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September 21, 2003

Subway outlaws
Posted by Teresa at 12:14 PM *

Subway Outlaws is a rich, complex site about the work and history of NYC’s aerosol graffiti artists. There’s a lot of sadness in it, starting with an RIP page for dead graffiti artists—the term they use is “writers”—that’s an appalling 130 names long.

The lifestyle was hard. Some writers were throwaways or runaways, living wherever they could. Almost all of them were out stealing paint, sneaking into subway yards and tunnels at all hours, and getting into fights with other writers over territory, real and imagined slights, and raids on each others’ paint supplies. They tell wild stories about escape attempts, successful and otherwise, when the police showed up. Although their joy was great when they saw a car they’d painted in use in the subway system, in effect a traveling billboard for their work, there was always a good chance that the cars they’d just gone to so much trouble to paint were going to immediately get hauled into maintenance and buffed straight down to the metal, so that no one would ever see what they did.

(Speaking as a subway rider, I think it would have helped if they hadn’t spraypainted over the windows, and written tags on the subway maps inside the cars. Back then, the MTA’s rolling stock was no prize to start with. You’d have to be a real grump to object to graffiti’s decorative aspect. It was the impaired functionality that was the problem. Okay, that plus the small-scale tags all over everything.)

It all got cleaned up eventually. Some of the guys who did it are still painting, doing murals or working on canvas, but the old wild days have been obliterated. All they have left are their memories and photos. Thus their interest in preserving their own history.

When you read their recollections, two things come through loud and clear: their abiding love for their close friends who shared their adventures and collaborated on their art, and their astonished sense of wonder and desire when they began to understand what they could do with a bunch of spraycans and a blank subway car. It would be beautiful. It would be theirs. And, if they were lucky, everyone in the city would see it.

Just to clarify things: I’m not sorry that it’s no longer possible to cover every available surface in NYC with pointless repetitive tags drawn in heavy magic marker. I am sorry that the city’s full of kids who don’t have better ways to express themselves. But whatever else you want to say about it, the work done by the best of the subway car artists was remarkable.

Comments on Subway outlaws:
#1 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2003, 09:49 PM:

Looking at the seriously elaborated letterforms in some graffiti, the ones that are gone way past casual legibility for me, gives me some of the same aesthetic charge I get from looking at Chinese calligraphy or Japanese kanji.

#2 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2003, 09:55 PM:

Same here. It's nice to find out, years after the fact, what some of them say.

#3 ::: LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2003, 12:32 AM:

Art finds a way.


-l.

#4 ::: Jazz ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2003, 12:33 AM:

You know, an acquaintance of mine went to Pratt Institute. He was one of the most incredible hands with pastel, colored paper, and colored pencil: when he graduated, he got a job somewhere in Sweden, drawing all day for something like $100,000 a year.

He'd learned his technique, not on paper, but as a graffiti artist. When he graduated, I found a portfolio drawer in one of the studios, full of photos of these incredible shapes and colors that came off the brick wall, done with Krylon spraypaint and sometimes some cardboard, to mask a hard edge. I'd had no idea.

Thanks for the site. I'm in awe.

#5 ::: Abe ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2003, 02:51 AM:

Head to any art school nowadays and you'll find a very sizable percentage of the kids where involved in writing graf to some extent. Wouldn't be surprised if its actually a majority. Graf writing is like stage one in becoming a graphic designer in the 21st century...

#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2003, 08:47 AM:

You're welcome, Jazz. Would you by any chance know what happened to that portfolio? The site is actively soliciting photos of old graffiti.

Abe: No kidding? Cool. Another artform grown straight up out of the ground.

Confession: When I see complex multicolored graffiti, it makes me itch to try it. I can see why the desire hit kids so hard that they were stealing spraypaint and sneaking into the rail yards in the middle of the night in order to do it. What I can't imagine is me out on the streets in the middle of the night. I'm just about perfectly wrong for that.

If I'd been running the city, I'd have held auditions, insisted that they mask the windows and identification, and let the writers go to town on the subway cars. It would have looked astounding. It would have shown respect, which was a thing those kids sorely needed. And it would have recognized them as part of the life of the city.

Then I'd have cracked down on random tagging.

