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Is New York’s Latest Graffiti Crackdown Backfiring?

Crime rates are low and the new mayor is an outspoken progressive, so why is the NYPD going after graffiti artists like it's 1994?

by John Surico
Oct 30 2014, 7:00am

5Pointz, a graffiti Mecca in Queens, which is now no more. Photo via Flickr user Sauvage Ocèane

In 1994, ten months after winning the New York City mayor's office for the first time, Rudy Giuliani stood in front of news cameras and announced the newest target of his "broken windows" policing strategy: graffiti.

"A cleaner city is a safer city," Giuliani said. "That's something that everyone instinctually understands. And something we have to make a big part of efforts to improve the quality of life in our city." Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern added that "the 60s are over," and called graffiti "a metaphor for urban decay perhaps best shown in A Clockwork Orange."

New York City back then didn't exactly have Kubrickian drugged-up clownish teenagers wandering around raping people, but it didn't resemble Friends or Seinfeld either. Times Square was still saturated with porn shops and prostitution, subways were riddled with graffiti, and Williamsburg was a good place to score blow (OK, so that might still be the case). Graffiti artists with names like Revs, Cost, and T-Kid ruled the streets, and Giuliani-and, more importan, his NYPD commissioner, William J. Bratton-wanted to do something about it, drawling a line between the aesthetic issue and violent crime rates.

A 25-man vandal squad was launched by Bratton's NYPD to hunt down taggers, and in just 17 days, 21 people were arrested. Several city agencies coordinated to form an anti-graffiti task force to fight the plague of aerosol, and selling the spray-on chemical to kids under 18 was banned.

So began a decades-long battle of wits and money to erase the graffiti of the 70s and 80s from every corner of Gotham, a struggle that was recently captured in the Museum of the City of New York's City as Canvas exhibit. After Giuliani left office, his billionaire successor Michael Bloomberg carried on the crusade. He had his own version of the Vandal Squad, called GHOST (the Graffiti Habitual Offender Suppression Team). Howard Stler described these guys as "the shock troops in Bloomberg's latest campaign to clean up the town" in a 2005 piece for New York magazine. 

Cops have scooped up some of the city's bigger names in street art, like Cost. Photo via Flickr user carnagenyc

Given his reputation as a progressive concerned about income inequality and police excesses, few expected new mayor Bill de Blasio to treat graffiti as one of the city's chief menaces. But the anti-graffiti movement has reared its head yet again now that its founding father Bratton-who called the City as Canvas exhibit "outrageous"-has reclaimed his old gig as police commissioner.

"Graffiti is a constant battle," Bratton told local radio station WNYC in April. "It's one of the issues I'm going to be focusing on. I've already spoken to the mayor about my sense that graffiti is growing in the city now again." Bratton also made use of the phrase "urban decay."

The numbers show Bratton means business: According to the  the first eight months of 2014, graffiti arrests rose 4 percent, to 1,080. Last year, 3,598 people were arrested for graffiti or graffiti-related crimes, and that was actually lower than 2009 and 2010, when the number surpassed 4,000. But the most symbolic gestures of the rejuvenated crackdown have been the NYPD's gloating arrest of Cost (45-year-old Queens resident Adam Cole) last month, and November's whitewashing of 5Pointz, the soon-to-be-demolished Mecca for graffiti artists in Queens.

That raises the question: Is there danger that the city's graffiti culture will be expunged, and does it really make sense to go after this kind of low-level mischief, especially if it has value in the eyes of many residents?

"I know some writers who have not painted at all over the last year," Jonathan Cohen, the curator of 5Pointz and a graffiti artist known as Meres One, told me. "They're not willing to risk their freedom. Many of them just went back to doing whatever it is they were doing."

A 5Pointz tribute to Iz the Wiz, one of NYC's signature graffiti artists back in the 70s and 80s. Photo via Flickr user Kenji Takabayashi

Opened in 1993, 5Pointz was a place where graffiti writers of all ages could spray in New York City without being subject to arrest. It brought tourism in the area, drawing national and international attention to the local street art scene. In that sense, Cohen says, 5Pointz was "never a cure but an alternative" to the city's graffiti crime problem.

