<body> Public Ad Campaign: A Sociologist’s Look at Graffiti
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Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Sociologist’s Look at Graffiti

Ill read this book and get back to you on it, but until then I like this quote the NY Times got in an interview with the author.

“I’m not trying to make an argument that graffiti is art and not vandalism,” Professor Snyder said in a phone interview. “I hope I’ve made it clear that it’s both.”

By linking the two words art and vandalism through graffiti, the meaning of vandalism is transformed. Vandalism can no longer only be considered wanton destruction and must now be viewed in regards to what its artistic and activist intentions might be. This bodes well for all those moments of civil disobedience we have been tracking lately through this site and should be considered when arguing what we are doing here is merely destroying private property.

VIA The New York Times

By Sewell Chan

EspolandEspo/Stephen J. Powers The graffiti writer Espo created a satirical advertisement about quality-of-life crimes at Bedford Avenue and South Fifth Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1996.

Gregory J. Snyder, a Baruch College sociologist, spent years hanging out with graffiti writers, earning their trust and conducting scores of interviews.

The new book based on his studies, “Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground,” reveals that he became more than an observer in that decade and a half: On very few occasions he wrote graffiti himself, scrawling his tag perhaps seven times.

Graffiti writers, the book argues, cannot be understood merely as practitioners of vandalism and social disorder, but also as members of a diverse subculture who, in many cases, have used their experiences to build legitimate careers.

It was as a graduate student at the New School that Professor Snyder built relationships with graffiti writers, carrying around a hardbound sketchbook. At the bottom of each page he wrote a word, which he then asked graffiti writers to represent visually in the space above.

Professor Snyder, 40, argues that while graffiti culture emerged around the same time as hip-hop, in the early 1970s, graffiti in fact comes from a variety of cultural sources:

Whatever their class, race, ethnicity, religion, or age, writers define themselves not by what they look like, or what language they speak, or what clothes they wear, but by what they do. Their identities are as writers first, and as members of ethnic, religious, and other subgroups second.

He adds, “In its purest form, graffiti is a democratic art form that revels in the American Dream.”

The book, just published by New York University Press, argues that graffiti culture has, in some ways, been uniquely democratic. “What is lost sometimes in the cacophony of the debate over whether graffiti is art or vandalism is that when it’s art, it is free art,” he writes. “You don’t need money, or special knowledge, or the right outfit, or a car, or an ID to see it. This is why the graffiti subculture has inspired such a diversity of young people.”

Even so, Professor Snyder notes that graffiti has been associated with crime and disorder ever since the social scientists George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson introduced their “broken windows theory,” which holds that low-level and petty crimes, if not addressed, create an atmosphere conducive to more serious and violent crimes.

While some scholars have questioned the theory’s validity, Professor Snyder acknowledges that it has become highly influential. It was embraced by Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor, and by Raymond W. Kelly, the former and current police commissioner.

“I’m not trying to make an argument that graffiti is art and not vandalism,” Professor Snyder said in a phone interview. “I hope I’ve made it clear that it’s both.”

For many New Yorkers who lived through the period, the word graffiti connotes the giant murals that covered subway cars and stations from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s.

A 1971 article in The New York Times, “‘Taki 183’ Spawns Pen Pals,” took note of the fairly new phenomenon. Mayors John V. Lindsay and Edward I. Koch, among others, made the train graffiti a key target. Graffiti came to be “construed as an urban problem,” a point Joe Austin, a historian at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, made in “Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City” (Columbia University Press, 2001).

Yellow Rat BastardGregory J. Snyder The clothing store Yellow Rat Bastard, in SoHo, has encouraged graffiti taggers to leave their marks.

The era of subway graffiti “officially came to a close in 1989, when city officials began refusing to put painted trains into service,” Professor Snyder writes. But efforts to crack down continue. In 2006, the City Council passed a law banning the sale of graffiti instruments — including aerosol paint and broad-tipped markers — to anyone under 21. The law was later challenged for being too broad.

A provocative map in the book points out that unlike other “quality of life” crimes, graffiti does not tend to be focused in poor neighborhoods with high rates of violent crime. Professor Snyder writes:

Graffiti writers write in order to get fame and respect for their deeds, and therefore they write in places where their work is more likely to be seen by their intended demographic. It is not the amount of disorder that determines a good spot to write graffiti, but the number of potential viewers and the unlikelihood that the graffiti will be painted over. These spots tends to be where young people from all over the city are likely to congregate, and thus the East Village, the Lower East Side, and SoHo are the places where most of the illegal New York City graffiti can be found. These are not poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Indeed, he adds, “Despite all of the negativity associated with graffiti, it remains one of SoHo’s selling points, literally.”

Still, Professor Snyder does not deny that graffiti culture is filled with confrontation. “Beef results in crossing out other writers’ names, going over pieces, lots of stories about violence, and sometimes actual violence,” he writes.

“Contemporary post-subway graffiti,” he writes, takes three forms: the tag, a writer’s signature, rendered in marker or paint; the throw-up (or “fill-in”), usually painted with an outline color and a fill-in color; and the piece (short for masterpiece), a colorful mural.

KezamKezamA “piece,” or large work, of graffiti created with the property owner’s permission, by Kezam, a writer from Australia who lives in Brooklyn and is a graduate student in sociology at Yale.

In contrast to the dangerous environments in graffiti’s beginnings — the old Amtrak tunnel from 72nd to 125th Streets under Riverside Drive, for example — large graffiti works today are often produced legally, in broad daylight, on storefronts or in public parks with the consent of property owners or nonprofit groups.

In another step forward, “Many writers have taken their illegal youthful pursuits and turned them into legal adult careers,” Professor Snyder says.

One of the most fleshed-out characters in the book is Espo, a graffiti writer Professor Snyder met in 1996. As editor and publisher of On the Go magazine, which was dedicated to graffiti culture, Espo produced a satirical billboard in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with a subversive slogan: “Greetings from Espoland, Where the Quality of Life Is Offensive.”

Espo was eventually embraced by property owners who saw his style — with large, neat letters, quite separate from the spray-painted bold colors and complicated letter styles that are more common in graffiti — as a useful ornamentation for their storefronts.

By 1999, Espo had become “an acronym for Exterior Surface Painting Outreach,” a volunteer organization. That year, Espo shed his anonymity, and St. Martin’s Press published his book “The Art of Getting Over: Graffiti at the Millennium,” under his real name, Stephen J. Powers. He also cooperated for a profile published that August in The New York Times.

That did not go over well with the Giuliani administration, however, which had Mr. Powers arrested in December 1999 for his previous illegal graffiti writing. Eventually, he pleaded guilty to two counts of criminal mischief.

Espo was not the only graffiti writer to go legit: Others went to college; started magazines, Web sites and real estate businesses; opened tattoo parlors; and pursued careers in art and marketing.

“These kids refused the meager options presented to them by the larger society, and instead perfected extremely risky cultural pursuits,” Professor Snyder writes. “Their success in this form eventually opened up other opportunities, and today those efforts are paying off, literally.”

8-Day WeekEspo/Stephen J. Powers The graffiti writer Espo revealed his identity, Stephen J. Powers, in 1999 and has become an exhibited artist. His 2007 work, “8-Day Week,” was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

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