#7 ::: Jazz ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2003, 11:31 AM:

Teresa, IIRC a friend collected them into a photo album. It was a drawer full of loose disposable-camera photo prints... the prints vanished after I found them, and I think another tagging friend had collected them.

I need to get back in touch with him anyhow... I'll see if I can get them scanned and submitted.

Abe is exactly right: I knew more taggers and graffiti writers in art school than I'd ever expected to see.

And now I wish you were running the city. I'd love to see the 6 train roll into the station as a huge wall of color and shape. Although part of me wonders whether an "official" project would have attracted the talents that were invested in the underground life.

But I'd dearly love to list "G Train number four, car five" as an exhibit on my resume. Hee.

#8 ::: sennoma ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2003, 04:14 PM:

An older relative of mine, who's about as conservative as they come and whose response to random tags is on the order of "bring back the birch", suprised me all to hell one day as we were sitting in the car waiting for a train to pass. He was actively watching for good graffiti, saying something like "I love these things, someone should buy those kids some canvas". Art finds a way, indeed.

#9 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2003, 12:32 PM:

If I'd been running the city, I'd have held auditions, insisted that they mask the windows and identification, and let the writers go to town on the subway cars. It would have looked astounding. It would have shown respect, which was a thing those kids sorely needed. And it would have recognized them as part of the life of the city.

Then I'd have cracked down on random tagging.

Run for mayor, Teresa.

Seriously, I do enjoy well-done graffiti. As a graphic designer, I think that sort of art really spices up the city, and for the same reason, I despise the casual tagger marking his territory with all the finesse of a street dog urinating on a lightpost.

In San Francisco, I saw some really cool graffiti on the sidewalks--a concept which was later taken by IBM and utilized in tagging form as a guerilla advertising.

http://www.mistersf.com/notorious/index.html?notibm.htm

In Sandy Eggo, they let artists paint the electric boxes and other street fixtures in certain parts of the city.

#10 ::: Sweet Lou ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2003, 05:23 PM:

Yes, some of it can be quite beautiful -- when it's not on your property. I don't see many people making their houses, garages, or businesses available to encourage this art form.

Funny how that works.

#11 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2003, 06:57 PM:

No one suggested making private property available to graffiti artists, Lou, so I don't see your point.

I'll be happy to make my share of public property--generally big ugly slabs of concrete without any thought given toward beauty--available to graffitti.

#12 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 05, 2003, 11:21 PM:

Obvious point, Lou. Got any more?

#13 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 05, 2003, 11:37 PM:

I don't know where Sweet Lou lives, but in NYC it's not at all uncommon for property owners to commission murals from graffiti artists.

#14 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2003, 08:12 AM:

I've seen several much-painted small parking lots in Manhattan -- the kind of lots that occupy the site of a single former building, and are consequently surrounded by walls that were never meant to be seen -- where the size, elaborateness, and placement of the graffiti are a strong indication that the owner invited the artist(s) to work there.

#15 ::: Sweet Lou ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2003, 06:30 PM:

adamsj:

How about your share of the public property at, say Yellowstone Park?

#16 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2003, 06:44 PM:

Hi, Lou,

I didn't realize Yellowstone Park was located in a big city and was made out of ugly concrete. Given that fact, I suppose I would...but I think I'd examine my--or maybe the--premises first.

My most-traveled MARTA route here in Atlanta takes me past some ugly concrete--the occasional graffiti sure cheers me up. I think I see a WPA-style public works project in it.

#17 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2003, 07:44 PM:

I can't add much to adamsj's point. We were talking about subway cars and ugly urban walls. And last time I looked, my blue-sky proposal a while back was about city-sponsored decorative art projects, not road trips halfway across the continent to spraypaint some rocks the artists' intended audience were unlikely to ever see.

Am I missing something? Is there some other reason you object to inner-city graffiti artists?

#18 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2003, 09:05 PM:

Teresa,

Were you in Manhattan in the mid-eighties when the sidewalks all had trails of purple feet leading to Adam Purple's garden? And then the little images of frogs and birds and butterflies? So cool!

Lou,

I understand that graffiti, even beautiful graffiti, sometimes is vandalism. It's not altogether unlike how I feel about beautiful new architecture wrecking beautiful old architecture.

#19 ::: Sweet Lou ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 10:20 AM:

Obvious point, Lou. Got any more?

Why, yes I do. Thank you for asking, Teresa.

