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Bronx Bombers: Graffiti in NYC
Robert Velasquez
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When I take the #2 train, there’s a painting between the Pelham Parkway and Allerton stops I always look for. You only have five seconds to see it as the train passes. It’s a short word in blue writing that I still can’t read because the letters swirl around and cross each other and arrows move through each letter. It’s at the top of a building where there are no fire escapes, so I wonder how the artist got up there. My friends and I all try to guess what the word is. It’s mysterious and beautiful.

I was born and raised in the Bronx and have always been surrounded by graffiti, in the staircase of my school and all over my neighborhood. I’ve seen men in black jeans and black hoods spray-painting, then running away. They have to do it at night because it’s a crime to create what in my eyes is art. While I see why building owners might not want their buildings tagged, I think the graffiti makes them look unique.

When I was in the 1st grade, my art teacher taught us how to draw 3-D block letters. I liked how the letters popped up at me. As I got older and started learning about art, I was inspired by the paintings of Picasso but also by the street art of the Bronx.

In graffiti you make up your own name, or tag, which distinguishes you from everyone else. My ancestors, the Taino Indians from the Caribbean, were tortured and deceived by the Spanish and European men who invaded their land. I’m a proud Puerto Rican and my middle name is Taino, so I took that as my tag.

I drew my tag over and over. I felt invisible to the world because my dad was either neglecting or abusing me at home. He kept me inside with no TV, so I spent hours working on my tag and a specific drawing—an animated face with spiky hair. The face had a mask; I didn’t want to be seen by the world as myself. I wanted to be somebody cooler. Improving my tag and my picture was the glue that held me together; it brought peace.

I tagged my schoolbooks. I tagged my desks at school and had to keep washing the ink off. I drew on the pages of my textbooks. It cost me bruises when the teacher told my dad about my vandalism.

To this day, however, I have never sprayed paint on a wall. My graffiti remains in my binders, notebooks, and sketchbooks. The closest I ever got to graffiti is writing “Taino” with a sharpie on a bench once. I didn’t want to get in trouble. I don’t want to make a mark that will cost me my future.

image by YC-Art Dept; Lee

Outlaw Artists

Even though I choose not to do it, I do admire the courage of the illegal graffiti artists. I got to see a lot of their work at a show at the Museum of the City of New York called “City as Canvas,” which covered graffiti in New York from about 1970 into the 1990s. Canvases, sketchbooks, jean jackets, photographs, movies, and videos showed the art of many graffiti artists who tagged throughout the city.

The graffiti in this show included the original bubble lettering from the 1970s; the 1980s “wild style” lettering with arrows; freestyling, which is script that’s not filled-in letters; political graffiti; and murals. I saw more graffiti art than ever in one place, and I loved the way people in the museum appreciated the graffiti instead of slandering it.

One of the original street artists, Riff 170, was there when we visited, and he told me about his experiences. Born in the Bronx just like me, he grew up in the 1970s and tagged trains from an early age. The “170” in his name comes from the address of the block he lived on, just like Tracy 168 and other taggers with numbers in their names. He has other tags, too, including “Cash,” “Dove,” “Peal,” and “Worm.” He had a piece in the show of a guy in ’70s platform shoes and big Afro spray-painting the word “CASH.” Riff said he wanted people to know a black kid made the work.

Though he suggested that the ’70s writers were ripped off by the ’80s muralists, Riff 170 said that graffiti was colorblind and cooperative when he started out. Black, Latino, and white kids all worked together, and everyone had respect for each other, he said, and nobody tagged over one another’s works. He said that during the ’70s white kids were allowed to hang with his crew to paint trains. Only a few years after Jim Crow, you could see the beauty of humans working together no matter what race they were.

The show covers the controversial debate of whether graffiti is art or vandalism. In the 1970s and 1980s, the subway cars were covered, and most MTA officials and employees and many subway riders were upset by it. “Trains are saturated with garbage. If this is art then the hell with art!” said one MTA official in 1981. But art curator Diego Cortez said in 1982, “Graffiti should be looked at as a highly sophisticated art form which is the image of New York, and is definitely the soul of the underground scene.” I agree more with Cortez: To me, art is any form of creative scenery made by the human hand.

Riff 170 considered it art, but he said he also considered graffiti a message to the city of New York for taking away after-school programs and leaving poor kids with nothing to do. “You take from us, we take from you,” were his words.

I think you should be able to get a permit to tag, with the building owner’s permission. Though they tore down 5 Pointz in Queens, an outdoor art space that allowed graffiti, other places have emerged where graffiti artists can paint legally, including a long wall of beautiful creative graffiti art on 30th Avenue in Astoria, Queens. There are also lots of murals in Bushwick, Brooklyn, around the Jefferson L stop. Many graffiti artists have taken their talent to advertise for big companies and design new logos. Graffiti has become a worldwide phenomenon and that gives me pride in my home borough, the Bronx.

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(FCYU-2014-10-18)

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