This is the first part of a three-part series. It was originally posted at The Valve on Sept. 25, 2007.
I always tell people that if you want to know whats going on with a city, look at the writing on the wall: you can tell what skill level and what social problems are happening, whats going on with the youth.
Toons, Los Angeles graffiti artist
Graffiti. Not graffiti in general, which has been painted and written since humankind first put markings on cliffs and in caves, but graffiti of a certain type that originated on the East Coast of the United States, particularly New York City and Philadelphia, during the late 1970s. This type of graffiti became associated hip hop culture, which also includes the music itself, with its DJs and MCs, the videos that go with that music, the various styles of break dancing, and certain fashion styles. As hip hop spread around the world, so did associated graffiti styles, though they've never become completely absorbed into hip-hop culture.
Figure 1: Mural, Jersey Avenue, Jersey City
Note: If you want to see a larger image, you can click on the image and thus be taken to my Flickr site, where I store these images online.
That is as typical of the style as one could hope for in a single example, and that is why I chose it. The style is based on letters, specifically, the letters of the writers nickname. A writer is someone who paints graffiti. Reading the mural from left-to-right, we have DR. SEX (notice the downward sweep of the two Rs), Jersey Joe (the green creature), and HOUR. That elephant-like creature in the middle of this mural is called a character; such characters are often used as embellishments, though in some cases the embellishments may expand and take over.
This mural is about 50 yards from my apartment building, clearly visible from my front windows and from the street. Or it was visible; now it is painted over it in a medium light gray paint. Someone complained to the City and the City responded.
While I am interested in graffiti in general, I am writing specifically about examples within walking distance of my apartment. Much of what I say, however, is informed by general reports and discussions about graffiti most of which are journalistic, even informal, rather than scholarly. I have no reason to think that my local sites are unique in any but a geographical sense. Ive seen similar images in books and websites devoted to graffiti.
The Lay of the Land
I live in the Hamilton Park neighborhood of Jersey City, New Jersey, located on the West bank of the Hudson River across from lower Manhattan. This is a complex urban environment containing housing, small businesses, major roads, abandoned buildings and lots, and small concentrated patches of woodland and grassland. Think of it as an urban savanna in a temperate climate.
While exploring one site I sometimes feel like Ive fallen into one of those jungle adventure movies at the point where the Intrepid Explorers first see signs of The Ancient Temple That Has Been Lost for Ages:
Figure 2: Lost Temple?
The letters to the left of center spell out AIDS, a graff crew that is quite active in the area. I have no idea whether or not there is any affiliation with an old Chicago crew writing under the same letters: Artists Inventing Def Styles. It should go without saying that these artists know quite well that AIDS is also the name for a chronic disease. Another locally active crew calls itself ADHD.
Less than a mile from that graff we come to the remains of an old chocolate factory at least thats what Ive been told about the building:
Figure 3: The old chocolate factory
Notice the remains of spent fireworks at the lower right. I dont know when those fireworks were discharged, though July 4th is a plausible guess, but I took the photograph on October 31, 2006.
Roughly midway between those two locations there used to be several small abandoned buildings they were demolished sometime during the winter. I took this photograph inside a compound bounded by three of them:
Figure 4: Compound surrounded by abandoned buildings
Standing on an embankment not far from the mural in the first photograph, and roughly two blocks south of that now-demolished compound, I took this shot:
Figure 5: Freight terminal, PATH building, Empire State Building
In the left middle distance you see a red brick building that used to be a freight terminal for the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad. The water tower at its western end is visible from the compound in the previous photograph. In the background to the far right, the Empire State Building. The building in the middle belongs to the Port Authority Trans-Hudson, the New York-New Jersey agency that runs the port, the airports, the tunnels and bridges, and ground zero.
This then, is where I live. My apartment is roughly three-quarters of a mile from the Hudson River and three-tenths of a mile as the crow flies from the in-bound toll booths for the Holland Tunnel. The southern end of the Jersey Palisades is about a mile inland at this point. The highways serving the Holland Tunnel comes down off the Heights, as the Palisades are known locally, about a third of a mile West of me and two blocks (in-bound) and four blocks (out-bound) North.