1) These guys are farm league at best. A competent commercial artist could out-perform them on their own turf, with their own media, and in their own venue and style.

2) A little goes a long way. Seeing it once or twice on your own terms is different from being immersed in it. Venue can be the difference between a thing of beauty and a public nuisance.

3) The price you pay for the stuff worth looking at is all the stuff that isn't. An easy price to pay in a gallery or a museum. Not so easy when you don't have the option of just walking away from it.

4) It doesn't age well. Five years and the best of it is sad and faded. Not the ideal public work of art.

5) Teresa, I am glad you are not running the city. If the citizens, enraged by graffiti, tarred and feathered you and ran you out of town on a rail, who would keep up your delightful blog?

6) Inside this topic there is a long-winded discussion about public works of art that is just dying to get out.

7) In oppressive societies, graffiti art is significant. In urban America, graffiti is not the result of artistic spirit constrained by oppression, but of artistic spirit unrealized and uncontrolled. It is flabby, lazy, unchallenged art.

8) A delightful 200 hours or so cleaning up their own work, followed by directions to a local art supply store, would do society, art, and the individuals themselves a world of good.

#20 ::: Sweet Lou ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 10:55 AM:

Is there some other reason you object to inner-city graffiti artists?

Yes, there is -- The same reason you might object to someone taking it upon themselves to populate those same spaces with giant "Precious Moments" murals and statuary.

Much as you are unable to fully appreciate the sublime genius that is "Precious Moments", I lack the taste necessary to enthusiastically embrace graffiti art. I suspect that there are many that share this deficiency.

Do I make my point?

#21 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 11:10 AM:

I take it that means you're not going to explain why you're being so snippy about it?

Whatever the reason, I hope you feel better soon.

#22 ::: Sweet Lou ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 11:57 AM:

Oh, dear. I guess I didn't make my point.

Reason for "snippiness" (I was trying for wry, but eye of the beholder and all that, I suppose): Overfed artistes channeling Frasier Crane and swooning over an "art" form which, aside from being vandalism, is, quite honestly, crap.

Really...you practically beg me to comment, then say I'm snippy. Not fair, darling.

#23 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 12:23 PM:

Er. Is "Sweet Lou" the pseudonym of someone I know better than I've been assuming I do? If so, I shall of course be embarrassed.

#24 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 01:08 PM:

Is there some other reason you object to inner-city graffiti artists?

Yes, there is -- The same reason you might object to someone taking it upon themselves to populate those same spaces with giant "Precious Moments" murals and statuary.

Much as you are unable to fully appreciate the sublime genius that is "Precious Moments", I lack the taste necessary to enthusiastically embrace graffiti art. I suspect that there are many that share this deficiency.

Do I make my point?

You have 96 if your point is that graffiti art, as art, simply isn't to your personal taste.

And I have to say that there is so much public art 96 so much public esthetic display 96 that is not to my taste that I have little sympathy for your position. Ugly architecture, repellently designed billboard and poster advertisements, automobile design obviously intended to convey arrogance and contempt, clueless gardening of front yards, insipid Muzak, etc., etc., etc.

Even if I agreed with you about the esthetic value of graffiti art (I don't), it would be a small drop in the bucket of esthetic assault that I undergo when I walk out my front door.

So tell us: why is graffiti art to be particularly condemmed in preference to (say) billboard advertising?

#25 ::: Sweet Lou ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 02:10 PM:

Alan,

If I wanted to be snippy, I would point out that comparing graffiti to billboard advertising is weak support, indeed.

But that would be cheap and dishonest.

Truthfully, I believe billboard advertising to be generally much better than graffiti. I will go so far as to state the worst in billboard advertising, Muzak, architecture, and automobile design, and gardening --awful though that may be -- is far above all but the very best (top 0.01%) of graffiti.

An independent, and more important, issue is that of scope. While all the things you mentioned do intrude into public space, their scope is limited. No one is going to apply their front lawn landscaping vision to Central Park. But no such constraint exists for graffiti.

This is a common issue with much that falls under the catagory of "outsider art", and one which is in itself a fascinating topic for discussion.

#26 ::: Sweet Lou ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 02:26 PM:

Alan,

I would find arguments in favor of graffiti's artistic appeal more convincing if they included postings referring the commenter's private collection of graffiti.

