Humanities & Social Thought

Graffiti and Moral Geographies in New York City

Public space in the city is most frequently perceived by the public literally: a physical space where various logistical processes, mostly involving moving from one place to another, take place.  A sociological conception of space asks how spaces are constructed – or “produced” – socially.  Such a view of public space looks at the social dynamics[1] at work to understand what the public space is.[2] A theory originally proposed by John Locke asserts two arguments. The first is that public space should be composed of individually owned, private property that is shared through the competition of a fair and free market – that is, that which is “public” is shared via exchange value – an individual offers up X which is produced by him and gets an equal value of Y in return. Locke’s first argument hinges on the idea that the labor of the individual is tied to the land he owns.  His second argument, which follows the logic of the first, is that an individual who is not productive does not have the right to land.[3] This is one way in which certain demographics become marginalized, and the public can normalize certain definitions of productive specifically in order to marginalize certain populations in the city. Locke’s market driven discussion of value is also a model for seeing public space.  A full discussion of the ways in which the social construct of public space produces norms, and thus which demographics are marginalized, is beyond the scope of what can be addressed here. There are simply too many kinds of public spaces, and too many things that happen in them. Instead, I will take the specific example of public space in New York City from the 1960’s through the 1990’s, and the particular dynamics that graffiti create to model the ways in which the social order of public space can be disrupted and resisted.  This paper will show that graffiti resists the order of public space in its nascent stages, and is ultimately subsumed by capitalist interests or subdued by the state. Despite the relatively linear progression of the dynamics that produce graffiti and that graffiti produces, it is worth noting that in New York City, all of these stages are happening simultaneously, as new graffiti is appearing constantly.
In the late 1960’s, New York City’s mayor, John Lindsay, and his administration were facing a string of unlikely and unlucky events – there was a sanitation strike, a public school shut down, a transit strike and a big Winter storm that combined to make movement in the city very difficult. Many of the tensions that led to these outbursts were inherited, but nonetheless the administration was put on the defensive – it needed to show that it could competently run the city. It was during this time that the rhetoric in support of civility as a sustainer of city life began to emerge in New York City.[4]  During the same time, TAKI 183 was working as a delivery boy and scrawling his name all over the city. He lived on 183rd street, and Taki was his nickname. His job allowed him to get his name up, or to “get up” as Graffiti writers are apt to say, all over the city. The ubiquitous presence of “TAKI 183” ultimately culminated in a feature article by the New York Times. By 1971, graffiti had left the confines of the ghetto and began to appear in high profile locations. In 1972, Sanford D. Garelik, city council president, said, “‘graffiti pollutes the eye and mind and might be one of the worst forms of pollution we have to combat.”[5]
In fact, there were two kinds of graffiti being produced, though they could overlap. The first, which most people already knew, were gang markers to identify territory. Given its purpose, this type of graffiti never strayed from gang territory. The second form of graffiti, as I will show shortly, actually emerged in resistance to the first, and specifically moved outside of gang territory in order to identify its new purpose: to resist invisibility, and to reveal marginalization.
But for many New Yorkers, this distinction was not apparent. Graffiti had become a symbol of the failure of New York City to sustain social order on its streets. A report from the Bureau of the Budget of the City of New York encouraged the city to carry out psychological experiments on graffiti writers to determine their motivations.[6] Taki himself is quoted as asking, “Why they go after the little guy? Why not the campaign organizations that put stickers all over the subways at election time?”[7] A psychologist, Robert W. Stock, referred to graffiti as “symbolic assault” in a New York Times article.[8] In addition, Nixon was rolling back programs that kept youth off the street, and while the city tried to pick up the slack where the federal government withdrew, it largely failed in this endeavor.[9] This goes some way to exposing the implicit relationship New York City saw between poor Latino and black youth and graffiti, and the way the association with those populations informed its understanding of graffiti as anti-civility.  But Nathan Glazer might have been the first to coherently express these views in 1979 when he wrote in the The Public Interest, “I have not interviewed subway riders; but I am one myself, and while I do not find myself consciously making the connection between graffiti-makers and the criminals who occasionally rob, rape, assault and murder passengers, the sense that all are part of one world of uncontrollable predators seems inescapable. Even if the graffitists are the least dangerous of these, their ever-present markings serve to persuade the passenger that, indeed the subway is a dangerous place – a mode of transportation to be used on when one has no alternative.”[10]   The rhetoric around the quality of life paradigm confused the clear right to safety with the right to exclude, marginalize or actually remove whole populations that were believed to potentially create disorder. As Alex S. Vitale notes, “quality of life created a stark division between residents’ reasonable desires to be free of fear and harassment and their belief that the way to achieve this is by systematically removing anyone perceived to be a potential source of these problems.”[11]
