Radical Graffiti Chic

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To be sure, some graffiti murals are visually striking, showing an intuitive understanding of graphic design (though their representational iconography is usually pure adolescent male wish-fulfillment, featuring drug paraphernalia, cartoon characters, T&A, space guns, and alien invaders). In theory, it might be possible to mount a show that acknowledged the occasionally compelling formal elements of wall-painting without legitimating a crime. Such an exhibit would include only authorized murals, whether past or present, and would unequivocally condemn taking someone else’s property without permission. No graffiti propaganda has ever abided by such limits; the MOCA show will not, either.

And for good reason. What defines graffiti is its “commitment to vandalizing property,” as Richard Goldstein wrote in his catalog essay for a 2009 graffiti show at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. “To be a graffiti writer, you have to hold down your fucking name,” one of Gastman’s subjects explains in Infamy. “Graffiti belongs illegally. It does not belong on canvas but on a building or a train.”

Deitch’s lack of serious thought regarding graffiti has a long pedigree. In 2000, Barry McGee and two other graffiti vandals created a mock-up of a ghetto street inside Deitch’s Soho gallery, Deitch Projects. A few thousand people showed up for the opening-night party. “It turned out,” Deitch told Art Forum, “that Barry had brought some friends along to ‘get the word out,’ tagging the neighborhood.” McGee’s friends used what Deitch appreciatively called “an entire countercultural communication system of tags on doorways and stickers on mailboxes.” It didn’t occur to Deitch to ask: What about the property owners who were not consulted about this “countercultural communication system”? Who will remove the tags and stickers? To Deitch, the nameless, faceless property owner is out of sight, and hence out of mind.

McGee’s installation at Deitch Projects, called “Street Market,” was a harbinger of the sensibility that Deitch is bringing to Art in the Streets—and it is fitting, therefore, that MOCA will reproduce the installation. As McGee and his two fellow “artists” were assembling their mock-up check-cashing business, liquor store, and bodega inside Deitch Projects, officers from the New York Police Department arrested one of them and an assistant to McGee outside the gallery on outstanding warrants for graffiti vandalism. “Artist” Todd James had painted his tag on a middle school in the Bronx the previous year. The assistant, Josh Lazcano, had defaced a building south of Chinatown.

It is beyond comprehension how a 28-year-old, as James was in 1999, could be so juvenile as to deface a school. The only thing Deitch found shocking, however, was the police’s effrontery in accosting his “artists.” “This is unprecedented,” he fumed to the New York Times. “I have never, never in my experience known artists to be arrested while they’re putting up a serious museum exhibit in a leading gallery.” Apparently, the owner of a “leading gallery” can confer immunity from the law upon anyone in his orbit.

Deitch’s Disneyesque barrio gave New Yorkers who would never dream of getting off the subway north of 96th Street that delightful frisson of proximity to the underclass, just as the graffiti cult provides affluent viewers with the sense that they are in touch with authentic ghetto culture. Of course, anyone who did occasionally visit East Harlem in 2000 would have known that, by then, the most immediate risk facing a stranger from midtown was difficulty in locating a Starbucks. A visitor would also have observed that trucks in the barrio do not lie on their sides in the middle of the street, as portrayed in “Street Market.”

But those overturned trucks may have been inspired by nostalgia for the good old days of New York lawlessness, before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s conquest of crime in the 1990s. When Steve Powers, one of the graffitists behind the “Street Market” installation, arrived in New York in 1989, the first thing he saw was a “cop car totally burned out and every trash can in Tompkins Square Park on fire,” he says in Beautiful Losers. “And I was like, ‘I could like this, this is what I’m talking about!’ ” Such anarchist sympathies did not, of course, inhibit Powers from selling his “work” for tens of thousands of dollars at Deitch Projects in 2000.

A target audience for Art in the Streets is black and Hispanic teenagers, whom the museum expects to crowd the Geffen Contemporary. The museum is planning on doing outreach to Los Angeles schools, Deitch said, presumably as insurance in case the teenagers don’t come.

