There’s nothing I love more than a public bathroom full of graffiti. You know the ones. They’re typically in local coffee shops, and as soon as you walk in you’re greeted with phone numbers and stickers and Ds and insults and flyers for live music shows and people revealing their innermost secrets. To me there’s something very organic, alive, and compelling about graffiti, how it is stitched together, and what it reveals about a place.
Because graffiti is an (illegal) act of defacing public property, it’s hard to talk about without also getting into the politics of real estate. As many urban historians like Christopher Mele have shown, graffiti is often associated with delinquents, dangerous neighborhoods, and is one step real estate agents use to rebrand a “decaying” neighborhood. They know about the “cool” potential of graffiti in attracting young, hip people to neighborhoods and getting them to pay top dollar to live in “danger.”
You know the drill: first come the people who were already there, then come the artists and galleries who cant afford the other neighborhoods, then come the real estate people, then come the boutiques and artisanal cheese shops, then come the million dollar condos and then, finally, here come the baby strollers. By then the artists who made the neighborhood hot to begin with have been nudged away from the center, and wherever they are now, you can be sure the real estate establishment is right behind them. And that’s why graffiti is typically found in places that are either in disuse — non-residential areas where factories or other manufacturing outposts once reigned supreme — or communities where the urban poor are priced out by gentrification.
Graffiti makes neighborhoods hot. It’s the one thing I love about Williamsburg/Greenpoint despite all the bouginess. Graffiti adds value and an intangible creative vibe, but it will cost you like $4000 a month to live on the same block as all the hotness. But in general there are two kinds of reactions to graffiti: get rid of it entirely because it is a “problem” or let it be a part of the expensive new neighborhood’s flavor. No matter how gentrified an up-and-coming neighborhood becomes, or how many million dollar luxury condos pop up out of thin air, or how many Tory Burch/Brooks Brothers-wearing people who move in, one thing that makes hot neighborhoods is the graffiti.
In his history of graffiti in New York, Joe Austin tells a story about a 1970s New York that was completely covered in graffiti. The stuff was on all the trains, buildings, and it was quintessentially New York. A group of prominent European tourists came to the City and wanted a real New York experience, but anticipating the visit the City shuttled the tourists around on a special train that had been sterilized and free of graffiti. The tourists were deeply disappointed and wondered what happened. They came all the way here because they heard all about graffiti on the news, and they wanted to see it in real life. But instead of seeing the awesomeness in graffiti, the City saw it as a “problem” that had to be neutralized because graffiti means danger, it means that the city has lost control, and because some think it decreases property values.
Efforts to tame graffiti totally eclipse the point of cities. No, I don’t think graffiti should be on the Simon & Schuster building in Midtown, and there are some places where it’s inappropriate. But when it’s on city property or abandoned buildings, or in places where you least expect, that’s what makes it beautiful. Cities are supposed to be lively, vital, and full of mistakes and surprises. Cities are not perfect — subdivisions are. A city is a living organism that is never the same on any given day, and graffiti is an expression of the vitality and imagination of the city. What makes graffiti such an amazing art form is that it’s a way of taking back the city, a kind of creative recycling and reuse of materials.
Think about contemporary artists making graffiti-inspired work right now — amazing artists like Angel Otero, Mark Bradford, or Jose Parla — or even artists before them like Keith Harring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and even an abstract expressionist like Cy Twombly. Their work shows the raw beauty and abstraction of the urban environment.
Graffiti is exciting because it’s tied to street culture and the cultural zeitgeist. Streets are unpredictable, and that’s another thing that makes graffiti so awesome: it’s inherently improvisatory. You don’t know where you’re going to find it, and when you’re making a piece of graffiti, whether you’re quickly spray painting something on the side of a building or drawing a D on a bathroom wall, you kind of just go with the moment. You don’t really get a do-over. Graffiti is about the moment, and nothing reminds us of being alive more than being caught in the moment.