Graffiti is a form which translates well into the more traditional venues -- that is, one could easily acquire graffiti canvases. Nor would it be difficult to commission graffiti on the walls of your home, or on your own car.

Thus, my scepticism. If graffiti is so desireable, why don't more people purchase it for their personal enjoyment?

#27 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 02:43 PM:

Mmmm. I don't think that "...the worst in billboard advertising, Muzak, architecture, and automobile design, and gardening --awful though that may be -- is far above all but the very best (top 0.01%) of graffiti" counts as anything but an assertion. You've repeated the same argument Alan identified: that graffiti isn't to your taste. If so, it's an inarguable statement; but it's also inarguably a limited one. Meanwhile, you continue to argue as though the only alternative were stupid indiscriminate tagging, ignoring the fact that no one here has ever spoken in favor of that. And while I'm uncomfortable with the concept of outsider art as a class, I'm nevertheless fond of some kinds of art that get stuck with that label. However, aside from graffiti, very little of what gets dubbed outsider art is created in other people's spaces; so I'm not even sure what you're talking about there.

But that's all structure. Consider content. If what you're making is purely an aesthetic judgement, it's an oddly specific one. Do you also dislike the work of Kandinsky, Boccioni, Demuth, Ensor, Max, Johns, Chagall, Rothko, or Klee? You don't have to dislike all of them, but if you honestly dislike spraypaint graffiti all that much, it seems to me that you ought to dislike a few of them as well.

Finally, I think -- and everyone here may of course correct me on this if I'm wrong -- that one of the questions you're being asked here is whether your primary objection is to the artists, rather than the art.

#28 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 03:23 PM:

Whoops, we cross-posted.

Lou, you've shifted the grounds of the argument again without answering any of the earlier responses. If what you want is to get the last word, I'm sure we can collectively agree to award it to you.

Does anyone object?

#29 ::: Sweet Lou ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 04:18 PM:

Not looking for the last word -- it is just that there are a lot of arguments I am trying to field, and I'm the only one playing on this side.

So I will be happy to answer other arguments if you please...Otherwise, I believe, I have given my views.

And one final answer...I do not believe you know me other than as a humble fan of your blog.

#30 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 06:31 PM:

Lou, some of those competent commercial artists got their start as graffiti artists; I went to school with some of them.

And some people do own graffiti art; ever heard of Keith Haring? (Whose work isn't to my taste, BTW, but I don't like it any better just because someone decided to pay him for it.)

#31 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2003, 01:06 AM:

Okay. I had a sudden alarmed apprehension, and had to ask.

#32 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2003, 08:14 AM:

I wouldn't mind having some graffiti in my house--but where would I put the damn subway car? Seriously, if I owned a house made of concrete, I'd give serious thought to it.

#33 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 07:59 PM:

Two more bits of evidence in the argument over whether graffiti is art:

1) The work of Craig Anthony Miller (currently, at least as of yesterday, on display at Java & Jazz on Broadway between 17th and 18th Streets, but the place is closing on Sunday) is real art, on canvas and everything, just like Lou recommends, but it's also very clearly graffiti-inspired. I'm pretty darn sure this guy ran around with spraypaint cans and markers dodging cops when he was younger.

2) This month's episode of Copper, by Kazu Kibuishi.

#34 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2003, 10:56 AM:

Guardian Unlimited | Arts news | Graffiti artist cuts out middle man to get his work hanging in the Tate

Quote: "Banksy said he believed the picture was 'genuinely good'. He found the unsigned oil painting in a street market and transformed it by sticking blue and white tape on to it.

" 'I'm kinda into the message that vandalising a painting with police tape is how a lot of people see the world these days. People don't actually see the world with Constable's eyes with hay and rivers any more.' "

#35 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2003, 11:14 AM:

"People don't actually see the world with Constable's eyes with hay and rivers any more."

Well, that's certainly prime art-world nonsense. In fact, haystacks, rivers, and other rural and wild scenes still exist, are still capable of being beautiful, and someone somewhere is being struck by that beauty every hour of every day.

#36 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2003, 11:34 AM:

And I just spent a weekend at the Oregon coast where most evenings looked like Turner or possibly Constable paintings -- sun setting into mist that diffused the west into brightness with waves breaking at four or five different points, the farthest almost impossible to separate from the mist but occasionally there....

