Thursday, September 12th, 2002


IN THIS ISSUE of the highly (and soon to be even more) irregular












This is a slightly extended remix of an article that appears this week in the Village Voice (including more citations than an alt-weekly would ever allow, but not nearly as much as your average Ethnic Studies grad-student’s paper). Check out the clean edit (with a cool jpeg and the inevitable e-commerce links) at The Village Voice.

Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City

By Joe Austin

Columbia University Press, 400 pp., $49.50 (cloth), $24.50 (paper)

Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City

By Ivor L. Miller

University of Mississippi Press, 288 pp., $60 (cloth), $30 (paper)

Broken Windows

By James and Karla Murray

Gingko Press, 180 pp., $39.95

On a quiet morning two months ago, Mayor Bloomberg took his paint-roller and press corps to Williamsburg, a burgeoning node on the graffiti-writers map that is now a target for intensified policing, punishment, and cleanup. “Even with limited resources, we are not going to walk away from the needs of this city,” he said. “Graffiti poses a direct threat to the quality of life of all New Yorkers. It’s not just an eyesore. It is an invitation to criminals and a message to citizens that we don’t care.”

Graffiti has been the scourge and scapegoat of every New York mayor since John Lindsay. Indeed, Bloomberg’s photo-op represents something of a mayoral rite of passage. But now, with remarkable timing, comes graf’s passionate defense. Three new books, Joe Austin’s *Taking The Train*, Ivor Miller’s *Aerosol Kingdom*, and James and Karla Murray’s *Broken Windows*, let the writers talk back to the haters, while offering a nuanced reassessment of New York City’s graffiti scene.

The contemporary movement, spawned in the subways and streets of Philadelphia and New York in the late 60s, has had a symbiotic relationship with academics, journalists, and photodocumentarians. Graf’s insularity attracts anthropological curiosity, its rebel codes ferment sociological inquiry, and its eye-burning virtuosity and butterfly ephemerality demand documentation and cataloguing.

Books on graffiti have always played a major role in the movement. Norman Mailer, Jon Naar and Mervyn Kurlansky’s *Faith of Graffiti* (1974) celebrated great Broadway stylists and time-forgotten toys alike, carrying the graf gospel into the boroughs like a virus. Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper’s *Subway Art* (1984) captured the peak years of train graffiti and catalyzed the post-buff global explosion. Chalfant and Jim Prigoff later captured that development in the equally influential *Spraycan Art* (1987).Early academic works on graffiti by Craig Castleman (*Getting Up* [1982]) and Jack Stewart (*Subway Graffiti: An Aesthetic Study of Graffiti on the Subway System of New York City, 1970-1978* [dissertation, 1989]), and Steven Hager’s journalistic landmark *Hip-Hop* (1984) have also had a profound effect on the emerging generation of hip-hop intellectuals (who claim graf’s tradition as their own).

While the quality of academic books on rap music has mostly fallen off in recent years, the quality of graffiti books remains high. Unlike academics who study rap, a serious graf scholar can’t simply flip on BET for raw material. Ivor L. Miller’s *Aerosol Kingdom* is the product of a 15-year journey through the New York scene, capturing his sense of awe and admiration for the risk, skill, and ambition of the graf writers on every lavishly illustrated page.In “Night Train: The Power That Man Made”, Miller meditates on Ogun and Rakim, gandy dancing (by 19th century black rail workers) and white flight. Here, the book appears like a freshly painted 5 roaring out of the tunnel onto a Bronx el, a *Flash of the Spirit* for the hip-hop gen.

Soon after embarking on the study, Miller tossed out his theories and decided his job was to act as interpreter and disseminator. The result is an unprecedented record of graf’s subway years, told in definitive interviews with artists like BLADE, James TOP, DURO, DOZE and IZ the WIZ–writers whose names have become myth but whose stories have not. The reclusive Lee Quinones seems to drop poetry every time he speaks: “Subways are corporate America’s way of getting its people to workAnd the trains were clones themselves, they were all supposed to be silver and blue, a form of imperialism and control. And we took that and completely changed it.”

This drive to beautify is a logic, like the trains, that runs in circles. It’s a desire to “create art for art’s sake”, as the husband-and-wife photographers James and Karla Murray put it. What *Aerosol Kingdom* does for the subway era, *Broken Windows* does for the new school, allowing the post-subway kings and queens of New York—COPE 2, CES, VASE, KING BEE, DIVA and MICKEY –to talk about intent, technique, risk and reward. Some, like LADY PINK, SEEN and WEST ONE (FC)provide continuity between the eras. All share a do-or-die spirit that can’t be stopped.

