In a world where everything is pregnant with its contrary it is hardly surprising to find deep ambivalence within the artistic community on the subject of graffiti art. So far, graffiti has managed to thrive on controversy, making a name for itself on insults and praise alike. But for many people, the abrasive existence of graffiti on public property in New York seems to raise a fundamental ethical question of right or wrong. From what points of view might an act of vandalism (technically speaking) be seen as right—or justified? What makes the person who did it worthy of praise or blame? Does graffiti writing, with its indiscriminate appropriation of surfaces all over the city, represent the destructive excesses of individualism gone haywire in our culture, or is it an authentic form of community art?
To many people, the presence of graffiti in the environment has come to symbolize violation, social anarchy and moral breakdown. They see it as vandalism, pure and simple—a crime signifying that we can no longer take orderly society and orderly change for granted. "I think it's a kind of theft," states New York artist Mark Lancaster, "an assault on the right to feel that public transport is a reasonable means for getting from one place to another. I think it's frightening to a lot of people. I can't separate it from fear, from someone pulling a knife on you and robbing you in a public place. You have to have an immunity to violence if you use the subways. The presence of graffiti increases the sense of lawlessness and danger, like driving through red lights, which has become normal in New York." This view is reiterated by the English artist Michael Craig-Martin, who states: "Painting the subways is a way of intimidating people. It's part of a general sense of being intimidated in New York." In an article on the subways in The New York Times Magazine, author Paul Theroux recently described graffiti as nothing more than the defacement of public property—"crazy semi-literate messages, monkey scratches on the wall."
There are others, however, who believe graffiti art represents a genuine esthetic, the personal expression of an oppressed and disenfranchised people. Norman Mailer, an early and sworn supporter, wrote in his 1974 book The Faith of Graffiti that the phenomenon was a tribal rebellion against an evil industrial civilization, and "the beginning of another millennium of vision." More recently, Diego Cortez, who has curated a number influential exhibitions of work by graffiti artists, stated in a recent issue of Flash Art that "graffiti should be looked at as a highly sophisticated art form which is the image of New York, and is definitely the soul of the underground scene at the moment." Meanwhile, New York's Mayor Koch has announced a new $6.5 million program to discourage graffiti, complete with trained guard dogs to attack artists working illegally in the train yards. This is not an esthetic response; it is wrath, burning with the logic of retaliation and revenge.
The phenomenon of graffiti is colored everywhere by animated, archetypal emotion. Make no mistake: the aggressive component is unnerving. Paradoxically, the crossing of the border into criminality is required to give graffiti its ethical quality, its note of authenticity. Just as skulls on sticks serve as a warning to initiates in certain cannibal tribes of New Guinea that a territory has been demarcated and taken possession of, so have graffiti artists (or "writers" as they tend to call themselves) staked out their claim on this mechanical, late-industrial Underworld.
But it is not simply the appropriation of public property that makes graffiti disturbing. At a time when the mainstream of modernism appears to be losing its impetus, and diversity and pluralism have brought us to the point of confusion and doubt, it is disconcerting to have a fringe phenomenon—a mere street subculture—enter the art market in a big way and become "legitimized." Of course graffiti has, in one form or another, been appearing in art contexts for more than a decade—imported from Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx (along with its musical and dance counterparts called "rapping" and "breaking") to be showcased in the downtown clubs of Manhattan and even occasionally in alternative spaces. (One of the first largescale exhibitions of graffiti was held at Artists Space in 1975, with a catalogue essay written by Peter Schjeldahl.) In fact, graffiti was actually shown in a commercial gallery, the Razor, as early as 1976; New York magazine did a rather sophisticated stylistic exegesis even before that (1973); but hardly anyone took notice.
Graffiti surfaced in a big way as art after the "Times Square Show," organized in June 1980 by Colab (Collaborative Projects, Inc.) and Fashion Moda, a South Bronx storefront gallery started four years ago by two artists, Stefan Eins and Joe Lewis, who conceived of it as an outlet for neighborhood artists. Fashion Moda's activities were written up in the Village Voice, after which Eins and Lewis were invited by the New Museum to curate an exhibition of street artists from New Orleans and New York for later that year. Meanwhile a whole new multi-racial, multi-ethnic generation of artists was appearing, many of them from amid the discouragements of ghetto life, to find themselves suddenly pursued by important New York dealers. Another influential exhibition, "New York/ New Wave," curated by Diego Cortez and held at P.S. 1 in 1981, consolidated the trend. Fashion Moda, meanwhile continues to receive NEA funding, and this year is opening up branches in New Orleans and Oakland. (They were also responsible for organizing a boutique at this year's Documenta to sell graffiti T-shirts, buttons, multiples and posters.)