From the last half of the nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century Jersey City, along with Hoboken immediately to the North, had major port facilities. Those facilities were served by railroad lines and yards. Many of those lines and yards where just north of my neighborhood. Most of them, but not all, are gone now. Most of the graffiti in the area, but not all of it, is located in or near the abandoned or remaining railroad facilities. That AIDS graff is 25 yards from a still active railroad line; it is painted on the base of a stanchion supporting a highway that feeds into the Holland Tunnel. The chocolate factory is 100 yards from a commuter rail line. When I took the picture spanning the old freight terminal and the Empire State Building I was standing on land that had four railroad tracks on it until the late 1960s or so.
This land is marginal to the sites where we live and conduct office and retail business. That is where you find the most interesting graffiti.
Life at the Margin
I became interested in graffiti in October of 2006. While walking to one of the sites in Jersey Citys annual tour of artist studios and galleries, I noticed things and stuff that prompted me to take pictures. Not remarkable or beautiful things, just ordinary things on the streets. So I got out my Canon point-and-shoot and began walking the streets taking pictures.
Figure 6: Abandoned doll
Figure 7: Stop Sign
One day I was beneath a long ramp that carried US Routes 1 and 9 down from the Jersey Heights and into the Holland Tunnel. At this point the roadway is supported by rows of squat cylindrical columns of reinforced concrete. When I looked down the rows toward the Tunnel I saw shopping carts, stacked mattresses, and furniture, all in order. It was an odd and unexpected sight. What was going on? I approached to investigate and, more likely than not, to take pictures.
Figure 8: Urban homestead
The only reason I did not immediately conclude that someone was living here is that that did not make sense. Here? Underneath one of the most traveled roadways on the East Coast, funneling tens of thousands of people into New York City every day of the year? In full view of an office-building parking lot? This is not an enclosed area; there is something of a roof overhead, the highway, but thats it. No, it did not make sense that people lived here. But if no one lived here, the alternative made even less sense, that someone went to a great deal of trouble to arrange trash in such an orderly fashion. By the time I had taken my third or fourth photograph I had concluded that I must be in someones home. I felt embarrassed, taking photographs of someones home without their knowledge or permission.
Over the next few days I thought about that place and the people who lived there. Yes, I thought the obvious thoughts about such poverty in the worlds wealthiest nation. But those were not new thoughts; Id been having such thoughts all my adult life.
The thoughts I now had were a bit more subtle: First, I was impressed at how orderly the place was. The residents may have been homeless, but they kept this place relatively neat and orderly. Beyond that I wondered about the informal social arrangements that make it possible for people to thus squat on public land in a densely populated area. The police certainly knew of this urban homestead and no doubt could have arrested the settlers on any number of minor charges. As long as they werent causing any obvious trouble, either to others or themselves, however, bringing formal charges makes no sense. Once theyre in the system they use public resources without producing any obvious benefit to anyone. Theres a Salvation Army facility a few blocks away, and a homeless shelter a few more blocks away. No doubt these homesteaders knew of these facilities, and others as well, and, reciprocally, that they were known in the public and private social services community of Jersey City.
What particularly struck me is that things seemed to keep in such good order in that spot and others like it day after day, week after week, month after month. These homesteaders lived outside the law, and yet seemed to keep a law among themselves, enough to keep this makeshift facility intact. I know almost nothing about the people who live there though, as it happened, a few months later I paid one of them $10 to help me with my car after someone had sideswiped it during the night but Im pretty sure that they arent the only homeless people in the area. Those who live there obviously had reached some accommodation with those who dont.
Thus ordered life goes on, outside the law, but in the same territory otherwise inhabited by those of us who can afford to own or rent standard accommodations. Two very different communities inhabit the same space, walk the same streets, only marginally known to one another.