In 1982, the increasing bias towards young Latino and black youth found formal representation in the “Broken Windows Theory,” written by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. This theory confused correlation with causation, suggesting that low-level crimes and misdemeanors were responsible for neighborhood decline, and that as the neighborhood declined, more serious crime and violence would follow. As Kelling and Wilson framed it, if when a window is smashed, it is repaired immediately, then that means that there are codes of moral behavior being enforced that essentially do not allow for the sort of social deviance that vandalism entails. However, if it is not fixed, it is only a matter of time before all of the windows are smashed, and the building is vandalized with graffiti art, because there were no effective moral codes enforcing civility. This influenced a lot of policy in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and the City government began to see the marginalized and the poor as the cause of marginalization and poverty.[12]
In 2000, David Matless wrote an essay on moral geographies in which he notes, “moral codes are revealed when their limits are transgressed.”[13] He discusses the idea of moral geographies, which refer to the moral codes that produce particular spaces – different spaces can have different moral codes, and these are moral geographies. Moral codes are socially constructed, and therefore moral geographies are a reflection of social norms surrounding behaviors in different places. These moral geographies delineate, by way of these norms, who is included and who is excluded, by marking certain behaviors more associated with particular populations outside of social norm. When those populations resist against this form of social policing, the norms are suddenly revealed explicitly. Until that moment, the very existence of the norms may not be in the public consciousness.[14] Moral geographies can cause stark divides not only between demographics, but also between logics. In fact, TAKI 183 and his friends were not aspiring criminals, and what they were trying to resist was a particular kind of social order that was largely invisible to city government officials and citizens like Glazer, who, through their own interaction with moral geographies, did not have access to either the desires and values of underrepresented youth, or the social norms that created the moral geographies in gang territories.
It turns out that the graffiti writers were reacting to the limitations imposed on them by gang territories. They used their tagging as a way of avoiding the power dynamics of gangs, because the nature of tagging is that a writer has to “get up” as many places as he can, he must be territory-less. Graffiti writing was a respected art and a justification for not joining a gang, which also enabled graffiti writers to avoid drug addiction. [15] The second motivation for graffiti writers in the seventies and the eighties was recognition, as Themis Chronopolous put it, “to escape invisibility.”[16] The rising rhetoric around subduing graffiti artists and getting tough on small crime served only to show that it was working.  City officials highlighted hip-hop culture, which largely existed in Latino and black youth populations in the projects, as responsible for the decline of New York City, and the graffiti problem in the subway. But graffiti was the most obvious aspect of hip hop culture, and most offensive, because of its aggressive overtaking of public space. Astonishingly, the graffiti writers were well aware of the political significance of their work and in response to hostility from smaller gangs in Manhattan and Brooklyn, they formed their own gang called “The Ex-Vandals,” which eschewed violence and relied instead on safety in numbers. Graffiti writers were as concerned with their own citizenship, and what it meant to be a community member as their detractors were, and this awareness guided graffiti writing in New York City towards political action.
To be clear, gang graffiti never stopped existing, and quite often did symbolize a lack of safety, especially in the territories of smaller gangs, who attacked not only rival gang members but also simply individuals they came across in their territory.[17] But for the Ex-Vandals, there was certainly a political consciousness, and soon there was a publication to represent that consciousness- The International Graffiti Times, also called The International Get Hip Times (or TIGHT).[18]  Based out of New York, this publication included discussions of issues such as apartheid, and included rap lyrics and interview with graffiti artists. It also expressed disdain for local government.  Another surprising element in the graffiti culture in the seventies and eighties was the explicit mentorship. Graffiti artists would draw the outlines of their work, usually in white, before they colored them in, and they would bring in younger kids who they found in the train yards admiring their work to make the outlines and learn how to write.[19] All of this then shows that the graffiti community in NYC had its own code of civility and awareness of its own moral geography.
This political awareness continued within hip hop culture and is still present today. Here is part of the top definition from Urban Dictionary for Graffiti:

