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Jun 30, 2006

how is a graff writer like a blogger · by Rafi Kam

A few days ago Jeff Chang posted a link to a very-well done article on the early days of New York graffiti in the words of some of its early pioneers and best known chroniclers.

As I was reading it I started to realize that you can draw certain parallels between graf culture and blogger culture.

First the idea that you can get “famous” by simply getting your name out there to other people trying to do the same – fame within a community.

It began in different neighborhoods. But we all had one thing in common: We wanted to be famous. I started writing in East Flatbush in 1970. Then slowly I met people from the four other boroughs. Everybody went to the writers’ bench at 149th Street and Grand Concourse in the Bronx. There was one for Brooklyn writers on Atlantic Avenue. In Washington Heights, it was on 188th Street and Audubon Avenue. We would hang out, see our work, and everyone could get autographs. C.A.T. 87 was from Washington Heights. TRACY 168 was in the first generation. COCO 144 used to live on 144th Street and Broadway, which is what the number 144 meant.

I met so many characters on the 149 bench. It was like a speakeasy, everyone came and traded stories.

C.A.T. 87
I was in the Savage Nomads. You had the Saints at 137th Street and Broadway, and in the 170s you had the Young Galaxies. But if I was C.A.T. 87 and the guys from other neighborhoods saw my name, instead of trying to beat me up they would ask for autographs.

Lest you think graffiti put an end to beatdowns or didn’t lead to violence itself. But at least the form offered itself as a more refined form of competition. Where the beatdown or the showing up could stay in the form of a metaphor. Just keep it on the walls fellas….

The use of autographs in two of these quotes reminded me of CopyBlogger’s post from this week advising people not to think you’re too good to give an autograph. These days you may be able to get famous for nothing but you won’t stay famous that way.

Back to the New York article….

Jeff Chang
Your name is your brand, and writing your name is like printing money. Quality (aesthetic style) and quantity (the number of trains and walls you’ve hit) are the primary ways that the brand gains market share. If you’re the biggest name on a line or in an area, then you’re the king. After the New York Times wrote about TAKI 183 in 1971, there was more competition, which means style changed much more rapidly.

It was a reflection of the great side of capitalism, where everyone wants to have the biggest stock or bond portfolio, or the fastest or most expensive car.

In 1971, I was in the Sheepshead Bay layups one night—that’s the tunnel where trains rest in between rush hours. And we found the names of PAN 144, COCO 144, and ACE 137 on some of the cars. The paint was still wet. That opened our eyes to going all-city.

Quantity and quality leads to growth, to the famed “all-city” status… You get your name out in every borough. It takes ability and especially it takes a ton of work.

Don’t forget graf writers, like bloggers, have different styles they work in.

COCO 144
I lived close to the IRT, and there was a layup between 137th and 145th Street between the stops. We were there every Saturday and Sunday morning, destroying the trains inside and out. My style back then was what we called a hit: just a signature, a single line.

“Hitting” was just about getting up, getting around. The more hits you had, the more famous you became. “Killing” or “bombing” was a little more intense. It means carpeting an area—just hit hundreds of MICO, MICO, MICO, and kill that subway car. Or you could do a masterpiece, a really big piece that was generally planned out in a sketch.

It elaborated from a signature, to a basic piece, to lettering, to stylized lettering, to cartoon characters, to doing whole subway cars.

Hm, cartoon characters? That could never work in a blog.

What about those the words don’t speak to? They may feel out of the loop…

Adam Mansbach, author of Angry Black White Boy
If you watch Death Wish, the Charles Bronson movie from 1974, he lives in a graffiti-saturated world, and it pushes him to the tipping point. Middle-class commuters from Jersey or Long Island got increasingly alienated, because not only is there a conversation going on that they are not a part of, they can’t even read what is being written. And I think it got worse as wild style evolved.

