I'm sure this will only inspire more angry comments, but nonetheless fellow urbanist Julia Kite sent me this postcard from NYC a while back:
There was a time when the Lexington was a beautiful line.
When children of the ghetto expressed themselves with art, not with crime.
But then as evolution passed, the transits buffing did its blast.
Now we wonder if graffiti will ever last.
--Epitaph for Graffiti, Lee, 1980.
I wish I could locate the postcard (rehab + home = disorganization), because the image of the whole mural, a graveyard painted on a subway car, is really something to see and is really beautiful.
Since I spent a lot of my childhood in an area with a marked gang problem, um, if anybody should hate graffiti, it's me. Early on in my life, tags meant that possibly violent attacks might be on the way. I even had the strange misfortune of riding bus #p62 in an area where other gangs were battling Six Deuce for control. New graf on our school was sometimes accompanied by things like members of rival gangs symbolically throwing glass bottles at the windows of our #p62 school bus to publically display their hatred for all things with a 6 and 2. Consequently, when I was a kid, I was terrified of gang-style graffiti.
That said, still, I have early memories of wonderful murals. I still distinctly remember going to Chicago when I was maybe six or seven, and thinking that it must be a bigger, better city because they had many more beautiful, elaborate, large colorful graffiti pieces around the city than StL did. To me, a kid from vibrant but unfancy urban places, an abundance of street art meant I must be in a great and important city. I knew that some of it was illegal, but still the line between some of the truly masterful illegal pieces I saw, and the also lovely legally sanctioned murals, was blurry in my young mind; all of it was so wonderful and made the city so much more vibrant and beautiful.
Now I own property, and now I try to advocate for historic buildings that have been deemed "nuisances," and now I try to convince more timid people that the city is "okay." I am learning some new and painful downsides to graffiti, but for the most part it almost never scares me anymore, even when it sometimes brings me great frustration and sadness (not on terra cotta or unpainted stone or brick, plz plz plz!).
Still, as a young woman who, frankly, spent a lot of her childhood in various so-called ghettos, I have to say, sometimes the line between a truly wonderful, thought-provoking tag and a truly wonderful, thought-provoking legally sanctioned mural is still a little blurry. Where I come from, this is just another form that public art takes.
I'm not saying I think graf is perfect, but I am saying thatgraf at its best is one of those things that can help make the city magic. Like a late night conversation at some crowded coffeehouse, like the feeling of seeing the skyline when you have been away for a while, like walking down a street that you never knew existed, like the corners of absolute surrealness that hide themselves in pockets near the river, like church carnivals and street kittens in springtime: magic. And people live in cities for that special city quality, that something, that overall accumulation of small magics. I'm not saying you moved here to watch the Orpheum get "vandalized," but I am saying that if you wanted endless predictable, pristine and orderly, you'd be livin' in New Town.