From these few decisive events, a complex cultural archeology has emerged. Having begun life quite literally underground, the unofficial graffiti subculture now seems to mark the passing of the heroic and the exalted, the end of our modernist self-assurance. Its energetic ethnicity and localism are challenging the image of an "international" modernism previously so concerned with "purification" that, for a long time, it obliterated much of what was distinctive in more regional art. Questions surround graffiti's integration into the institutional framework of the art world, and its consequent absorption into the success ethic. Indeed, it's now nearly impossible to characterize the graffiti phenomenon itself, since it can no longer be reasonably attached to one set of practices (such as spray painting subway cars), or to one exclusive set of intentions.
Thus some graffiti writers remain dedicated to an aggressive and predatory street art, whereas others—Jean-Michel Basquiat, for instance, who for a brief time wrote sentences in subway stations under the name Samo—are now more interested in being successful artists in the art world. Among these, Keith Haring is a special case, since he effectively keeps a foothold in both worlds. On the one hand, he is known for his anonymous chalk drawings on subway billboards of crawling babies, barking dogs, flying saucers and agitated figures—depicted in a hieroglyphic style that has been described as "New Wave Aztec." On the other hand, he also exhibits regularly in SoHo and 57th Street galleries. (Both Haring and Basquiat now live entirely from their art-world work; both were included in this summer's Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany.) At the same time, there are still other writers, such as Futura 2000 and Fab 5 Fred, who remain committed to their hit-and-run tactics and their indigenous graffiti audiences, even though they have begun to attempt more visually complex statements.
Does all this produce a conflict of values? Is this just another case of a mass-consumption capitalist economy expanding into a taboo area by transforming private behavior into a commodity? Are these artists being rescued from a life of ineffectuality and insecurity, or have they sauntered out onto a limb that ultimately will not support them but only breed new expectations, false hopes and disappointments? It is difficult at this point to judge the long-term results of suddenly catapulting individuals who are ill-prepared socially and economically into a higher income level—since, as the sociologist Emile Durkheim has pointed out, poverty exerts its own disciplines and limits, but affluence, by its nature, usually does not. Affluence breaks down these limits, and substitutes for them a set of expectations which rise almost constantly. Are these artists being encouraged beyond any reasonable evaluation of their talents? How, finally, are we to define the underlying meaning of an experience which, to the uninitiated, appears as sheer nasty babble-at best a hermetic Morse code of hieroglyphs, at worst a violent assault?
In this complicated and uncharted area (for despite the incredible fever of publicity it has received over the last year, the deep implications of graffiti have not been charted), I shall not try to clinch arguments so much as crystallize ways of stating a problem. Toward this end, the structure of my article will not be linear. Instead, it is a circular journey around the subject, illuminating a part at a time. As I talked with a number of people connected in different ways with the graffiti movement, I became aware that my interviews were like satellite photos, each one giving a glimpse of the subject from a different vantage point. I present them here in the order in which they occurred.
The first person I met with was Keith Haring, something of an anomaly in the graffiti world because he is white and middle-class (from Kutztown, Pa.), and because he has been to art school (the School of Visual Arts in New York). He is 24 years old, and more than once has been arrested for defacing property, although most of the police have by now come to recognize his special talent, and are aware of his reputation in the art world. Sometimes he collaborates with another graffiti artist called LA 2 (LA stands for "Little Angel"), a I5-year-old Puerto Rican. They worked together, for instance on a piece for a show this summer at Wave Hill, completely covering with graffiti a life-size plaster statue of Botticelli's Birth of Venus (acquired from a garden-furniture supplier). I asked Haring whether becoming famous in the art world had in any way altered the thrust of his activities, or changed his intentions and goals.
