You can tell a neighborhood by their tags. Their signs. An entire secret language. A gang language of visual cues. Little complex squiggles, some are bold statements, some just marks are just left by angry and over sexed youth – these are usually phaluses (phali? Phalum?) on posters and pictures set close to mouths or anything that appears as an “o” or “0”. For a long time in this city, anything worth looking at had a penis drawn upon it. Then came more sophisticated tags.
These tags are all over the city. Anywhere they can get away with it. They seem to operate above the law. Those rolling riot gates that cover storefronts. Walls in quiet places where few tread after dark. Hot spots of gang activity. Places where the 187 or Latin Kings or the DWB Boyz need to mark their territory. To the trained eye, entire linages can be identified as well as confrontations between gangs. Upstarts make it on the scene and flash in the pan fly boys come and go leaving no more than a few tags or if they make enough of a stink or flash out, some small memorial tag or mural marking their short life. If you are about the city, any city but certainly Gotham long enough you can recognize the tags. The Crips. The Bloods. And the School of Visual Arts.
Art students like to tag. They like to get real and real jiggy too. They are serious about tagging. They always wear hoodies. They wear Chuck Taylors. They get grants and apply for permits. They involve “the community.” They seem to cluster in areas that are still Too Real or at least Real Enough but not so real as not to guarantee an audience of similarly Raceclassgendered people who can view their work. “Oh man, that is totally boss,” the girl with the pink hair, Cloe from Mahwah, exclaims.
When this blogger visits The Bronx, Brownsville, Newark, certain parts of Greater Boston, Albany, Springfield, or Ottumwa I see but the art of scribbling and usually by the hands of mostly ethnic and angry youth. Idle children and members of outlaw social organizations mark their territory as they engage in an informal economy but no less capitalist struggle.
The trained eye can make educated art school tags. The musing and graffito of the student, the studied, the privileged can be pleasing to look at. It can appear more real than the real graffiti it is there since it represents not just itself, but all graffiti, the spirit of graffiti… I’m not sure how I can tell the studied hand from the spray-and-pray, I am no expert but there is a difference in those folk artist and those who study art even if they flunked out of their first semester at Hampshire. On the surface both trained and folk artists to use the same motifs and artistic devices, the same media and medium, but there is a difference. Many of the artists, those potentially gang affiliated, have created large murals as well as tags galore that explore just as much craft and display as much skill as their art school brethren, yet, there is a difference. Something subtle. The line, the curve, the subject being a clever reference to a Godard film or a social message that isn’t “fuck you”. Things to look for are melting earths, African children, Che Guevara anything (this is a special tell of a Liberal Arts trained scribbler). There was a time before all this when the untrained hand provided the majority of the city’s illegal decorations, even those in the now trendy areas of the city.
I remember seeing a city much more coated in graffiti than it is today and none of it then was sanctioned as it is today – however much the art students were already out there tagging away. I remember this one tag. “Sane Smith.” It was everywhere on the west side. Roof tops. Bridges. Chimneys and fire escapes. I figured in my childish error that this must be some message. Who was Sane Smith? I tried to make all sorts of anagrams with those letters but nothing came of it.
Twenty or more years later I was in the back seat of a Mercedes sinking into the leather seats as the driver and his brother drove about 100 MPH on the Palisades Parkway. It turned out that not only did my roommate have a criminal record, his brother at the wheel, well he was fresh out if the joint. They were discussing as brothers all the crazy shit they had done together from parties to heists. They knew the landscape of tags, the older brother knew all about Sane and Smith and had know one or the other. Apparently they were two brothers. One would write a tag and the other was compelled to prove he’d been there too. Sibling rivalry as what apparently was going on in the front seat. We hit a patch of snow and Sean yelled to his brother, don’t fucking turn this car into a sled. It was winter and a scattering of powder was all over the road. The driver slowed down to 80. The speed limit was 50… I still thought I was going to die. One night, apparently according to the story teller who resumed 100 MPH, Sane or Smith fell off a bridge to his death. And that was the end of that.
Where I lived years later after surviving many adventures with Sean was out in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The days had already changed and the older ones could already say it wasn’t like it used to be, wasn’t like those bad old days. But there was more tags from street gangs than art school posses. But in time that changed. Not just art tags but murals. Official murals. Propaganda and portfolio filler over territory markers and statements.
Gone were the penises (penum?). The statements that said “females don’t know b quiet get killed with my cock” [viewed but not documented by means of the photograph by the artist] were replaced by more activist and nuanced expressions. Depictions of black people by white kids started to appear. First a few. Then more. Then more bars and restaurants opened up. More murals and large-scale art projects. More police. Fewer tags. And before long, I could not longer afford to live there.
I think I can spot an art school tag from one left by a person of a similar age who struggled to get out of high school or just didn’t even bother. There are some folk artists still out there but it seems that that whole riot peeked back in the 1980s. It all got too “discovered” became too referential, everyone was trying to make bubble writing. Make their name, get bought up by the Whitney Museum. Get to be the next Keith Harring, minus the Mickeymousesque characters with the enlarged and often glowing anuses.
Today the city is filled with more sanctioned street art. Bushwick is indeed a center of the mural. It’s not bad to see this colour and life in the city. It is not bad news to see the gangs of art school students cover “Fuck You Kings” tags over with social constructive statements about Raceclassgener and Transphobia and Cisgender blah blah blablabbidyblahblah. It’s just maybe just a little strange. To see this sanctioned and commissioned art replace the illegal antics of Sane Smith and company. To ring in a brave new city with these giant larger-than-life official versions of the gritty city, a legal and official version of our current and future history, little different than Mao posters, Stalin statues, and Nazi legends writ large, even of they worship the sanctioned diversity of our new and gentle age of Americapitalism.
It appears that at least in some neighborhoods of the city, the gangs of the art school have won the street battle. At least for now.
Editor’s Note: The School of Visual Arts is not the only institution that churns out these artists.