It would have been useful if Deitch had spent time talking with garden-variety ghetto graffitists. Curiously, the vast majority of graffiti thugs who have gained art-world notoriety are white and middle-class. One would never think of accusing the art world of racism, of course. Still, that skew means that wealthy graffiti patrons like Deitch may not be fully informed about what a graffiti lifestyle means to a black or Hispanic boy raised by a single parent in a marginal neighborhood. Deitch could find out easily enough by traveling less than a mile and a half from his exquisite office on Bunker Hill to Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention agency just east of downtown.

What Deitch would learn from Homeboy Industries’ Latino clientele is that the “cholo” graffiti in MOCA’s show blights young minority lives. Every midnight hour that a child spends tagging or “piecing” is an hour not spent studying or sleeping—the former activity, enabled by the latter, crucial to escaping the barrio. Ivan Gonzalez, a 35-year-old in a checked shirt, baseball cap, and black hipster glasses, started tagging in eighth grade in Gardena, a small city in Los Angeles County close to Compton. He dropped out of school in the eleventh grade and has never held a job for more than a year. “It all coincided together,” he says. “The drugs, the tagging, the stealing. To be out at night, I’d be all high on meth to go writing.” Gonzalez would ditch school the next day, too tired to attend classes. He continued tagging with the Graffiti Bandits Krew for the next two decades, finally serving a four-year prison sentence for vandalism. Asked if he would advise a 16-year-old to study or to write graffiti, Gonzalez replies: “Study, especially if you have drawing talent. My friends are now either in prison or doing things I no longer want to do.”

Carlos Mesa, a squat 30-year-old with crucifix necklaces, a shaved head, and tattoos on his arms and neck, tells a similar story. He was once a bookworm, he says. “I loved getting good grades, but one guy changed it all.” Mesa followed his mentor into Graffiti ’N’ Drugs, a tagging crew based in tiny Pico Rivera, south of Los Angeles, and started ditching school every day. After going to two or three periods to get credit for attendance, he would take off to “mark spots” all over the Southland. “We were marking so many spots, we got known,” he recalls. “It feels good. People let us know that we were recognized.” This reputation came with the usual price. Mesa dropped out of high school to pursue an obsession that continued—as is typical with graffiti vandals—into adulthood. In 2004, he led the police on a high-speed car chase through the streets of Whittier, another small community in the Los Angeles basin, after they spotted him tagging. Luckily, it was late at night and he didn’t hit anyone, he says, but he spent 16 months in prison for the escapade. Prison taught him a few lessons: “In prison, you don’t got a friend. The people you’ve been destroying all these walls with, they can’t even write you a letter.” Mesa says that he doesn’t want his sons, whom he is raising as a single father, to follow in his footsteps. I ask him how he plans to prevent them from doing so. “I would show them the outcome of my life.”

The violence that afflicts minority neighborhoods is frequently tied to the graffiti cult. Graffiti apologists insist on the distinction between “bad” graffiti produced by gangs and “good” graffiti produced by tagging crews, allegedly dedicated solely to tagging. The distinction is phony. “The line between tagging and gangbanging is very thin now,” says Gonzalez. “Young taggers today are not hesitant to carry guns and shoot people like everyone else.” And when cops bust a large tagging crew, they usually find fugitives wanted on outstanding warrants for car theft, assault, and drug trafficking. Both Mesa and Gonzalez have been shot at by rivals; many of Mesa’s graffiti partners, including the captain of Graffiti ’N’ Drugs, have been killed. Mesa’s oft-battered jaw structure is held together by a set of metal braces.

One can only wish good luck to those barrio parents who want to keep their children out of the tagging and gang lifestyle once word gets out that a fancy downtown museum is honoring graffiti with a major exhibit. Children who deduce from Art in the Streets that graffiti is a route to fame and contracts with Nike will have about as realistic an understanding of their career odds as boys who think they don’t have to study because jobs await them in the NBA.

