Halloween (24/07/365) In NYC

All through the mid to late 1970s/ early 1980s, Halloween in New York City was an all year event. It was celebrated in a rather unusual if befittingly grotesque manner: dirt and grime carpeted the streets, danger lurked amid the glow of neon to the tincture of  shadow, while destitution and despair ceaselessly loomed.

This new Halloween was born at the end of the 1960s when the Vietnam War really began raging, inciting an unprecedented anger and distrust towards government, only to be complemented by the Watergate scandal. Resentment became coupled with malaise as the US economy underwent a dismal sea change brought on by the Arab Embargo of 1973.

Sections of the city that were already depressed became wastelands riddled with abandoned buildings and widespread poverty. Graffiti was everywhere, from decrepit subway trains to gated storefronts, a misbegotten yet brazen response to an apparently crumbling infrastructure.

Transit Authority K-9 Police use German Shepherds on the subway to deter crime. ~ image copyright © Allan Tannenbaum

The political ideals and goodwill of the 1960s that many politicians had aspired towards, had become the political corruption and incompetence of political hacks consumed by cynicism and self-interest. Tourist meccas, stretching from Times Square and Central Park in Manhattan to Coney Island in Brooklyn, were overrun by sleaze and vice. Crime was on the rise with each sunrise while an emaciated police force merely looked on. In many ways, the appearance of a Son of Sam was anticlimactic.

But the most shocking humiliation came on October 30, 1975, following NYC’s request for a federal bailout, via one of the New York Daily News’ most infamous headlines: “Ford to City – Drop Dead.” While this headline is an intentional misquote on the part of the Daily News (President Ford never said that), the essence of what he had (arguably) said was conveyed; but, at that point, people would’ve believed anything negative coming out of any branch of government. After all, it was Halloween all year round: a time when the tricks far outweighed the treats.

A photo collection of New York City in those troubled times: When The City Was a House of Horrors (Lens-NYT).

Aesthetic Vandalism

New York City has, for approximately forty years, served as a sort of steel-and-concrete canvass for graffiti artists. From all over the world (including places beneath it), artists of questionable talent and doubtful character have sought the city’s subway cars, buildings and billboards as “in your face” ateliers for their peculiar medium of expression. Considerable time is usually devoted to surveying and then spray-painting nearly inaccessible and dangerous areas with brilliant precision. Indeed, if these very resourceful bohemians were to use their skills within a more culturally acceptable avocation, they would most likely be extremely successful.

While their finished works are oftentimes impressive they are, of course, illegal. New York seems to be in the midst of another wave of graffiti-inspired creativity and many new and original works are appearing throughout the city. Graffiti finds its motivation in social instability and political uncertainty, the original driving force for its emergence, and today’s socio-political climate isn’t short on instability and uncertainty. A special force of the New York Police Department, its Graffiti Unit, claim a 28% rate of graffiti-related arrests over the past year. The unit’s technology increased over the years with highly sophisticated monitoring devices and databases to track their cruder, less high-tech targets.

Graffiti itself was born when neither the term itself nor today’s technology were even popularly known or imagined. In fact, it apparently began with one unknown individual in the late 1960s known as “Julio 204.” He’s thought to have lived somewhere in Manhattan on 204th Street: hence, the tag, Julio 204 was believed to be his name and street number.  Indeed, this is what he scrawled on subway stations and trains, and sprayed-painted varieties of “Julio 204″ began to appear with ever-increasing frequency throughout the system as the decade came to an end.

In 1971, Julio found a competitor when a Greek youth named Taki 183 made his debut. Unlike Julio, Taki’s place of residence was known: the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. This was thanks to the New York Times who found Taki and interviewed him. In an article titled “Taki 183,” he became an idol to those who shared his inclinations and he soon had a host of admirers and pen pals. Hundreds, then thousands, of these fans would follow Julio and Taki’s example and embark on New York City’s “golden age” of graffiti through the 1970s with larger and more complex expressions of isolation and desperation down to the present day…which, in many ways, is like yesterday.

For anyone curious to learn more, The HipHop Network has a splendid series of articles which explore the history and aesthetics of graffiti.