A Spray of History in Cyberspace
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 1999; Page A1 NEW YORK They called themselves writers. They considered themselves artists. And just as New York's intellectuals of the 1920s had their Algonquin Round Table, the city's legendary graffiti taggers of the 1970s and '80s had the 149th Street subway station in the Bronx, a salon where the elite could meet to bicker, swap ideas and admire their own scribblings.
Those days are gone, and the 149th Street Grand Concourse "the bench," as the taggers called it is just another station on the Lexington Avenue line. To the cheers of most straphangers, an intense anti-graffiti campaign by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority known underground as "the buff" scrubbed the entire subway system clean a decade ago, sending scores of the city's best "writers" into retirement and forcing most of the others to spray-paint elsewhere.
But the bench has resurfaced in cyberspace. The creators of the Art Crimes Web site recently stopped adding to its list of more than 500 graffiti-related links because "there are too many new sites every day for us to continue." As for the old 149th Street crowd, it now hangs out at www.at149st.com, New York City's Cyber Bench, featuring museum-style photos of classic works by 100 subway vandals, a glossary of tagging terms, notices of gallery openings featuring graffiti artists and a history of the "New York movement."
The site's thirtysomething managers, former taggers Luke Felisbret (a freelance artist who used the tag SPAR during his days with The Fantastic Partners and The Non-Stoppers crews) and his brother Eric (a graphic designer whose tag was simply ERIC), see themselves as modern-day preservationists, keeping alive a lost urban art that symbolizes rebellion at a time when New York is shedding so many of its rough edges. They say they also are preserving a lost underground community, and through the magic of the Web, expanding it around the world, connecting with imitators in Australia, Germany, Japan and Brazil.
Their critics, including many of the 3 million New Yorkers who ride the subways every day, say the cybertaggers are promoting criminal activity and glorifying a despicable era of lawlessness in New York. To which the Felisbrets reply: Well, maybe. But they believe the exuberant "wild-style" designs that once covered almost every square inch of MTA steel are reminders of a significant youth movement, in the tradition of the Beatniks and hippies.
"The movement's gone from on the lines to online," says Eric Felisbret, who used to carry a pocket camera with his spray paint to capture his creations on film. "The Web is all about freedom of expression, and that's what the subways used to be for us. And on the Web, you don't have to worry about the buff. The art can last forever."
Those benches became centers for a new youth culture, mostly male but otherwise diverse. It was divided between Kilroy-style "bombers" who sought maximum visibility and the more artistic "burners" who emphasized quality, between crews who made one particular subway line their personal turf and individuals who went "all-city." There were Algonquinesque debates about who was "dope" (good) and who was "wack" (bad), as well as thorny ethical issues: Is it cool to tag private property? How about a truck owned by a corporation? Are you a "toy" (loser) if you don't "rack" (shoplift) your supreme-quality Red Devil paint?
"It was a real community, and we had a real code of behavior," recalls Luke Felisbret, who started tagging as a 9-year-old on the Lower East Side and kept at it for 15 years. "We were trying to create something beautiful. It's depressing how it's all changed."
The decline began in the early 1980s when the MTA cracked down on graffiti, repairing entry holes in its train-yard fences, adding guards at previously unsecured "layups" where trains parked in off-peak hours and pulling trains out of service as soon as any graffiti was discovered. Meanwhile, new laws increased penalties for vandalism, restricted the sale of paint to minors and required merchants to lock up spray cans. "The buff was stronger and more consistent than ever, making the life span of many pieces months if not days," the Web site's history explains. "This frustrated many writers, causing them to quit."
At the same time, the benches were beginning to splinter. Beefs that used to be resolved with macho banter or fistfights started ending in gunplay. Some crews turned to crack cocaine and others began robbing each other for paint. Most taggers stopped focusing on the quality of their "hand style" because they were in too much of a rush to avoid the cops and rival crews.
The MTA has been essentially graffiti-free since 1989, although a few defiant New York taggers still go after "clean trains." Others have shifted to freight trains. Some, like VINNY, are strung out on drugs; others, like SLICK, were killed in the act of spraying. Some show off their work in gallery exhibitions, murals or at the so-called Hall of Fame wall on 103rd Street in Spanish Harlem. ZEPHYR has contributed art for a Sprite ad campaign. COPE2 is coming out with a new graffiti-and-music video called Kings Destroy. But the real action these days is outside New York, and to the chagrin of foreign officials, outside the United States.
Of course, the disappearance of subway graffiti does not make most New Yorkers misty-eyed with nostalgia. Subway ridership here is at its highest level in three decades, and the MTA's zero-tolerance graffiti policy has helped dispel the notion of anarchy underground. The buff was in place before Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani took office, but with the possible exception of the rejuvenation of Times Square, it may be the ultimate symbol of Giuliani's relentless vision for an orderly New York a vision he has pursued through public crusades against squeegee men, sex shops, drug dealers, incivility, turnstile jumpers and even jaywalkers.
"The subways used to have a Clockwork Orange feel, like everything was out of control," said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign. "The vast majority of riders hated the graffiti. If you look at the list of good things that have happened in New York lately, getting rid of it is right up there with the drop in crime."
But the MTA has not entirely abolished vandalism on the subways. The new scourge is known as "scratchiti," crude window carvings made by teenagers with keys, sandpaper, nails or lava stones. Scratchiti does not allow for much creativity in design; it's usually just a name, with an occasional Valentine-style heart, like the ones lovers use to carve into tree bark.
It is perhaps not surprising that in the scratchiti era, the cycle of generational disdain continues. New York's Cyber Bench does not feature scratchiti artists; its founders, who used to sneak into train yards with stolen spray cans, consider "scratchiti artist" an oxymoron.
"Man, I hate that scratchiti," Luke Felisbret says with a wince. "It's not art. It's the ugliest thing kids ever invented."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company