Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The New Graffiti

The thing about New York City is this - if you leave it for more than six months, don't expect it to be the same when you come back.

Last Saturday night, I took a Metro North Train into the city for a friend's birthday. It had been about eight months since I'd be in the city, so I knew I should brace for some change or another. And it didn't take long, either. After basking in the familiar, enveloping majesty of Grand Central Terminal, I made my way down to the subway to take the Shuttle to Times Square. And that's where New York's latest change smacked me right between the eyes.

It's called wrap advertising. I'd seen this on buses for years, but I'd never seen it on a subway train until last Saturday night. Wrap advertising is this - an advertisement covers an entire bus or subway train, windows and all. It's intention is to impress upon your senses via the boldness and enormity of its scope.

When I moved to New York in 1994, widespread urban graffiti was just about dead. A new culture had snuffed graffiti out as a quality of life crime. The New York I moved into of the early nineties was a far cry from the chaotic urban wilderness I'd recalled from my youth. I was moving into the nascent years of alleged reform. A new optimism crept into the city and the seemingly overnight vanquishing of graffiti on subways accompanyed the sterilization of Times Square and a newfound limitless excess of Wall Street. In hindsight, I wonder if we'd all have been as enthusiastic, had we known that the economic and social juggernaut that overtook New York would also vanquish the city's personality as deftly as it took away it's cosmetic undesirables.

Perhaps it's because we look at graffiti artists differently now. When the city was rounding the corner on graffiti in the late 1980's, a countering school of thought came forward to view graffiti as an art form. Some graffiti artists, such as Seen or more notably Jean-Michel Basquiant would be embraced by mainstream art culture. People began to see that graffiti was complex - as much a performance art as it was a visual art.

But back to wrap advertising - and I'll be blunt. I fail to see how this newfound commandeering of a subway car by a corporation is any different that the commandeering of a subway car by a graffiti artist. I know I possess somewhat liberal sensibilities. And I fully realize that corporations that place these advertisements on subways provide revenue to the city that citizens ultimately benefit from. I get that.

But back to the concept of graffiti as a quality of life crime. The arguments that always shouted down graffiti artists during their 70's/80's heyday was - "why should everyday citizens have to be subjected to that?" A fair argument.

And now I'll ask it again. Just because a television network pays advertising dollars to the city...from a purely aesthetic point of view...why should I have to be subjected to the sensory experience of being overwhelmed by the advertisement for some horrid cable television program that I'd rather die than give an hour of my life to?

Ultimately...how is this:

....a crime, and this:

is okay????

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