The ultimate responsibility for Art in the Streets lies with MOCA’s buzz-hungry trustees. They knew exactly whom they were getting in Jeffrey Deitch, who had a reputation for promoting “street art.” But when Deitch first proposed a graffiti exhibit, any adult with the slightest awareness of urban issues should have felt at least a twinge of ambivalence. A conscientious trustee might have asked himself: “If I woke up one morning and found that my home had become the site of ‘street art,’ would I be delighted by this windfall or furious at the assault on my property? Would I call the Art Historical Society to register this addition to my home, or the cops and a painting service?” In case the answer is not obvious, let’s listen to the taggers themselves. “I’ve never written on my own house,” says Gonzalez. “And I wouldn’t like it if someone else did it on my house.” Mesa finds my question about whether he would tolerate graffiti on his home silly. “Why would you want to fuck up your own area?” he asks me. “That’s why you go out and mess up other people’s cities.”

Assuming that the conscientious trustee concludes that he would not welcome a surprise gift of “street art,” he might then ponder: “Where do I think that unauthorized graffiti is appropriate—on the walls of MOCA? On Disney Hall, the Frank Gehry–designed concert hall across Grand Avenue from MOCA? Or simply on some struggling laundromat on Cesar Chavez Avenue in East Los Angeles?” If none of the above, why is the museum promoting it?

MOCA’s trustees include hugely successful executives from Hollywood, real estate, and finance. Their wealth was made possible by the rule of law, which allows them to take risks and make investments, knowing that their contractual and property rights are secure. Banksy claims that “crime against property is not real crime.” Do the trustees agree? If someone were to vandalize the trustees’ intangible property—plundering their hedge-fund accounts, say—they would sic their attorneys and the feds on the thieves in a heartbeat. But the defacement of physical property is a crime that affects the poorest property owners far more than the wealthiest. Identifying with the victims of graffiti may thus be difficult for MOCA’s moguls.

Nevertheless, one of MOCA’s trustees in particular should try, since he is the direct beneficiary of the most important graffiti-eradication project in history. Darren Star is the creator and executive producer of the blockbuster TV show Sex and the City, which premiered on cable in 1998. Sex and the City would never have been conceived had New York not defeated subway graffiti. Without that success, New York would have continued its spiral of decline—and it sure wouldn’t have provided the backdrop for a sex comedy in which single women clomp through the city in their Manolo Blahniks at 2 am seeking their next conquest. The final elimination of subway graffiti in 1989 was the precondition for the reincarnation of New York in the 1990s as the embodiment of urban cool. No New York rebirth, no Sex and the City, no fortune for Darren Star. Star—who lives in Beverly Hills, a neighborhood not known for graffiti—wouldn’t comment about Art in the Streets.

Other MOCA trustees have benefited almost as obviously from the New York renaissance. As New York restored order first to its subways, then to the rest of the city, the value of the trustees’ property shot up. Charles S. Cohen owns the D&D Center in Manhattan, a design center catering to the most upscale interior decorators, as well as the similarly targeted Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. Edward Minskoff owns a luxury residential and commercial development in Tribeca that boasts a Whole Foods Market, a Bed Bath & Beyond, and a Bank of America. These are just the sort of tenants that graffiti ideology designates for targeting, at least until the tagger gets an offer to illustrate a new line of bath towels or organic salsa. Billionaire paper-company mogul Peter Brant lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, but occupies a Soho office with a Prada store at ground level. It is unlikely that either the Prada store or the stables sheltering Brant’s polo ponies would tolerate graffiti. Steven Mnuchin, founder of a New York hedge fund, put his Park Avenue apartment on the market, presumably graffiti-free, for $37.5 million in 2009. None of these New York–centered trustees would speak about the MOCA show, either.

Graffiti is equally remote from the lives of MOCA’s Los Angeles–based trustees. Cochair David Johnson’s film-production company (dedicated to “socially and politically relevant film and television”) is located on the most prime and immaculate piece of Santa Monica real estate, Ocean Avenue. MOCA’s other cochair, soap-opera producer and writer Maria Arena Bell, lives in Bel Air, whose wooded roads and hidden estates are patrolled 24 hours a day by private guards. Someone spray-painting a security gate or street sign in Bel Air would last maybe a minute before being apprehended by guard dogs, a groundskeeper, or Bel Air’s private security. Timothy Leiweke is president of Los Angeles’s Staples Center sports arena and the adjacent L.A. Live, a downtown entertainment and residential complex. If any of the urban youths visiting Art in the Streets decide to try out the new designs they’ve learned on L.A. Live’s Ritz-Carlton, they won’t get far.