“An element of the Hip Hop culture misinterpreted and misrepresented by the mainstream media, and most especially hated by affluent (usually white) businessmen who don’t understand the roots or meaning of the writing on the walls….since Graffiti is an element in Hip Hop just as important as DJing, MCing and Breaking, any assault on Graffiti (i.e., calling it “vandalism”, “not art”, etc.) should be viewed as an assault on Hip Hop altogether…Now it may seem like everything is okay since Rap has hit the mainstream, but the major corporations threaten its existence every day. Remember the last Rap video you saw on TV. Did you see any tags, any DJs working the wheels of steel, any B-Boys tearing up the floor, any MCs really rocking the party? Or was it just images of scantily clad females, guys flashing their “bling”, and “gangstas” shooting their guns off? Chances are it was the latter, the money-making gimmick that corporations such as MTV make money off of today.”[20]

As the reader can see, there is still a hard line drawn between hip hop culture and gangster culture. The mention of corporations is significant, too. With the rise of neoliberalism in the seventies, a new manner of civility arose. That is, while the administration was very clear about graffiti representing anti-civility, it also needed to shape what civility looked like, and it did so in a neoliberal framework. Often, this resulted in the state or corporations making decisions on behalf of communities based on their perceived interests, which emphasized the local and therefore often skewed minority interests. Moral geographies that emphasized both localism and majoritarianism challenged diversity as well as any larger, city-wide coherence. Moral codes were developed that did not contain awareness of the way their own behaviors were both informed by and informed the dynamics of the larger city. As Vitale describes it, “it assumes that the roots of our current dilemma lie in urban liberalism’s rejection of the liberalism of the New Deal and its vision of universal equal opportunity and equal responsibility in favor of a New Left liberalism of radical individual freedom and preferential treatment for those historically disenfranchised.”[21]  Vitale points out that urban liberalism had no response to what was happening in New York City at the time, because it valued centralized planning, and social reform over the equalizing market, and these policies were both not succeeding and also increasingly alienating populations with a lot of influence – those with money. So a distance emerged between the rhetoric of urban liberalism and the experience of the citizenry, and into this distance came neoliberalism, with its emphasis on the market, and the Giuliani administration embraced it.[22]
In 1994, The Giuliani administration hired William Bratton as its New York City police commissioner, a role he has reprised and is currently serving today. Prior to his appointment, he had been chief of police for NYC public transit, during the years when graffiti had been all but eliminated from the subway.  As the New York City police commissioner, he wrote new strategies for addressing crime, the fifth of which was called “Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York.”[23] This strategy explicitly referred to, and relied heavily on the broken windows theory, and asserted that restoring order began with getting tough on minor crimes and misdemeanors, citing graffiti as one of them.
At around the same time, a third set of interests emerged- “Reclaim the Streets,” a movement that began in London and came to New York City. Like the graffiti writers, RTS set out to challenge the moral codes of the street, and particularly to protest Giuliani’s administration. But RTS was made up of young, affluent professionals and students, and not of marginalized populations. Nonetheless, their goals were strikingly similar:

“Mayor Giuliani’s homogenizing (and boring!) ‘Quality of Life’ campaign is fast privatizing scarce public space, squeezing our diverse communities and stealing our freedom to express ourselves. The campaign is targeted at working poor, community gardeners, immigrants, people of color, gays, young people, bicyclists, skaters, booksellers, artists, sex workers, students, homeless people, and political activists of all kinds. If Giuliani is successful, his vision of a whitewashed, Disneyfied New York of the future will replace the diverse, exuberant, exciting city of the present.
We can fight back by making ourselves visible, by refusing to be swept under the carpet, by coming out together and declaring that a diverse group of New Yorkers exist, that we have a right to exist, and have a right to public space. Take to the streets! After all, if we can’t dance, it’s not a revolution.” [24]

They stood against “local commercialism and global capitalism,” and they perceived the Giuliani administration to be allowing these influences to mediate the definition of community values and interests. The sudden appearance of this third group allowed for a new, more sympathetic view of graffiti. This in turn led to various forms of commercial success, including shows in New York City galleries.[25]   Certain artists who are well known today began as graffiti writers. Jean-Michel Basquiat is a prime example – he was part of a duo, with Al Diaz, whose tag was “SAMO,” and his work was admired by art critics on the street.[26] Interestingly, he commented in an interview about the transition from graffiti to gallery. When asked if he could have predicted it, or was hoping for it, he said, “No. I was more interested in attacking the gallery circuit at that time, I didn’t think about making paintings, I just thought about making fun of the ones that were in there.”[27]
There exists today a debate about the authenticity of graffiti written by folks in the context of hip hop who do not belong to underrepresented demographics. One of the uses of the phrase “street art” is to differentiate between graffiti and art that has been made in the same space and with the same materials, but after having been exposed to art education. It would be nice to think that Jean-Michel Basquiat represented the typical model of the graffiti-turned-commercial. His original graffiti was witty and political, but it was not based in any formal art education. In fact, he met Keith Haring when Keith snuck him past the security guard into the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, where Basquiat was not a student. Eventually, Basquiat would become so famous that some of his work was carefully removed from the outside of buildings in order to be displayed in galleries. He was all over the world, and was given a cover story in the New York Times Magazine all during the same period of time that the Giuliani administration was cracking down on graffiti. Giuliani’s administration published a statement in 1998 that said, in part: “If people don’t see improvements in their individual lives, if they have to put up with incivility and disrespect for their rights every day, they will remain basically pessimistic about the future of the City, even if overall crime is dramatically down. But if a sense of tangible improvement reaches millions of lives, and millions of people understand that the City cares about their annoyances and is working hard to protect their rights, then more and more people begin to feel the true optimism of the City, and the City is moving the right direction. We begin to feel that together, we all have a stake in the City. This is what the idea of a civil society is all about.”[28]
But the truth is, Basquiat was an outlier in terms of his success, and a lot of it came from the people he associated with – Keith Haring, and Andy Warhol, who both had great connections because they both came up in the art world in a more traditional way. Commercial success for graffiti artists was usually less epic, and generally moved away from anything in a legally grey area and into other creative or artistic pursuits. While Basquiat was both rich and famous in his lifetime, most graffiti writers can’t turn their work around in that manner, and instead are simply lucky enough to translate artistic skill they’ve developed into a job that Giuliani would approve of. But it did emerge as an alternative to criminalization, and this was at least partly due to Giuliani’s more neoliberal approach to public space: if a graffiti artist could produce exchange value with his work, then he was considered a productive member of society. There were, then, essentially two paths for the graffiti artist: commercial success, or state suppression.
Throughout the nineties, the Giuliani administration would indeed hand over a lot of authority to corporations at the expense of public space. It sold community gardens to real estate developers, it passed laws that restricted street vendors, and it even identified which newspapers and magazines vendors could and could not sell. These actions were done in the hopes of supporting businesses and the landlords of business properties. And lastly, the Giuliani administration invested a lot of time into confounding protest efforts. While Reclaim the Streets sued them repeatedly, and won repeatedly, it was in many ways still a net win for the Giuliani administration because the protests never happened.  Giuliani subscribed to Locke’s logic – a fair and open market would socialize privately owned property, and those citizens who could not create exchange value with their property were not entitled to property.[29]
Since the 1990s, corporate power has increased in NYC and locally – up to and including citizenship, but hip-hop graffiti as an act of resistance remains a local, community centered form of resistance, in its nascent stages. By the end of the nineties, the “graffiti crisis” had waned – mostly due to the police commissioner and the mayor, who developed an anti-graffiti task force. However, it is still popular among underrepresented Latino and black youth, as is hip hop generally. Occasionally, an artist will be named a “graffiti elder,” this is someone who was most likely commercially successful and who is known in the art world as a graffiti writer, but who is considered too old to actively participate in what is essentially a youth culture.
Graffiti falls into two general categories – gang related and hip hop – the second arising as an alternative to gang membership and constituting a form of political resistance to the moral geography of public space in New York City. Ultimately, such graffiti either becomes marketable or it is subdued by the New York City police. However, since new graffiti is constantly appearing throughout the city, graffiti as resistance is a constant presence.