Keith Haring: Art is about something being seen, whether it is absorbed by the eyes of people in the subways or of people in galleries. In the subways, one needs total abandon; since the work only exists for a fleeting moment, it can and probably will be erased. The moment when it was seen may be all that is left of it. Objects, of course, have much less chance of disappearing, they will be protected, and this changes the value that is placed on them. But permanence and impermanence are both plausible outcomes to an activity. If I believed only in ephemeral things, that would be too hard a philosophy to live by; you have to believe in concrete things too, things that don't go away. There shouldn't be anything wrong with things that stay there and accumulate meaning by becoming part of someone's life. There shouldn't be anything wrong with that, although the situation which surrounds it does seem to pervert it. The Rockefeller wing at the Met is a perfect example of that kind of perversion, of the ability of people with money and resources to take things away which are vital to the lives of other people. The question is how good or important is it for us to see these extraordinary things compared to what those people had to lose for us to be able to do so; it's enlightening for me to see them, but it's awful for them. There is no answer, for it's a paradox; an answer would mean it was one way or the other, and anyway, it's the way things are.
I left home when I was 18. I ended up in Pittsburgh in a school for commercial art, but I hated it immediately and left. I decided to go to the School of Visual Arts in New York, where I studied with Joseph Kosuth and Keith Sonnier. I've always thought I didn't want to be paid a lot for what I do, just enough to keep things going—but there's no way to do that. If you sell your work cheaply, you just get used by the system; somebody else buys it and sells it for more, so you have to take it from them. I don't know of a way to control prices. Money's like a drug, I see it in every walk of life so far; I've not found any way to make a dent in, or alter that. In some sense, I'm already addicted. It's really hard not to be—it's such a basic idea of the world now, to always want more, to want bigger and better. And when you don't have to do something else to survive, it's hard to want to work for somebody else at $2.50 an hour, just to maintain your integrity. If anyone was given an alternative to that situation, they'd take it, obviously. If I say "things are going great, I guess," the response is "I'd give anything to be in your shoes." So that even if you can see that something is wrong, someone else would change places with you immediately. Even if your own thoughts about the situation haven't changed, you find the situation has changed you, and you can't reverse that. I'm just not in the same boat as I was when I was in nightclubs organizing shows which everybody just thanked me for, and there's nothing I can do to make it seem the same situation. I don't feel that different, but I'm forced to be different. It's made me conscious of being an exemplary person, of how to behave as a model for others.
A 21-year-old black artist born in Brooklyn of Haitian parents, Basquiat was invited by Annina Nosei to join her gallery in SoHo after she had seen his work at the "New York/New Wave" show at P.S. 1. He now works out of the basement of her gallery where—in something like a hothouse for forced growth—he produces ever more prodigious paintings, all of them teeming with a psychosymbolic iconography of skeletonized figures, skulls, bones, arrows and Twomblyesque scrawls.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: People are getting credit now for graffiti as if it were something new, but they're really fifth or tenth string. I was never part of any graffiti group; I hung to myself a lot. I left home at 15, and went to Washington Square Park. I just sat there, dropping acid, for eight months. Now that all seems boring; it eats your mind up. Then I went to high school for a little while, where I made those typical teenage psychedelic pictures of people's faces with stars. I was also selling handmade postcards, and handpainted Abstract Expressionist sweatshirts, to make money. I event went to Interview magazine and bugged Andy Warhol, you know, to find out how to get closer to it. Then I was in Diego Cortez's "New York/New Wave" show at P.S. 1. In those days I never had enough money to cover a whole canvas. I wouldn't be surprised if I died like a boxer, really broke, but somehow I doubt it. I was joking one day and thought, maybe I should go to the Art Students League—to see if it's really conducive to anything—but students' work is so sad. I had more artist friends before I began to make money; now only other artists who make money want to see me. I feel much happier now—my whole life is focused. Before there was all this energy, and nowhere to put it.
A black graffiti artist from the Upper West Side, Futura 2000 took his name from a car made by Ford. He has been called "the Watteau of the spray can," although his current paintings are becoming more like space-age Kandinskys. He has spray-painted murals on the IRT trains, and on the sides of buildings in New York and London. His work was included in the "New York/New Wave" show, and in the show at the New Museum curated by Fashion Moda. He has also collaborated with the rock group The Clash, and shows currently with the Fun Gallery in New York.
