certainly bought into this mentality, taking cellphone pictures of rather clean, modernist advertisements. Why are we not as equally outraged? It’s strange to me how people are so willing to surrender to a private company’s will.
What if we had channeled all that money that we used to clean these train cars into giving these youth in the 80s the chance to attend arts programs and further develop their skills? Graffiti has radically evolved since, it’s about much more than a poor kid’s desire to be recognized as someone in a world that generally doesn’t care about him. There was never systematic recognition of what these kids could do otherwise – the government had cursory meetings with them and put up barbed wire and guard dogs around the train yards. That is ridiculous! In Brazil the government has collaborated with graffiti artists and this has resulted in really gorgeous art.
What is most upsetting to me is the privatized, non-consensual appropriation of something that belongs in a delegitimized subculture like this one for profit. Most recently I saw a denim jacket at Urban Outfitters that appropriated the use of the United Farm Workers’ logo, and it was selling for $69. It’s as if you were saying, “alright, you cannot exist except in the context of me making profit from you.” Graffiti today is used to sell so much, we might even be able to see it in one of those train advertisements but within the confines of a rectangle frame, perfectly placed so as not to disturb our “quality of life” (it was and is considered a “quality of life” crime). I look at “defaced” train advertisements today and I see a rather interesting design conversation. Whether it be a simple mustache on a rom-com poster or a very subversive political statement, there is a conversation there that we need to acknowledge and nurture, not put barbed wire around it.