If they have power, they may try to control the movement…

It wasn’t so much that the city did a single crackdown. It came in increments, from the time of Lindsay through Beame to Koch. At one point, Richard Ravitch, the MTA chairman, was in talks with a group of graffiti artists. The offer was that if these guys were given the green light to decorate, could they get the 30,000 other kids to stop? Of course, it went south. But they had a bargaining table and everything.

But ultimately the movement was really powerful because it wasn’t just speaking to the writers. It made the whole city into a conversation.

Ivor L. Miller
The movement really grew and blossomed on the trains, since it interacted with the city’s population, not just other writers. Writing is meant to be an “art in motion.” The form was developed with movement and the space of the train car in mind.

And the form evolves, not always the way everybody wants. It has to change and splinter off in different directions.

When wild style came around in the mid-seventies, it was sculpture in motion. They broke down the alphabet and turned it into a three-dimensional thing. I thought it was riveting, but I wanted people to understand and not be confused. On a moving train, the art is coming at you, so it shouldn’t be antagonizing, it should be tantalizing. It should open up your pores and seep in.

A lot of people became discouraged from writing on the subways because some of these toys started destroying our work. Toys are guys who are just starting out—they’re not respected by other writers. I was wasting my energy and my paint. So I decided to start putting my work on canvas to be able to preserve it.

Keith and Jean-Michel were never true subway artists. People had an easier time digesting what they did because they could refer back to art history. Whereas with our work, it was like learning a new language, and most people didn’t want to take the time.

Richard Goldstein
There was this period when major art dealers like Leo Castelli were after all the graffiti artists. I constantly told the artists not to trust the galleries because I thought they would only give them fifteen minutes of attention and then dump them. Which is actually what happened.

Lady Pink
The art-world people are sharks like anyone else, so it kind of prepares us, being underground, to deal with the art world aboveground. At least a guy in the tunnel, you know what his intentions are.

As times change and the upstart becomes the established, it gets hard to figure out what side you’re rooting for, what side you’re on. And if there are even any sides left at all.

Graffiti is vandalism. If it becomes too legitimate, it loses part of what it’s about in the first place.

They declared victory, but it was a farce. The graffiti moved off the subways and went aboveground. Now it’s on rooftops and churches all over the city, and it has become a private-property issue. There is etching and tagging with acid, and now it is more of a problem.

I think these guys are doing what they are supposed to be doing. If you want to be a true writer, a true rebel, you have to make do with what you have.

Blogging may not be vandalism but I think we all know that deep-down big media and big businesses at least consider it trespassing.

Comments for "how is a graff writer like a blogger"

  1. not too long ago blogging was said to be clogging up search engines. Sounds like vandalism too me!

    Hashim    Jun 30, 08:39 PM   
  2. I am waiting for bloggers to assume their political power that graff writers had to eschew since their medium was considered illegal.

    We have a chance, ne, responsibility to reset the national agenda as to what we are going to vote for. When I say vote I don’t just mean going into the both twice a year(primaries and general elec). I mean how we spend our dollars. That is how we vote on the daily basis.

    Education must be our focus and then the U.S. economy. O.K. I am getting all crazy over here. Please frget everything I just said and tune back to B.E.T. I think they are re-broadcasting the awards show.

    Dallyo    Jul 1, 12:12 AM   
  3. It may not be “written on the wall” like graffito but blogging is definitely a way of giving the power to people who otherwise didn’t have a voice in society. I think that’s what makes it so provocative and powerful.

    DJ Flash    Jul 2, 01:32 AM   
  4. As a former graf writer, I’ve associated the two with each other since I began blogging. I definitely used the marketing techniques I learned as a writer to get my name and the name of my blog out there. I’ve applied the same approach to a few areas of my life.

    eskay    Jul 2, 06:40 PM   
  5. “I definitely used the marketing techniques I learned as a writer to get my name and the name of my blog out there.”

    Could you elaborate on the techniques learned as a writer that you were able to apply to blogging?


    Rafi    Jul 3, 12:17 AM   
  6. graf culture?

    it’s more like the “writin’ culture…”


    MICO ~as~ LATIN PRIDE!    Nov 24, 04:42 PM