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.