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Glorifying Graffiti -- Exhibit Teaches New York's Kids An Awful Lesson

August 18, 2014

By Nicole Gelinas

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After 25 years of falling crime, it seems we think we can teach graffiti to poor Bronx kids and assume they'll see it as we do — safely part of history.

A visit to the Museum of the City of New York's graffiti exhibit is a reminder that New York was once far less livable — and that nostalgia for a more colorful past can be most dangerous for the kids who don't remember.

The “City as Canvas” exhibit tracks graffiti's proliferation throughout the subways from the mid-'70s 'til 1989, when the MTA declared victory over the scourge.

But was graffiti a scourge? A casual walk through the rooms might leave an adult — particularly an out-of-towner — with the impression that New York should've been grateful way back when that it had all this amazing, free art rolling by.

And what a great education it was, too, for the teens seen in photos collaborating in their “blackbooks” on sketches before sneaking into train yards.

Look a little harder, though, and you see how stultifyingly horrible it must have been.

The best photo is called “Whole car by BLADE, Bronx, 1980.” It shows not the romance of illicit graffiti, but a hapless middle-aged man in a cheap suit and tie and glasses sitting in the subway car reading El Diario.

Trying to peaceably commute, he's surrounded not by art, but by illegible scrawls — people having written their “tags” — initials and street numbers — covered by more illegible scrawls. Even the windows are covered.

And he's sitting in a train that's fully covered. Indeed, part of the painting that covers the outside is a cartoon of another train also covered in graffiti. Or contrast two specimens by “Lady Pink,” the “tag” of Sandra Fabara.

One is a legal 1982 canvas, “The Death of Graffiti.” It's a real painting that depicts a graffiti-covered subway car next to a clean one, to show how boring the clean car is.

A historical photo of Lady Pink the same year shows her sitting in a No. 3 train in a trainyard. Her fresh “tag” name is scrawled in white paint along the inside of the car, joining dozens of other tags.

This is not art. It's territorial marking — a telling sign of an ungoverned city that can't keep kids out of trains in trainyards.

Now consider what happened to many of these young “artists.”

Some grew up to become successful commercial artists. But not Edward Glowaski, or CAINE 1. “He died of gunshot wounds in 1982 at the age of 24; the exact circumstances of his death remain in dispute,” the caption under his painting states.

Turns out Glowaski was shot as he tried to commit a burglary in Queens.

David Smith was one half of the team that in 1988 painted “SANE SMITH” across the Brooklyn Bridge. He died two years later, the exhibit notes. It doesn't note that he died in Brooklyn's waters, possibly after an attempt to paint the Williamsburg Bridge.

Marc Edmonds' partner in crime went on to a successful commercial career. But Edmonds had his cut short after “an explosion caused by spraypaint cans [coming] into contact with a live third rail,” leaving him with “severe burns,” his caption informs us.

Out of 25 artists featured, that's two deaths and one severe injury. Could an earlier turn to effective New York policing have saved Glowaski and Smith?

As an exhibit for well-informed adults who don't mind reading carefully and then doing some outside research, “City as Canvas” works. But not every visitor is an adult.

Mid-morning last Wednesday, a tour guide was explaining graffiti to a rapt group of 10- to 12-year-old kids whose T-shirts indicated that they hailed from a Bronx summer-care group.

“These artists took time to create this art all over the city,” the guide said, gesturing to a “whole train” facsimile. “But the government looked on it as a crime.”

Gesturing to a photo of a train with “DUMP KOCH” spray-painted on it, the guide continued, “Remember when I said the government thought graffiti was a crime? This says Dump Koch. Koch was the mayor . . . one of the people who enforced these laws.”

Yes, the guide mentioned “the risks that the artists took,” noting that some graffiti painters preferred trainyards because “in the trainyard the trains don't move.”

But as the children listened to the story of a “very famous” artist who went on to design for “Reebok and Nike,” it was hard not to think that the takeaway for a pre-teen living in The Bronx wasn't a neat history lesson, but the message that this is fun and that it will make you famous — not dead in a river.

They say art is dangerous. Let's hope they're wrong.

Original Source: http://nypost.com/2014/08/18/glorifying-graffiti-exhibit-teaches-new-yorks-kids-an-awful-lesson/

 

 
 
 

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