Futura 2000: When Crash [a 19-year-old graffiti curator] first organized a show, in September 1980, of graffiti writers for the directors of Fashion Moda, we weren't even aware of SoHo. The idea was to make graffiti on plywood—to do the subway stuff on something that wouldn't be moving; it would just sit on a wall. That was the moment of transition, trying to capture the experience. Each person did his own thing right on the spot—transferred the subway images to be looked at in a gallery. It was the first time graffiti writers were brought above ground.
Also, in the summer of 1980, a patron [Sam Esses, a New York businessman and art collector], rented a studio so 20 of us could paint on canvas. Suddenly it seemed there was an opportunity for me to become an artist—not just a graffiti writer—to be as good as Schnabel and Lichtenstein. But SoHo and 57th Street intimidate me, which is why I like the Fun Gallery. I don't want to work on demand; Fun doesn't use me as a token figure. I'd be afraid to be in a big gallery where they would be trying to make money off of me—those people don't even ride the subways! My art's not for exclusive buyers. Artists in SoHo get paid to produce more and more of the same stuff. I wonder what will happen to those people in three years. I prefer to control the level of what's happening, so it will be slower. I wouldn't mind going to art school if I could get a scholarship, but it would probably interfere with my work. I never went to art school; I graduated from Brandeis High School in Manhattan, then dropped out of City College after: six months. For lots of us, the subways remain the only outlet: a moving vehicle. The work has to be done quickly; its finest hour may be when it's just rolling by. I see the paintings more as a documentation of what goes on in the subways, a memento. Obviously, no one can have an actual train, although in a few years' time, some museum will probably buy one.
I'm 26 now, and I began making graffiti in 1971. For about three years I was totally wrapped up in graffiti; it was my whole life. From '73 to '74, I did it every day, full time, after I finished work. I had a morning job, from five to 11. I did a lot of "motion tagging," which is writing on the inside of trains, rather than the outside. It's hard to do it in the daytime when there's lots of people around. It's better late at night. You go to the last stop, and stay in the back car, alone. You only write while the train is moving. When it pulls in you stop, in case somebody gets on. It's all done in secret. You can either go in with a crew, or alone; that's a personal thing. I like to go with four people at most, whom I know can handle the element of danger that's always involved. I always hope I'm making things look better; you never set out to destroy anything. You never go over someone else's work you respect, especially it it's something good, unless it's half gone already from the acid baths.
When the trains are standing parked in a yard or a tunnel is when it's best to penetrate. You can turn on the lights, blow the horn, or work with a flashlight. Keys to trains get passed down. Mostly, they're skeleton keys, probably reproduced from a set originally lost by a conductor. You hear somebody's got one, and you might go to him and say, "Lemme borrow your IRT key." Sometimes he may make you buy it. But it's common knowledge that keys are around. I guess I'll always be a spray painter—but no, I won't still be spraying trains at 40. If you get caught when you're older, the penalties are much more severe. I don't want to get sent to Riker's Island, which could happen if I were caught on a top-to-bottom full-car job at night in a tunnel. But if it were all legal, it wouldn't be the same; you need the edge, the consequences of being busted. The average graffiti kid is only 18, but a lot of us are still doing it.
Recently we had some legitimate stuff to do in a private club in Hong Kong. It was a huge mural. Three of us went out—Zephyr, Dondi and myself. We stayed in the second best hotel in Hong Kong. We did five days of painting. They gave us a car and chauffeur, champagne twice a day—it was the best treatment I ever had in my whole life. I estimated they must have spent ten grand on the three of us, but then when I figured it more closely, with the airfares it was more like twenty. We spent hardly anything on materials. We were there for 12 days—what a job that was, first class. The I Club, in the Bank of America Towers, on Hong Kong island. Membership costs $10,000 a year. It was a promotional thing—the work's only up for a month or so; they don't intend to leave it around, except for one bit we did on canvas.
Mel Neulander is the organizer, together with Joyce Towbin, of Graphiti Productions, Inc., a workshop for "housebroken" graffiti artists, who have been encouraged to trade in the trains for money-making canvases and worldwide commissions. Among the artists belonging to this group are Crash, Freedom, Wasp and Lady Pink. The interview took place in May in the Stuart Neill Gallery, where Neulander had organized his first official exhibition of "Graffiti Above Ground."