In some measure, graffiti is like that. It goes on outside the law and proceeds according to informal arrangements among the artists their informal social contract. To be sure almost all of it is illegal, done on public or private property without permission, and contention between artists and authorities is part of the life. But to the considerable extent that the artists keep from getting caught, the laws they obey are the laws that constitute their informal world. Their graffiti is both the visible signs of that world and its raison d'être. That graffiti is central to one community, but marginal intrusions to another.
It is thus not surprising, that, as an improvised shelter prompted my interest in urban signs, in graffiti so my pursuit of graffiti led me to other improvised shelters. This is a sleeping hut behind the chocolate factory:
Figure 9: Sleeping Hut
And this is the bicycle of the man who slept there:
Figure 10: Bicycle
On the face of it, hes a Mets fan:
Figure 11: Go Mets
I had a brief chat with him. He wanted to know whether I was taking photographs for myself or for some publication. Hes the one who told me that this building used to be a chocolate facgtory. To the left of his hut we see a graff by Meres, who has a graff-related gig in Queens:
Figure 12: Meres
This couch is near that AIDs pseudo-temple in Figure 2:
Figure 13: Couch
Ive seen a man sleeping on it several times.
Figure 13: Napping
This chair is only 20 yards away:
Figure 14: Easy chair
The graff behind the chair is by Tenz, of Brooklyns DYM crew.
There is an obvious reason why graff artists share space with the homeless: they can. For the most part, no one with power and influence cares about what happens on or near these buildings and structures. No one conducts business there, no tax-payers live there. The graffiti artists thus have time to paint complex pieces without fear of being busted by the police and they have reasonable expectations that a piece will live for at least awhile before its buffed by the City or gone over by other artists.
This affinity for marginal land is hardly unique to graffiti writers. I suspect, in fact, that it is quite common, but Ill offer only one other example, one I find particularly interesting, that of pre-modern Japan. In her recent Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture, Eiko Ikegami points out that much aesthetic activity in pre-modern Japan at interstitial places such as graveyards, riverbanks, bridges, trading posts, and market places. These places were muen, meaning roughly no relation. They didnt have a fixed space in the social order; thats what made them suitable for dance, music, theatre, acrobatics, and poetry circles.
The people who participated in those activities did not come from the same social spheres and so they needed to meet in spaces which were not assigned to specific social spheres. Samurai, merchants, farmers, and others met in these marginal places as equals. Over the centuries, these informal institutions forged a civil society that generated an image of aesthetic Japan as if it had been a natural description of the geographical identity called Japan (p. 375). In the late nineteenth century, this identity coalesced around the figure of the emperor when the nation in general, and the shogunate in particular, was forced to adapt to Western imperialism.
Is the graffiti tradition one facet of a similar process happening in the contemporary world, but on an international scale? Graffiti now international in scope, as are African-American musical styles and Asian martial arts styles. The world of graffiti is everywhere marginal, having no fixed place in the local institutional order. Yes, graffiti style certainly has been appropriated and legitimized in various ways, and some graffiti works have moved to canvas and into museums; yet there is a large and activity community of writers that resists assimilation into existing institutions. They work on marginal land. This group is international and they trade photographs and ideas through the internet, a practice you can verify by doing an internet search on the term graffiti.
Bull Durham on the Wall
Now I want to consider a specific site, one where theres some writing on the wall, but only some of that writing is in dialogue with the graff tradition, much less directly in that tradition. This site is near the old Erie-Lackawanna freight terminal:
Figure 15: Lackawanna freight terminal
The terminal is two blocks long, stretching along Sixteenth Street from Jersey Avenue on the West (left) to Grove Street on the East (right). The platform in front used to support a railroad siding which split-off a feeder track to the East. The siding is now gone and the platform itself is isolated, with its eastern end just stopping in midair at Marin Boulevard (one street East of Grove).