"We would say, 'Please don't go out and destroy the neighborhood. Do it here,'" he told me. "But turning up the heat is a dangerous thing. Trying to erase art completely from the streets is scary."

"It feels like we're back in the Giuliani years," Marie Cecile Flaguel, a volunteer and organizer at 5Pointz, told me. "Since September of 2013, there has just been this zero tolerance. Like, these kids will be taught a lesson by being charged with higher offenses."

She believes the whitewashing of 5Pointz was sanctioned by the NYPD; with the Vandal Squad patrolling day in and day out, it seems far-fetched to her that officers didn't witness the operation (orchestrated by the owner of the buildings) take place. In her opinion, the following arrests of six 5Pointz regulars-the first (and last) time artists have been arrested there-was an indication that the cops wanted the place stamped out once and for all.

A tribute to NYC firemen at Gerardi's Farmers' Market on Staten Island. Photo via Flickr user Susan Sermoneta

Of course, it's not the 90s anymore, and graffiti has lost much of its stigma. Most writers Flaguel knows tend to be graphic designers or set designers. "It shows that Bratton has not paid attention to anything going on in New York City since he left," she told me.

Flaguel thinks busting graffiti artists distracts the local cops from fighting serious crime, like robberies or homicides, which have increased in Long Island City's 114th Precinct, where 5Pointz is located, over the past year. "When we concentrate on these lower-level things, we miss the big-picture issues," she added. "It's much easier to just bust a 17-year-old walking home in Queens late at night with a marker in his pocket."

The problem for Bratton, like so many American security hawks, is the unintended consequences. Just as many tactics used in the wars on terror and drugs exacerbate the problems they're supposed to solve, intense enforcement of graffiti laws seems to be doing more harm than good.

"Finding a solution to a problem is a lot better than trying to kill a problem," Cohen said. "It's important for people to have a legal outlet for their art. Now, it's either you paint illegally or you don't paint at all. This spawns a lot more people doing not nice things."

Since 5Pointz, Cohen said he's noticed intensified bombing in Long Island City. In fact, since this latest crackdown began last fall, graffiti complaints have gone up 24 percent citywide, from 6,947 to 8,635. In neighboring Woodside, graffiti complaints have skyrocketed by 120 percent since this time last year.

Reasons for the big bump remain murky, but to Antonio "Chico" Garcia, a longtime NYC graffiti writer, graffiti is just like weed: "The more you fight it, the more there'll be. And you can't win a fight you've already lost."

Chico's work on the Lower East Side is harder to come by these days. Photo via Flickr user Wally Gobetz

If you've been down to the Lower East Side in the past 20 years, there's a good chance you've seen Chico's work. He's known for crafting optimistic murals on behalf of local businesses; his most recent, on the corner of Avenue B and Tenth Street, depicted actor Robin Williams after his death.

"Artists, both young and old cats, need a place to be heard," Chico told me over the phone from Florida. "The kids will be very upset if they can't do anything with their art. They're gonna get pissed off, and they're gonna start vandalizing. Then you'll just see more and more."

To correct this, Chico proposes the city follows Montreal's model, in which graffiti artists are commissioned to beautify empty lots in dilapidated areas. He also says that New York's subways should (once again) be teeming with color when they zoom into the dull platforms, and that can be done by hiring local bombers.

"I hope the new mayor tries to figure something out," Chico said. "De Blasio can call me, and I'll explain it to him." 

Over the past few years, the city's cooperation with Chico has faltered; after being laid off by the New York City Department of Housing in 2008, he moved south, occasionally making trips back to the East Village to paint a curbside mural upon request. A graffiti artist since he was nine, Chico, now 51, is frustrated that his work isn't valued more by public officials, who shower money on museums and other institutions of high art.

"Fuck the city," he told me angrily. "Take what the kids want to do on the wall, and eat it. They don't want to work with us? Well, now you're against us. And you can't stop us now, because the war's gonna go on." Chico then broke out into a quick rendition of the classic 1970s track by McFadden and Whitehead, "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now."

"Because graffiti is coming right back," he said, "with a big H. Handle it."

John Surico is a Queens-based freelance journalist. His reporting can be found in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter.