Graffiti in New York: Analytical Overview

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When citizens have grievances with their government and desire change, it is always the youth and underrepresented that react first and stand up for these said changes. This is a cycle that has not changed throughout history. However, the methods used to get one’s point across has changed throughout the decades as technology advances and as the government pushes back. In the 70s and 80s, New Yorkers used graffiti as a medium to express themselves and to voice out their opinions and thoughts. Unfortunately, the government did not perceive graffiti as such and instead saw it as an eyesore in public space that needed to be removed. Thus, the government started to pushback and the conflicting viewpoints led to clashes between the government and graffiti artists. 'The Making of Space, Race, and Place” by Maggie Dickinson explores the background and effects of New York City’s “graffiti epidemic” and both differing viewpoints of government and graffiti artist during the clashes.

‘70s New York City was nothing like the current New York City. The city was in a downwards spiral and plagued by crime and poverty. It was a time of uncertainty and nothing was in order because the government was impoverished and lacked the funds to properly run the city. In fact, this is further supported by the blackout of 1977 where some New Yorkers during a blackout went amok and committed crimes. Many have pinpointed the underlying tensions, lack of direction, and the city’s financial problems as the culprit for the incident and for what spurred the people to act up. To the government, with the lack of order and control in the city, graffiti represented people infringing on their authority and served as a reminder for their shortcomings. This led to the government taking action against graffiti, “In May 1972 the New York Times printed an editorial praising city council president Sanford Garelik’s public declaration of war against graffiti as a form of visual pollution” and then “Not long afterward, Mayor Lindsay proposed his anti-graffiti legislation, defining graffiti as a crime subject to legal penalty. This law was ultimately passed by the Council on 11 October 1972” (p. 29). The effect of these actions were felt immediately and “Within a year the coalition against graffiti between city government, the media and the business community had been solidified. Henceforth, graffiti writers would be referred to as vandals, thugs and criminals in the mass media, and their own voices would be largely shut out” (p.29). The government had no control over the city and so they targeted graffiti, something that was not organized but simply a collection of individual work that added up, it was their first step to cleaning and regaining order in the city. The government demonized graffiti which turned public perspective against the artists and paved the way for legal action against graffiti. The government failed to realize that graffiti was not a way for people to act up and make a fool out of them, but rather a way for the youth and the underrepresented to get their message across and to bring awareness for issues in the city. Growing up and living in this chaotic time, many formed their own opinions and thoughts on the problems that were happening in their city but lacked a way to express and bring attention to it. To them graffiti was a medium that allowed them to be seen and heard. Many of the graffiti artists were from demographics that are often ignored, they were often “young, poor, and from minority backgrounds” (p.32). For those that were used to be written off, they clung on to graffiti because to some they felt like they didn’t have any other way of expression and the government action against it only verified that feeling (p.32). One example was the MTA, “Graffiti called attention to a mass transit system that had fallen into utter disrepair and which the city had no possible means to fix. Many of the more skilled writers saw their creative efforts as attempts to beautify a neglected, ramshackle transit system that had been subject to years of dis-investment and deferred maintenance' (p.30). Graffiti brought awareness to the problems of the MTA and it worked because the government finally paid attention to the trains. Unfortunately, the attention that the government gave was not the one the graffiti artists wanted. The government paid more attention to the graffiti on the trains and saw that as the reason for why the trains were in the state that they were in rather than the fact that it was due to their own neglect. Graffiti wasn’t just a political movement against authority. In fact, for some it was more innocent than that, people also used it to communicate with others and it was seen as a “third rail mail” (p.31). In a city that was so uncertain and divided at the time, it created a sense of community and who can fault people for wanting comfort and a sense of belonging.

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Nowadays, as a leftover impact from the war on graffiti, many relate graffiti with a negative connotations unconsciously. However, to get the truth one has to go back and examine the city’s history, Dickinson in “The Making of Space, Race, and Place” reveals a history and a group of voices that were unfairly silenced and scapegoated by the government to hide their own faults. History tends to repeat itself and it’s hard to not relate the war on graffiti with the political atmosphere of today. The war on graffiti targeted minorities by “Linking graffiti, already defined as a crime under Lindsay’s administration, to representations and stereotypes of poor black and Latino communities translated easily into the portrayal of graffiti as a real threat to the well-being of the city” (p.35). The government used fear to turn people against others, “This strategy exploited the very real reduction in services suffered by white ethnic communities through the 1970s by blaming them on communities of color, who had suffered even more. This was an especially effective strategy to divide and conquer the working classes in New York and to ensure that they did not unify in opposition to New York’s restructuring. It was also effective in fueling increased hostility toward poor people of color and justifying more brutal treatment of these groups” (p.35). Today, there is still a lot of divide, the same fear mongering strategies are still being used. Yet, this time, many will speak up and call people out which created a “canceling culture.” People will always have opinions and grievances against the government, in the 70s and 80s, people didn’t have a platform so they used graffiti. Today, social media is used as a platform and so the fight has mostly left the streets and moved there. It is easy for this generation to judge and to demonize graffiti because that foundation had been laid long before we were born, but the truth is without social media many would still be resorting to graffiti to create a lasting impact and to be heard.

In the end, the issues that were relevant in the past created a lasting impact on the future and in some cases are still relevant now. Maggie Dickinson in “The Making of Space, Race, and Place” reveals the history behind the reason why graffiti is so prevalent in the city and why its reputation is tied to a negative connotation. Graffiti is the predecessor to social media and paved the way for those without a voice and those that are ignored to speak out. Back then in the 70s and 80s, adults and authority figures condemned them and saw graffiti as people acting out. This fact has not changed, in 2019, people still see those that speak out as naive and causing trouble. However, this time around, people are not as easily swayed and won’t go down without a fight.

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