Writing is on the wall for New York graffiti artists

Having waged a long and largely successful war against its prolific graffiti artists, New York is seeking to disarm the city’s hold-out “spray-painting punks” once and for all.

Since January 1, a raft of new restrictions have come into force, including raising from 18 to 21 the age at which it is legal to possess “graffiti instruments”, such as etching acid, aerosol paint cans and broad-tipped indelible markers.

More draconian is a statute making anyone deemed in possession of such instruments with the intent to “make graffiti” subject to arrest.

Newly re-elected mayor Michael Bloomberg says the new laws are “common sense measures” that will keep New York clean and beautiful.

The municipal council member behind the new restrictions, Peter Vallone, has been less restrained in touting their importance.

“We realise these bills push the envelope. But it’s time to get serious,” Vallone told the Daily News. “We can no longer let these spray-painting punks use our city as their unmarked canvas.”

The city initiative has reignited a long-running debate between the defenders of graffiti as legitimate street art and those who view its proponents as little more than vandals.

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says the bills are an “embarrassment” and an example of the city overreaching to criminalise a “perfectly lawful, protected, expressive activity”.

“It’s one thing to ban the unlawful marking of a building, but it’s crazy to criminalise carrying around a pen!” Lieberman says.

Urban graffiti peaked in New York in the mid-1970s, most notably on the subway system, where large numbers of competing artists, or “writers”, daubed the train exteriors with their elaborate, sprayed creations.

Increased transport security and the development of graffiti-resistant materials saw the underground movement dwindle away by the start of the 1990s and many writers either gave up or went mainstream, working for advertising companies or even championed by art dealers.

Their street work has not completely disappeared, with graffiti marks still popping up on sections of walls, bridges and abandoned factories, especially in the boroughs outside Manhattan.

“It’s always been more of a hobby for most writers,” says KET, a 35-year-old graffiti legend turned publisher, who prefers to be identified by his writer’s “tag”.

“It’s something that we do or we did very much full time when we were kids and then later turns something that we do more as a form of recreation than a full-time activity,” he says.

For KET, the new legislation is not only unfair but also impractical, because it focuses on punishment rather than prevention.

“None of it is going to stop graffiti, none of it is going to stop people from painting,” he says.
“No matter what laws you create, there’s still a need for people to express themselves publicly and that’s never going to change.”

He also echoes Lieberman in arguing that the measures go way too far.

“I don’t think that everyone that carries around spray paint is a graffiti writer,” he says. “It makes it a tough thing just for regular students, which I don’t think is really fair.”

KET believes a better initiative would be to begin treating graffiti as a genuine form of cultural expression.

“Then maybe more and more people would move towards the art form versus the vandalism side of it,” he said.

One motivating factor behind the new bills is a slight resurgence in subway graffiti, with writers using etching acid to create indelible marks on the train windows.

“I think it’s a very clever way for writers to introduce their names back into the subway, which is where a lot of writers feel like their names belong,” KET says.—AFP

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