*Broken Windows* documents the Giuliani-era explosion of “productions”–the usually legalmulti-writer pieces that began appearing on store-gates, buildings, walls, and train tunnels–and “bombs”–the illegal,controversial signatures that seemed to swarm the city. Like *Subway Art*, *Broken Windows* becomes a -salute to the graf-writers’ visual genius.

With the constraints of time, color, surface and size loosened, post-subway aerosol art has explored bold new conceptions of space. Robert Farris Thompson argues that subway wildstyle’s “gorgeous lariats of color and line” have influenced not only Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, but also Frank Stella. Even Zaha Hadid’s architecture now seems unimaginable without the late-era subway graf. Some of the wall productions in *Broken Windows* make you wonder what buildings might look like in 30 years.

After the MTA declared victory in its war against train graffiti in 1989, the center of the movement seemed to disperse to far-flung locales like Los Angeles and Sydney. But when Giuliani renewed the war on graffiti as the centerpiece of his “quality of life” campaign, graf-writers mobilized to create bigger, more stunning pieces and wage relentless bombing campaigns. The Giuliani crackdown–a crucial first step toward the Starbucks-ing of the urban core and the violent displacement of the poor, youths, and people of color–influenced a new generation of mayors across the country, and gave back to the New York graf scene its frontline urgency.

The Murray book gets its title from the “broken windows” theory that provided the psuedo-intellectual backbone for Giuliani time. As Joe Austin’s *Taking The Train* makes clear, the ideological war between quality-of-lifers and aerosol advocates has been as viscerally gripping as the graffiti itself. In the spring of 1973, journalist Richard Goldstein famously called graffiti “the first genuine teenage street culture since the fifties.” But by 1979, the backlash began to cohere through an astonishingly disingenuous Public Interest article by sociologist Nathan Glazer. He outlined an idea that Harvard criminologist James Q. Wilson would later develop into the “broken windows” theory: If one broken window was allowed to go unfixed, a neighborhood’s fall would soon follow. To these neocons, graffiti represented the signal moment of a neighborhood’s plunge into Fort Apache.

Glazer barely even had an argument; mostly he just had the same kind of *funny vibe* that Bernhard Goetz would later have. “(W)hile I do not find myself consciously making the connection between the graffiti-makers and the criminals who occasionally rob, rape, assault, and murder passengers,” Glazer admitted, “the sense that all are a part of one world of uncontrollable predators seems inescapable.” Today, despite scanty empirical evidence, the three-decade old soundbite from City Hall that graffiti is a gateway to violent crime has necrotized into unimpeachable truth.

Austin notes that by 1973 John Lindsay allocated the first $10 million for anti-graffiti efforts. Through the city’s bankruptcy and continued train accidents, politicians still somehow found $20 million to establish the “buff.” The chemical washing of graffitied trains not only left cars a dull color, it was harmful: hundreds of workers became sick and one man died of exposure. And in 1983, Michael Stewart was killed by transit cops for writing on a a 14th Street station wall, yet another fatal example of the effects of bad theory.

Shortly after the MTA’s victory over subway graffiti, Lee Quinones warned, “If you buff history, you get violence.” In New York, graffiti arrests have climbed nearly 200 percent since Giuliani revived the Anti-Graffiti Task Force in 1995. A quarter-million graf hits are still cleaned off subway cars a year, while 5 million square feet of graf is buffed off highways and bridges. Is this state violence or is it something else?

Some have argued that encouraging legal paintings and productions would be a socially just alternative to a scorched-earth policy of policing and punishment. That approach only encourages more intense vandalism and violence, they say, because crews turn away from focusing on creative competition towards attacking each other and the cops. As EWOK tells the Murrays, “When you push something down, it’s going to pop up somewhere else. It’s just natural progression.”

But everyone seems to agree that graffiti’s perpetual removal catalyzes innovation and ingenuity. Its countless deaths generate countless rebirths. Austin points out that when the MTA repainted its entire fleet in 1973, it ushered in a golden age of style. In graf’s status-hierarchy, piecers who don’t bomb barely rate. ESPO (whose 1999 book *The Art of Getting Over* ranks alongside PHASE II’s *Style: Writing From the Underground* and ZEPHYR and Michael White’s tribute to DONDI as the best of the graf-writer’s books) sums up the ethic nicely: “Illegal work has to say FUCK YOU, it can’t say ‘hello’ or ‘how ya doing’?” In other words, what makes graffiti an artform is its ability to dangle itself over the abyss–and occasionally fall in. Graffiti needs to be championed, but it doesn’t need to be saved.

“I think the greatness behind it is the fact that it doesn’t last,” EZO tells the Murrays. “You bomb and then it’s like, these are *my* walls, *my* throwups, *my* paintings and you can’t fuck with it…but deep inside myself, I know that nothing fuckin’ lasts. It just can’t. It’s not meant to.”





