City Lit: Trained Out

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I can still hear former MTA commissioner Dick Ravitch’s voice when he opined in 1982: “I’m not an art critic, but I sure know that graffiti is not an art form.”

Famous last words, Dick. As I ride the train and reminisce about my days as a teenage graffiti writer, I’m looking at clean, neatly framed, MTA-sponsored ad campaigns whose color schemes and typography imitate the vivid, illustrious graffiti that once beautified a decaying fleet of subway trains in the late 1970s.

Some 30 years after the initial boom of graffiti art, one would expect an abundance of accurate and relevant scholarly histories from the field of urban studies. Yet aside from Craig Castleman’s Getting Up (MIT Press, 1982), graffiti literature from academic circles and urban think tanks has been nonexistent.

Those of us who’ve emerged from the graffiti underworld seldom complain about, or even notice, the absence of such works; they’re generally considered irrelevant. But now that hip hop, punk, and pop are all rolled into a one-stop shop on MTV, even the most diehard graffiti purist welcomes any alternative media critique that doesn’t cheapen graffiti’s legacy by limiting it to a stylistic music video backdrop.

In that respect, Joe Austin’s Taking the Train could not have arrived any sooner. For Austin, the evolution of graffiti writing in New York provided more than just a colorful background for early rap album covers: During the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and after, as the city’s new image began to emerge, city officials used graffiti to deflect public attention away from the city’s very real fiscal and infrastructure problems, forever changing New York’s discourse on the daily usage of private and public spaces.

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In the wake of the fiscal crisis, Mayor Lindsay cut basic services from the most resource-strapped neighborhoods, including Washington Heights, El Barrio and the South Bronx.

It was in these neighborhoods that graffiti took off. Austin argues–as have many graffiti writers before him–that by applying graffiti to subways and streets in the late 1970s, writers redistributed ownership of the “public sphere” in a self-contained democratic process.

For a vast majority of poor kids alienated by public schools, media, and law enforcement, graffiti was indeed a viable option to be heard and recognized. As one writer explains: “Shit was mad deep. You had Viet Nam and all types of protests, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, racism and hatred at a peak and others fighting inequality and dying trying to put a stop to it. You can’t be unaffected by all that.”

Enter graffiti writers TAKI 183, SUPER KOOL 223, PHASE 2, COCO, and TRACY 168. In the early 1970s they “hit” the city with their distinct signatures on buses, streets, and subways, ready to reclaim public space through the pursuit of artistic fame.

As they inspired other writers to paint on the trains, these early pioneers mentored one another and bonded in the storage yards and lay-ups and at the “writer’s bench,” a subway station located on 149th Street and the Grand Concourse where artists regularly convened after (or during) school hours to critique their moving canvases. Graffiti writers also organized themselves into artistic and political organizations, such as the National Organization of Graffiti Artists (NOGA), which in 1982 met with Ravitch and proposed a public referendum on allowing graffiti masterpieces to run unscathed by the MTA’s clean-up campaign.

But as New York entered the 1980s, leaving behind the fiscal crisis of the previous decade, Koch did more than Lindsay to aggressively fight graffiti; his administration, writes Austin, turned it into a scapegoat for the city’s woes.

Using interoffice memos from municipal agencies, as well as every single New York Times editorial on graffiti over a 10-year period, Austin illustrates how politicians skillfully exploited news and entertainment media to equate the kids who invented graffiti with just about every image of urban crime: the screwdriver-carrying Puerto Rican from El Barrio, the black gang leader born out of wedlock and living off the Cadillac queen’s welfare hustle, and so on. Such images, prevalent in films like Death Wish and The Exterminator, fed the perception that graffiti writers and their homies, not the city’s fiscal problems and massive unemployment, were somehow responsible for New York’s blighted areas and rampant subway crime.

By and large, Taking the Train is written in a dense prose that reads like an academic novel of sorts. For color, Austin relies on culturally diverse, revealing, and often hilarious anecdotes from past and present graffiti writers. He also interviews former media and public officials, most of whom still don’t believe graffiti has any good thing to offer (although, truth be told, I have witnessed former city comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman’s nephew at the Rock Steady Crew b-boy and graffiti festival on at least one occasion).

Like any academic book, Taking the Train tends to extrapolate too much from too little. For instance, he limits gender to a quarter of a chapter, while alluding to young men’s “dominant male” complex as an impetus for writing in just about every other chapter.

Austin often attributes women’s perceived lack of participation to nonsupportive community and peer networks; yet LADY PINK, who is notorious for her self-determination, is noticeably absent–not to mention every other female graffiti writer that came before and after her.

Likewise, Austin tends to romanticize the community that developed among writers from different ethnic and racial groups. But Austin scores big points with his handling of a regional history that for the most part has never been cohesively documented; his summation of New York City gang culture in the late 1960s, and its links to the formation of early graffiti crews, is unprecedented.

Taking the Train shows the connection between writing culture and the elite, policy-making community that fed graffiti’s rebel image. Similarly, his vigorous understanding of how the city political machine framed graffiti as a social epidemic reveals the roots of the quality of life campaigns that we reckon with today.

Vee Bravo is a making a video documentary about hip hop in Latin America.