Figure 16: Bridge from nowhere
A small segment of that large building faces a small public playground officially, the 16th Street Park at the corner of Sixteenth Street and Erie Boulevard.:
Figure 17: Playground
In the middle and upper portions of the far wall we see the faint traces of old Bull Durham ads that had been painted on the wall, presumably to attract the attention of the men who worked in the warehouse and freight terminal 24/7. These ads, of course, were not a guerilla activity. They were sanctioned and paid-for. At ground-level we see other, more recent markings. Strictly speaking, these markings are illegal, and they are not entirely within. Lets take a closer look.
Figure 18: Bull Durham wall
The wall has three areas, which follow the architecture of the building. The small center panel is more heavily worked than the flanking panels. On the left we see some Puerto-Rican flags, some names, some numbers, and other stuff. At the right we see painted goal posts with touch (obscured) down written below the crossbar. Lets zoom in on the right-hand panel.
Figure 19: Right panel, Bull Durham wall
I estimate that the crossbar is roughly three and a half to four feet off the ground. The uprights are disproportionately wide, indicating that they were painted with a roller on a long handle a common painting tool, and common in the graffiti game as well. There is crude lettering on the cross bar that says 15st Football either an observation or a wry joke. At the lower left there is a crude character eyes, cap, and fingers grabbing a name. To the left we see a Puerto Rican flag and other stuff. It is difficult to infer the order in which these various markings were made, but it seems likely that they were made by different individuals, at different times, and certainly without any overall coherent plan. The wall is a commons and various people feel free to make their markings upon it.
The left-hand panel is, overall, the same: various people making various marks at various times, with no coordination.
Figure 20: Left panel, Bull Durham wall
We see three more Puerto Rican flags, each associated with a name and a number. The obvious guess is that the names are those of the painters the three hands show slightly different styles and that the numbers are their ages. The flags are their ethnic identification. There is a large Hispanic population in Jersey City, and certainly in this particular neighborhood. There are other markings here, about which one can speculate, but I only wish to call attention to another wry commentary, SHiT STADiUM.
That photograph was taken on 27 November 2006. The following detail was photographed on 7 July 2007 and shows some new writing: Shay Shay White Boy.
Figure 21: Shay shay white boy
I do not know what that means. Note carefully the quality of the letters. These letters, all of them, are sloppy and it's not the deliberate sloppiness of writers who've mastered hand styles and basic letters. Granted, this painting is on raw brick; still, the edges of the lines are fuzzy and their quality and thickness uneven. This is true for every mark across this wall and indicates that the people who did the work were not very skilled with aerosol paint. Either they were just learning to be writers or they were not writers at all, just people who wanted to make their marks on the community wall.
Heres the central panel:
Figure 22: Bull Durham
First, note that, like the rest of the wall, this is a palimpsest; various markings have accrued over time, with the more recent ones not quite obliterating the old ones. Second, note the relative crudeness of the lines, yet they are not so crude as the lines we saw in the left-panel close-up (look at the edges). Third, note the central figure, which I take to be WAR rendered in elaborate lettering. This shows the influence of the graffiti tradition.
Some more terminology: As I noted at the beginning, graffiti is based on the writers nickname. The simplest expression of that name is a tag, generally painted with a single line, either from a marker or an aerosol spray. Throw-ups or throwies are a little more elaborate, often done with bubble letters and two or more colors, one for the outline and a contrasting color for the fill. Sometimes a third color will be used to create a background. The most elaborate graffiti is called pieces, from masterpiece.
The graff in the central panel is a crude piece. I do not know whether these letters were written by a writer going by the name of war, or whether those letters designate some war, whether a merely local war between, e.g. rival gangs or gangs and the police, or, e.g. the war in Iraq. Whatever the reference, Im most interested in the coloring: red, white, and blue. Is that just any red, white, and blue? I think not, for the red and the white are clearly in stripes. Are they the stripes of the American flag or the Puerto Rican flag? With four Puerto Rican flags on the wall, three to the left, one to the right, context argues that it is a Puerto Rican flag. Could the war be over statehood for Puerto Rico? Who knows.