Cheers,
Tom

#37 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2003, 11:36 AM:

You don't think artists teach us how to see and appreciate the world? Not that we aren't capable of doing it on our own, but that they help, and that sometimes they shape, occasionally decisively?

I'm thinking not of Constable--I've never seen any in person, and I hesitate to make judgements without having done so--but perhaps of Turner, and certainly of O'Keefe and Adams.

#38 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2003, 11:47 AM:

Of course they teach us to see the world; and once they've trained me, I use them as shorthand to help others see the kind of things I'm seeing. Parrish is another, and van Gogh, and Duchamp -- heck, the guy who put together The Unknown Museum in Marin County always had me looking at the world differently when I left (just one of the odd bits there: a terrarium with many crucifixes in it marked "Souvenirs of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ"). That I use them as shorthand is evidence that they helped me see things differently. I'm assuming your Adams is Ansel -- have you looked, for a different level of photography, at Jock Sturgis? There are a lot of photographers who keep changing my view of the world.

Cheers,
Tom

#39 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2003, 11:53 AM:

My point was just that: people see the world with Constable's eyes all the time. And the eyes of thousands of other artists, from thousands of years ago and from last week. Contrary to the dopey fashion-mongering claim of the artist being quoted.

#40 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2003, 11:58 AM:

I think he's saying "we read our fears into the landscapes we see," but he hasn't considered that Constable and Turner, and their contemporary audience, will have read their own emotions into paintings. We may not know what those emotions were, but I take it as an article of faith that they did so.

People who look at art are as spectacularly self-centered as readers. The experience is primarily about them. What's remarkable is that it's ever about anything else.

#41 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2003, 04:21 PM:

Speaking of self-centered:

I grew up in western Oklahoma, where the wheat fields give way to the semi-arid country. So far as I can remember, I always found those red clay plateaus out where we fished beautiful.

In years of going to the fields with my father as he sold Gleaner combines, I never heard anyone express pleasure in the beauty of the fields, nor do I remember ever thinking it myself.

We lived in town, with a wheat field bordering our back yard--my dad negotiated a piece of it for our garden. When the wind was blowing away from us, I found the oil refinery a quarter-mile past it the most beautiful thing in sight. SF fan from an early age, right--I didn't need Oil Field Girls to teach me that.

(It did give me a greater appreciation of the crowd at Charlie's Bar-B-Que, though.)

If there's ever been a Constable of the wheat fields, I don't know his or her work. (The best I can come up with is in songs, "America the Beautiful" and "Oklahoma".)

Do farmers see their haystacks and fields as beautiful (esthetically, not economically--I always understood a post-hailstorm wheat field to be ugly as hell) rather than back-breaking?

It took me a long time to learn to see a garden as beautiful. I never liked gardening.

P.S. What I really admire about the guy who stuck up the painting is his chutzpah.

#42 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2003, 05:07 PM:

His _chutzpah_ is impressive, no doubt. His justification of it -- not so. Though it is leading to an interesting discussion here.

Art, like jokes, to some extent exists through surprise -- there's a shock-of-recognition that moves me from my old worldview to a new one. In the 20th century, with "Modern art" (surrealism, abstract expressionism, and the like) the surprise begins to move away from what is pictured to the way it is pictured. This leads some (like the artist you reference, I would guess) to the idea that "Art is what you can get away with", a statement that contains some truth but is very liable to misinterpretation.

Art opens my eyes to things I hadn't noticed. I'm willing to accept the idea that others' eyes are opened by different pieces. Fatuous declarations of how things have changed leave me cold.

I've never taken a formal art appreciation class, but I've spent a lot of my life paying attention to art (even before I found out that my father's mother was an important print dealer in Hingham MA in the early-to-mid 20th century). I actually like going to museums and seeing what they think is important (sometimes, I even agree).

I strongly recommend, if you're interested in how Art is defined, Howard S. Becker's book ART WORLDS. Becker is one of the few sociologists who writes easy-to-read and profoundly interesting books.

Cheers,
Tom

#43 ::: TRIKE1GND ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2003, 10:49 AM:

Graffiti, talk all about it, disect it, try to analyze it, theorize it ... If you werent there in its heyday, then you'll never understand it!
TRIKE1. GRAFITI NEVER DIES CREW EST.1971

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