Ahoy out there in the webnetland! I borrowed Graffiti NYC from the Toronto Public Library.
In recent years there have been a large number of books published about street art. Unfortunately, many of these published works are simply photo books, with nothing to say about their subject matter. The fact that so many of these books offer little insight into graffiti leaves these books without much value because in the contemporary urban environment, graffiti is ubiquitous. I love graf and street art, and I do not need books to show it to me. Nor does anyone who has a casual or minor interest in it. I live in a city and I can see at least a couple examples of it any time I take a walk, no matter which direction I take when I leave home. For this reason, I think, a book about graffiti must offer something other than photographs of a few examples of it, which is unfortunately all that Graffiti NYC presents to its readers. This book fails to offer an angle on its material other than what its title suggests, that is, it displays some of the graffiti that has appeared in New York City over some period of time.
Aside from walking around an urban centre, the Internet is the best source for finding examples of graffiti art. The Art Crimes website has been in operation since 1994, documenting and archiving a huge amount of graffiti images from around the world. The Wooster Collective manages a popular blog that features the work of street artists that often disavow the tendencies of traditional graffiti. There are many other websites that feature graffiti and street art, and in their speed of capture and representation of recent art they are superior to any book publishing effort.
With regards to graffiti books, most that I have read try to offer some particular line of thought on their subject matter. Graffiti Kings by Jack Stewart serves as a history of early subway art in NYC and analyzed the style and practices of the burgeoning artists. Susan Philips’ Wallbangin’ explored the uses of graffiti particular to LA gang culture. Mascots and Mugs by David "Chino" Villorente and Todd "Reas" James, examines the appropriation of comic book characters by graffiti artists. Graffiti NYC offers no insight into a particular aspect of graffiti art, nor does it survey any tendency in graffiti practice in depth. Instead, it provides a series of shots of some art from new york city from some time.
Graffiti art is omnipresent in the urban environment, and all Graffiti NYC seems to suggest is that the graffiti in New York is no different or superior to the graffiti in Toronto and Ottawa. A couple of years ago a zine was published that featured a series of building doorways from San Francisco where the doors were covered in stickers and tags. The implication of the zine was that this was a unique feature of San Francisco graffiti. Doorways in every city are marked up in the same manner. There’s no call for a literature that ahistorically and acritically presents a folk art that exists in every urban environment, and then make a claim that there’s something unique being captured between those book covers.
Many of Graffiti NYC’s pages are colour photos of painted walls, truncated to display a picture of an individual, presumably an artist. The pages are unnumbered and there is no textual information attached to the images on the pages. I suspect that, because graffiti resists gallery display, the editors of this book felt that the injustice of the high art world ignoring the graffiti subculture could be corrected by setting images of graffiti in an interesting format. This does the images a disservice, however, not only are they liberated from their original urban context, there’s no effort by the editors to provide information to help a reader contextualize the images. Some data pertaining to the images appears in an appendix in the back, however the pages are mostly unnumbered which makes connecting a piece of data to a particular image an incredible strain on the reader’s patience.
Graffiti NYC expresses an insecurity about graffiti’s status, and also a certain moral narcissism. The introduction decries the high art world’s ignorance of graffiti. What an injustice! Not only was current art-star (and street artist) Banksy popular in 2006, but long before then graffiti had had an influence on high artists and other manifestations of high culture. A character in novelist John DeLillo’s highly regarded 1997 novel Underworld was a prominent graffiti artist. Furthermore, post-modern philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote quite a bit about NYC graffiti in his important cultural theory text, Symbolic Exchange and Death. Style Wars is a well known Graffiti documentary that has been re-released in an anniversary edition, which features a number of graf artists forming a union to work with NY’s gallery system. Finally, two of the best known (New York) artists of the 1980s, Keith Harring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, were graffiti artists. And while Basquat and Harring transcended graffiti styles, street artists like Lady Pink gained reknown beyond the graffiti subculture for her graffiti skills. Does the high art world have to acknowledge graffiti? It appears as though it already has, so then what form of acknowledgment would satisfy the editors of this book? Graffiti is the illegal art found on other people’s property. When the art is legal, it changes state, and isn’t truly graffiti although it may retain a style developed by the graffiti subculture.
Finally, Graffiti NYC, demonstrates a kind of moral narcissism. It’s authors put the word crime in quotations, as though crime and art are genuinely counterpoised, and if the struggle to call graffiti art can just succeed, then no one will consider it crime anymore. This is an infantile attitude that carries through the book. The text in the book is sparse, only a four page introduction and three interludes from the images in which quotes are taken from graffiti artists where they express their attitudes in brief statements about graffiti related issues. While many other books on graffiti contain detailed insights into the craft, or lengthy interviews with experienced artists (such as All City: The Book About Taking Space by Paul103), Graffiti NYC reduces the artists to short quotations where some artists revel in graffiti’s crime status, and others whine about how it may be illegal, but there’s worse crimes out there; thus creating a confused and mangled sense of what the book is trying to express.