And then there’s founding member and life trustee Eli Broad, the billionaire home builder who bailed MOCA out of impending bankruptcy in 2008 and who, it’s safe to assume, can exercise considerable influence over programming decisions. Broad has constantly lauded Deitch’s commitment to “populist”—read: minority-targeted and pop-culture-based—shows. When asked for an opinion of Deitch’s inaugural “populist” show, though, Broad suddenly pled ignorance. “That is not something that he would comment on,” his assistant told me. “He didn’t feel that he had enough background; other trustees are more appropriate.” Broad has undoubtedly not given a moment’s thought to how MOCA’s glamorization of “cholo” graffiti can be reconciled with his philanthropic efforts to close the academic achievement gap.

Many graffiti apologists claim that inner-city children have no other outlets for artistic expression than vandalizing property. The claim is ridiculous: a box of 16 watercolors at Target costs $1.99, while paper and pencil, the basis of all achievement in the visual arts, are no more expensive. But if this is the MOCA trustees’ thinking, there are far better ways for them to support the artistic potential in the barrio. They could redirect some of their millions to the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, the local version of the Venezuelan music program for the poor that nurtured conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who is electrifying L.A. audiences at Disney Hall. Or they could donate to MOCA’s next-door neighbor, the Colburn School, a music conservatory and performing-arts school. The Colburn already provides early-childhood arts education but could undoubtedly expand its reach with increased philanthropic help.

What unites the players in MOCA’s graffiti show, which will travel to the Brooklyn Museum in 2012, is self-indulgence. The graffiti vandal combines the moral instincts of a two-year-old with the physical capacities of an adult: when he sees a “spot” that he wants to “mark,” he simply takes it. Jeffrey Deitch and his trustees can toy with the “outlaw vibe” (as Aaron Rose euphemistically puts it) of graffiti, knowing full well that their own carefully ordered lives will be untouched.

The inner city is not so protected. Art in the Streets will earn MOCA accolades from the already standard-free art world, but it will only increase the struggles of Los Angeles’s poor communities to enjoy a modicum of the security and order that the wealthy take for granted.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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  • waterwillows

    Good grief. I have to just shake my head. When did these looney left people ever get the right to proclaim another's person property as being subject to their own whims?
    If it doesn't belong to you; then you have no rights to do anything with what belongs to another.
    They think that by going about and calling it 'art' that they have some special priviledge to mine or another's belongings. Not so.
    This is just more of their delusional thinking and justifications. People are getting tired of their nonsense.

  • tanstaafl

    "From each, according to their ability: to each according to their need." Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged.

    The left goes boffo again.

    • tagalog

      That quotation must be from "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal." Right? Or is it from "The Virtue of Selfishness?"

      Just kidding : )

  • Questions

    The taxpayers of New York City, and the subway riders, did not give their consent for public property to be used in this fashion. The graffiti artists — or perhaps I should say "artists" — should hold their own shows outside the subways.

    How does one solve the problem? Libertarian purists, of course, with their seemingly trained inability to understand the real world, would say that public property is a misnomer: Privatize the subways and the problem will be solved. They don't get around to explaining (among other things) why privately-owned structures are tagged as well.

    The real problem is the intersection of race and class. I have never heard of a white kid spray painting a subway. Nor have I ever heard of anyone from a middle-class background doing this. The people who do this are lower-class black and Hispanic punks with no respect for property of any kind.

    The City of New York did fight back — thank heaven for small miracles. And the subway cars actually look civilized. Some stories do have a happy ending.

    • Lover

      You're a dunse. I'm white and from a family that nets over 6 figures/year and I will spray paint your face until you choke on your ego.

  • CSly

    What happened to the journalistic norm of not printing vulgarities in full, but inserting underscores? F_ing, for example. Why do columnists feel the need to sink to the level of the person they are criticizing? I find a certain hypocrisy in someone who is repulsed by the crudeness of such a person, yet feels it necessary to use the same language. We're not brain-dead, you know–you can give us an idea of what the scum-bag said, and we'll get it.
    Class up!

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