[When’s the last time you saw *that* headline in a hip-hop magazine?]

Pardon me while I jock these fools. It’s just that this fall there will be so many hot new books on hip-hop history that I have to mention them. (Plus, so many innocent trees have been killed in the name of hip-hop “scholarship” that it’s only right to big-up the real, you know what I’m saying?)

This fall, Jim Fricke and Charlie “Wildstyle” Ahearn drop *Yes Yes Yall* which is a monumentally entertaining and completely essential oral history of the old school. (Not Public Enemy, ya shorty, but the real old school–Bronx style, as they say.) Cop it or steal it, just get it.

While we’re talking monumental, Steven Hager’s classic *Hip Hop*, the book that really launched hip-hop journalism, is also slated to be re-released soon. The eBay and alibris poachers who have been ripping you off for $600 US had better get it while they can.

Ernie Paniccioli is one of the few hip-hop photographers who have been there since the beginning and his book, *Who Shot Ya* (edited by Kevin Powell), should make your eyes burn and your heart race. It’ll be out in late October. He’ll have an extensive photo exhibit opening at the New York City Urban Experience Gallery also at about the same time. His websites are here and here.

And I should mention that *Ego Trip’s Big Book of Race* is coming out this fall, too. It’s already being compared to Karl Marx’s *Das Kapital*. Even Chris Rock says he’s going to read it. I’ve seen copies of it in their secret underground laboratory and I can safely say that right-wing talk shows and Ethnic Studies graduate programs may never be the same again. Or maybe they will.





Where: Washington DC

When: Saturday, September 14, 2002

Who: 50 young Black activists, intellectuals, artists, religious and spiritual leaders, political operatives, entrepreneurs, and other young Black voices

What: An historic all-day, invite-only assembly of post-Civil Rights era/hip-hop generation Black activists, political figures/policymakers, intellectuals, artists, entrepreneurs, and spiritual/religious figures

Info: (404) 752-9044


Where: Boston/Somerville, Northeastern Student Center and around town

When: Friday, September 20 to Sunday, September 22

Who: Dead Prez, Medusa, Minister Ben Chavis Muhammad, La Bruja, Suheir Hammad, Davey D, and many more…

What: Inspiring, educating and mobilizing the hip-hop generation

By: AFSC’s Critical Breakdown, Northeastern’s BSA, Redeye Magazine, and many others…

Info: 617-661-6130 or here.


Where: Harlem, Riverside Church

When: Monday, September 23, 2002, 6pm

Who: New York City youth, Toni Blackman, Russell Simmons

What: Hear New York City youth speak out on public school education, and other issues of concern to them. Freestyle competition to follow the townhall.

By: Hiphop Speaks, Russell Simmons, the Hiphop Summit Action Network, The Riverside Church

Info: or 718-399-0695.


And last but not least, you really should know about Davey D’s new HHPN [Hip Hop Political Newsletter], a parallel to his popular FNV e-newsletter which just debuted last week. With its digest, review-style format and its grassroots approach, it’s a dope new way of staying up-to-date on the politics of hip-hop. To subscribe, just send a blank message to or try here.




steinski :: nothing to fear/solid steel radio mix

red hot + riot!

damon albarn, afel bocoum, toumani diabate + friends :: mali music

the tribute concert to chuck brown :: put your hands up!

public enemy :: revolverlution

mr. lif :: i phantom

singing melody :: expressions

greensleeves greatest dancehall anthems 1979-1982

select cuts from blood and fire, vol. 3

manu chao:: radio bemba sound system

meshell ndegeocello:: cookie: the anthropological mixtape


PLUG 1: I gotta finish up my book, man, so you won’t be seeing a newsletter for a minute. Write on.



PLUG 2: But I’ll still post to my blog.





Gary Webb was the journalist who broke the story in the late 1990s that the CIA was involved in arranging for crack cocaine to be sold into U.S. inner-cities for profits to finance the Contra counterrevolution in Nicaragua. For this, he was hounded out of his newspaper and blacklisted. Editorialists across the country took the unusual step of denouncing Webb and his journalism, despite the fact that his story was never disproven.

(His book, *Dark Alliance*, collects and expands on the articles and is a classic. In *White Out*, Alexander Cockburn and Jeff St. Clair cover how Webb was systematically hounded in the story’s aftermath.)

Webb’s original story came with a website (no pun intended) and he’s been able to revive it. Check it out here.

If you want to be added to the e-mail list, please send an email to with “gotta be down” in the subject header.


© 2002 Jeff Chang

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