However, and this is a guess, I suspect that most of the graffiti on that wall was painted by people who live in the neighborhood. For one thing, I cant imagine someone coming in from outside to scrawl SHiT STADiUM or 15st Football on the wall. Those seem like local comments on a local (15th St.) situation. The names and the Puerto Rican flags feel local as well; these blocks do have a substantial Hispanic population. The fact is, this site, though a visible one, is not the kind of site graff writers favor.
Its too visible and exposed for someone who wants to do a high-quality piece; theyre likely to be spotted by the police long before they can finish their work. And someone seeking to get up with tags and throwies is unlikely to bomb what is, after all, a community recreation facility. Graff writers may be vandals, but they have their ethical principles. As Paul 107 says in All City: The Book About Taking Space, dont hurt the little people. This space belongs to the little people. No serious writer will touch it.
There are serious writers at work in the area, however. A block and a half north of here, just west of Fourteenth and Jersey, I found this:
Figure 23: Say No2War
This graff, which is somewhere between a throwie and a simple piece in complexity, is in clear sight of traffic leaving the Holland Tunnel, or was until the building was demolished a couple of months ago. The war is not specified, but I would suspect that the war in Iraq is the target. Why? That is, given that this sign contains no more information than that on the Bull Durham wall, why am I more assured of its reference? Because the site is more visible, making it more appropriate for a general political statement. The Bull Durham wall is purely local; unless you live in the neighborhood or have business there e.g. with one of the companies now housed in the old freight terminal youll never see that wall. But NO2WAR faced traffic leaving New York City through the Holland Tunnel, tens of thousands of people daily, some bound for a home within a mile or ten of that spot, some just getting started on a cross-country trip. Such a very visible place is where you would protest the most visible war weve currently got.
Do I absolutely know this? Of course not. Im making a judgment. What is objectively true, regardless of who put that graff there, and why, is that the quality of workmanship is much higher than that on the Bull Durham wall. Whoever painted that graff, they are experienced in the craft. The writer may have lived in the neighborhood. As we have already seen, however, outsiders do come into the area to write, so it is not unreasonable to suppose that an outsider wrote that particular piece. In addition to Meres (Queens) and Tenz (Brooklyn), Host, and Taboo (DYM, Brooklyn) have several pieces within easy walking distance of the Bull Durham wall. Writers known as Ceaze and Gaser have a number of pieces in the area, including some adjacent to NO2WAR. Theyre associated with California crews, one of which, The Seventh Letter, has a website. For that matter, so does DYM.
Lets consider two more pieces of graffiti near the Bull Durham wall. Both are memorials. This one is in the graff tradition:
Figure 24: RIP Angie
The entire composition is built around the name, Angie. I assume this is the name of the deceased, not the graff writer. Notice the embellishments on the letters, the gradations of blue and the white lettering. Notice the pink background, with its bubbles, the heart, the arrow pointing up, the message well miss you. Note the assured paint-handling, the crispness of the lines; this is much more skilled than the markings on the Bull Durham wall. Was this done by a local? I do not know.
But if we head back toward the Bull Durham wall well find a memorial to A. Theres a bodega at the corner of Fifteenth and Erie. On the 15th Street wall of that bodega we see this memorial:
Figure 25: Memorial to A
Though painted with more skill than the work on the Bull Durham wall, it does not seem to be within the graffiti tradition. The lack of an overall compositional order organized around letter forms is the most obvious indicator of that. The composition is very diffuse. The painting, however, shows greater skill than that on the Bull Durham wall. The roses and leaves are well-formed, and the cherries nicely shaded. Note how sharp the edges of the A are. Whoever painted this was skilled with a can. Id guess the person is a writer who choose to work outside the tradition for this graff. I have no idea whether or not this A is the Angie in the other memorial.
The graffiti tradition, then, exists within the larger practice of putting marks on walls, a practice which, its contemporary urban form, does the medium popularized in graffiti aerosol paint. In that they are members of local communities, graffiti writers may mark the same walls as locals having no particular interest in graffiti as a specific means of personal expression; but the writers will also venture outside their local community to write.