Mel Neulander: We find our artists on the grapevine. Five or six new ones show up every week with their portfolios to join our workshop. Now we're starting to promote and market graffiti out of town and overseas. Our artists are prolific, well-spoken; they don't meet the stereotype of the dropout. They're not into drugs or violence. They walk around, thousands of them, with sketch books, doodling and drawing. They're consumed by art, but they were frustrated, with no money to buy canvas or supplies. There's an incredible mix of kids that transcends racial, economic and educational barriers, and they all have a tremendous camaraderie. We formed our corporation, Graffiti Above Ground, in June 1981. I had seen a documentary on graffiti on TV and loved the work. I decided to commission the kids. An article came out asking "Is it art, or isn't it art?" When that happens, you can always be sure that, two years later, it's art. So I thought, lemme get onto the bandwagon. For me it was a money-making proposition, but I didn't know how to merchandise art, so I hooked up with Joyce, who had run an art gallery and been an art teacher. It took us five months to put it all together. These are ghetto children, not flower children. They want Cadillacs. They're not into the old ethic of giving up material gains to keep artistic integrity. They can do both. Now they have a market and an identity. Their needs are being satisfied by what's happening. I can't talk about the esthetics, because I don't know about that side of it. From all that we hear, the art business is depressed. When business is depressed, what you need is a new line to keep things moving. This graffiti stuff presents something hot. It's off the trains and onto canvas as these artists develop. For the moment, it's like an explosion, but I also see it growing over the next ten years or so. We're everywhere now: we did a 30-foot mural on rollers at the Winter Garden Theater with Twyla Tharp; we were the centerfold of a big fashion ad in New York magazine. Our artists are designing record jackets; we've got big sales in Scandinavia. They make a good living.
A 24-year-old black graffiti artist, Wasp is affiliated with Graphiti Productions, Inc.
Wasp: I got started in graffiti in '71. Now it's a way to become famous easily—the only way to stop it is by not giving publicity. I paint shop signs, vans and buildings a lot. These days everybody with a commercial license has to have a sign stating their trade, or they get a summons. They all like bright colors and the graffiti style. For the rest, you always carry a marker wherever you go, and you tag in the streets, everywhere. You never stop writing your name, everybody does it, everybody wants to let the world know he's alive. Graffiti helps you out; in the neighborhoods I grew up in, it's either that or mugging, or drugs. People I know will kill anybody for a few thousand. You do it to get out of the atmosphere of the ghetto, where everyone is desperate.
Tim Rollins is director of Group Material, an artists' collective started in 1979, and dedicated to promoting radical art which is focused on political and social issues.
Tim Rollins: Our group is interested in art that is both formally and politically radical at the same time. We want to fill the gap between artists and the American working class. Basically, there are three groups: ours, Colab and Fashion Moda. We all have different esthetics, methodologies, class stances and politics, but what we share is a desire for reconstructing a different set of social relations that connects art with neighborhood communities. People tag Group Material as trying to develop a socialist modernism, but we have a much more radical approach than that to materials and processes. Mural art, for instance, doesn't advance art esthetically; murals are like coloring books for the working class. So the whole thing is just set up in advance, and the community people fill in the colors. Graffiti, on the other hand, is extremely important. It's a radical art with a radical methodology, because it's illegal. It's radical because, mostly, the artists are non-artists. Formally, it's not like anything else. It's art that falls out of a social condition, and that helps us to find out about what the art means to everybody. It's not like Schnabel and Salle, who are wildly self-conscious. The problem is, of course, that now it's turning into a style, and the artists are becoming compromised by the lure of success. At the core, all that's fishy: we all worry about art being something to entertain rich people with. And so much graffiti is terrible; there are only a few who do wild and authentic work. The vitality of graffiti is in its indigenous situation. It is difficult to accept it on white gallery walls. Then it becomes part of the commodity market. The social context is what gives it its meaning, and this is being ripped from it.
Fab 5 Fred
A black graffiti artist from Brooklyn, Fab 5 Fred shows at the Fun Gallery with Lee and Futura. He took his name from the number 5 train on the IRT, and has collaborated with the rock group Blondie. He is best known for having painted a train with Warhol-like soup cans.
