Thursday, January 29, 2009

Screaming off the walls

I sing the praises of street art. Like much of the overstimulation in New York City, it can be easy to tune out, the way one tunes out loud conversations on the subway or the handbills that cover downtown construction sites. But every now and then as I traipse around the borough, something jumps off the walls and grabs my attention, be it with color, whimsy, or a full-on shout. Much of what I see may or may not be graffiti--it's hard to tell whether the owners of these buildings acquiesced or not. Still, as the presence of ads in both photos above demonstrates, our visual world brims with messages in all shapes and sizes daily, so even if these messages were the work of rogue spraysters, it's hard for me to fault them. At my most naively sentimental, I can almost think of them as "urban environmentalists," staking a public claim to what our world looks like against the private-property claim that allows the owner to sell his space for ads that are, aesthetically speaking, equally garish.

Caveat: I know full well that there are institutional channels through which to pursue control over our built environment (public hearings, the election of officials who promise certain types of zoning and usage laws, etc), but the problems in these channels abound: they're slow, they're ineffective, they're easily frustrated by wealth and power. I'm also aware that slapping your own slogan on a wall isn't any more democratic than buying up the property and doing what you want with it--in fact, it's probably less so, if you take at face value the premise that anyone has the opportunity to make money, buy a property, and dress it up as they so choose. But I can't help enjoying the subversiveness of the better bits of street art out there (fantastic catalogue of work at this site). Maybe it's the Yippie in me.

Truth be told, I'm not convinced that advertising execs and the vast majority of taggers are that different--both seem rather unconcerned with what any sort of democratic majority wants a particular space to look like, both are hellbent on being seen at nearly any cost, and both are willing to subvert the law (ad execs by buying it out, taggers by scaling a bridge or fence) if the situation requires. But before I offer unqualified praise of graffiti artists, I should say that I watched an MTA employe scrub and scrub at a boring, unoriginal tag in the Grand Street B-D Station the other night. It looked like the most tiresome, boring work on the planet, and it was clearly going to take hours (I saw him make a miniscule amount of headway in the 10 minutes I stood on the platform). The employee was clearly exhausted, and his body language from across the tracks was almost enough to turn me into a law-and-order voter.

To conclude the ramble: I'm a fan of street art, particularly when it offers a positive message to passersby and occupies a wall at the behest of the proprietor. If you find an obnoxious tag on your building, however, call the city up, and they'll help you get rid of it.

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