[1] I am using the term “social” broadly here, it also encompasses economic and political forces.

[2] Malone, Karen. “Street life: youth, culture and competing uses of public space.” Environment and Urbanization 14.2 (2002): 157-168.

[3] Harvey, David. “The future of the commons.” Radical History Review 2011.109 (2011): 101-107.

[4] Chronopoulos, Themis. Spatial Regulation in New York City: From Urban Renewal to Zero Tolerance. London: Routledge, 2011.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Caryl S. Stern and Robert W. Stock, “Graffiti: The Plague Years,” The New York Times, October 19, 1980, sec. 6, p. 44.

[9] Vitale, Alex S. City of Disorder How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics: New York University Press, 2008.

[10] Glazer, Nathan. “On subway graffiti in New York.” The Public Interest 54 (1979): 3-11.

[11] Vitale, Alex S. City of Disorder How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics: New York University Press, 2008.

[12] Ibid

[13] Matless, D. (2000). Moral geographies. In R. J. Johnston, D. Gregory, G. Pratt, & M.Watts (Eds.), The dictionary

of human geography (pp. 522–524). London: Blackwell.

[14] McCauliffe, Cameron. “Graffiti or Street Art? Negotiating the Moral Geographies of the Creative City,” Journal of Urban Affairs, Vol. 34, no. 2. Pg. 189-206. 2012.

[15] Chronopoulos, Themis. Spatial Regulation in New York City: From Urban Renewal to Zero Tolerance. London: Routledge, 2011.

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] International graffiti times. Began with v. 1 (Jan. 1984) and ceased in 1994. NYC, NY : Yanqui Junkie, c1984-[1994].

[19] Style Wars. Documentary directed by Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver. 1985.

[20] jAwN. “Graffiti.” Urban Dictionary. June 29, 2004.

[21] Vitale, Alex S. City of Disorder How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics: New York University Press, 2008

[22] Ibid

[23] New York (NY). Police Department, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and William J. Bratton. Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York. The Department, 1994.

[24] “Reclaim the Streets NYC.” Reclaim the Streets. 4 Oct. 1998. Web.

[25] TAKI 183, Zephyr, CASH, PHASE 2, Lady Pink, Blade and Future 2000 were the first generation of graffiti artists to transition to commercial success. They showed at galleries like the FUN gallery and 51X, and even toured in Japan.

[26] Deitch, Jeffrey. “Jean-Michel Basquiat at Annina Nosei (review)” Flash Art, May 1982.

[27] A Conversation with Basquiat Director Tamara Davis. Becky Johnson, interviewer. Documentary Short. USA. 2006. 21 mins. Dist. By Arthouse films, NY

[28] “The Next Phase of Quality of Life.” Archives of Rudolph W. Giuliani. 24 Feb. 1998. Web. <>.

[29] Shepard, Benjamin and Gregory Smithsimon. The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York City’s Public Spaces. Albany, N.Y.:  SUNY Press, 2011.

By jtp

Joanna Tova Price has a lot of heart.

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