Fab 5 Fred: Me and Lee wanted to do something to get noticed—so we thought, something mocking pop culture. Other graffiti writers wouldn't know the soup cans had been in an art context. It freed up a lot of guys to put something on a train that wasn't just a name. Then Futura did a whole car called "Brake" without his name; after that, Lee did one. My soup-can train is still going—the number 2 train.
The way I look at it, there've been three waves in the graffiti movement. The first wave started way back with Taki 183. He was the first person to have a name and number. After him, there was Flowers, Dice, Super Hog—these guys developed a social network of writing clubs. Meanwhile, I was getting my shit together in Brooklyn. We all wanted to do something cool in the streets other than just breaking heads. The Ex-(perienced) Vandals; the Vanguards; Magic, Inc.; the Nod Squad; the Last Survivors—these were the Brooklyn wall-writing groups. They put the name of the group up and everybody would tag around it. I got into graffiti after checking out these guys. Then the Brooklyn writers began to merge with writers from the Bronx and Manhattan. We picked up on each other's styles, we taught each other different techniques. Many styles began to merge and out of that came "Wild Style." It's Brooklyn-style structured lettering with Upper Manhattan spray techniques. Wild Style is totally illegible unless you're initiated.
I think street subcultures are a breath of fresh air. We're becoming aware of the fine art scene, but those people approach us more than we approach them. For instance, Mel Neulander came to Futura and me. He had all these articles. He asked did I want to make money? I knew right away he wanted to make a fast buck—cheapen the scene. I definitely wasn't making any moves in their direction. Joyce and Mel encourage the artists to paint pictures of trains; then everybody comes and tags on it. They stopped taking risks. That's what I see Graphiti Productions as doing. It's like a Peter Max. It's really bad. I hope they blow away. But a lot of guys really wouldn't have any other outlet. They're not treated like real artists, though; it's like social work.
A lot of people who approach us think we're not really hip to their game. I'm not motivated to sit on my ass for the rest of my life and be somebody else's racehorse. What I do is motivated by other things than being an art star. I want to make paintings that people from where I come from will see that it's rooted in graffiti. That's the real beauty of the graffiti scene—it's not self-conscious like Kiefer, Schnabel, Chia. Those dudes all have the graffiti thing in their work: Kiefer slashes white paint, Chia's scribbles look like tags to me, but it doesn't have the vandalism esthetic. Jean-Michel's work is a more direct attack on fine art, mocking all schools of modern art.
I'm 24. I went to Medgar Evers College where I took one course in logic and then left. I just couldn't believe they could give a class like that, you know, that shows you how all the bullshit works—fallacious argument and that—it was a shot in the arm. Why do I think so many 'people are against graffiti writing? Because Western culture has a tendency to destroy what it doesn't understand. They're threatened by freedom because they all lead constricted lives, like clones; those who really hate graffiti are totally under the control of Madison Avenue. Graffiti symbolizes people doing what they want to do, but there's no profane language, no political statements. It's only names. Like if Jackson Pollock were around, he'd love it. I've even seen a review where they refer to Pollock as "graffiti-calligraphy." Calligraffiti, I call it. Graffiti isn't doing bad things, but we sort of threaten the whole notion of fine art. They think anybody not steeped in tradition has to be folk art. But New York is the most advanced ghetto in the world: what we do reverberates like a satellite, bang, all over the world. To do things in painting that have never been done before—that's my objective. That's what gives you the real good feeling. The best is yet to come. I'm working on it now.
If one possible definition of art is whatever enables people to live more deeply—to search for greater fullness of being—then artists may turn where they will, to find a model which fits their needs. In the case of graffiti writers, their name is their destiny in shorthand, the organizing pattern of their lives. Naming power is supreme power, and is linked with the idea of a secret knowledge. By mentioning his name, the artist becomes present; he is his name. Without it, he is practically nonexistent. The naming in itself and by itself creates value, and in this way, it takes on a mythic, ritualistic significance. If ritual is a technique for generating life, the fundamental imperative of all ritual is that one cannot do it alone. Names are laden with the psychic energy emanating from the driving archetype behind it; they are tokens and signs of a linkage with power: life-giving, meaning-giving.