July/August 2002 -- Graffiti is metastasizing again throughout New York City. "The guys out here now are destroying us," says Bruce Pienkny, who makes a living removing graffiti from factories and retail stores from Riverdale to the Rockaways. "Every other day, new tags are popping up. The cops got no chance against it."
But if the New York Times's culture editors are to be believed, New Yorkers should be thrilled. Every few months, the paper of record disgorges itself of an article breathlessly celebrating graffiti vandalism as a vital urban art form. Among the bad ideas that the New York Times has floated over the years, few compare to the newspaper's glorification of graffiti for sheer destructive stupidity.
The most recent entry in this genre came on April 29, with an article entitled "A Stirring Icon That Shook Things Up Turns 20."
Reporter Colin Moynihan rapturously profiles an aging Lower East Side anarchist who has spent his adult life destroying and mooching off of other people's property as a graffiti vandal and a squatter. Twenty years ago, anarchist Peter Missing created a crude icon, shaped vaguely like an upside-down martini glass, to protest drunk-driving checkpoints. (Presumably, Missing has never known anyone slain by a drunk driver.) He proceeded to deface vast swathes of the Lower East Side with his graceless doodle, while members of his rock band took even more violent measures against civic order—participating, for example, in a vicious attack on the police by squatters and other riff-raff in Manhattan's Tompkins Square Park in 1988. (The Times leaves Missing's part in the assault tantalizingly indeterminate.)
Missing's graffiti war yielded the predictable effect: delaying the much-needed revitalization of the troubled Lower East Side. A Missing admirer (and, heaven help us, an art teacher) tells The Times: "Pete's symbol was successful in that it helped scare away developers." Terrific! That left more graffiti-scarred, abandoned buildings, from which drug dealers and their addled customers could terrorize the neighborhood, and in which Missing and his fellow squatters could barricade themselves while planning future anarchist assaults.
But what do you know? This scourge of private property has been trying desperately to cash in on his life of crime! An "art" gallery has been selling pilfered signs and pieces of billboard scrawled with Missing's childish martini glass, and Missing has been unapologetically scarfing up the profits. More hypocritically still, Missing pursued an abortive licensing agreement with a skateboard company to use his anarchist icon. How can that be? you ask. How can Missing own property rights in his obsessively repeated scratching—he who scorns anyone else's claim to ownership free from vandalism or appropriation?
One of these groundbreaking ideas, argued The Times, was that grafitti was art.
The Times doesn't try to answer this conundrum, for it doesn't even perceive it. It sees Missing only as a trailblazing nonconformist who pursues his métier with unflagging dedication. The valentine to Missing concludes with our hero pulling out a silver marker and defacing a large parked truck with his martini icon. No comment from The Times, no judgment, and, of course, no citizen's arrest of this lawbreaker—just a generous ceding of the last word to Missing, who foresees for himself immortality: "Now I know this symbol will outlive me," he reflects, with philosophical self-satisfaction. The Times's celebration of this superannuated delinquent would be bad enough if it were just a onetime editorial misjudgment. But the Gray Lady is fully committed to graffiti promotion. In a much-ballyhooed supplement to its millennial edition on New Year's Day, 2000, the newspaper offered its readers predictions about "the next big thing in a range of disciplines…ideas that may turn into breakthroughs." One of these groundbreaking ideas, argued The Times, was that graffiti was art. Never mind that cultural elites and elite wannabes desperate for street cred—from Norman Mailer toTime and People magazines—have aestheticized graffiti since the 1970s. Unaware that it was arriving three decades late to the discovery, The Times quoted a "graffiti scholar," who complained that New York's anti-graffiti drive "repressed a really important art movement in the 20th century." Rather than fighting graffiti, opined the scholar, the city should have "used it to beautify urban spaces."
Nothing prevents The Times from bringing in a horde of "graffiti artists" to "beautify" its own building first, before unleashing this scourge on the rest of the city. The New York Times Company is a member of a business improvement district that attempts to keep the area free of graffiti. Why doesn't the company request exemption from the BID's cleaning efforts, so that its employees can enjoy the street tags and illiterate scratchings that would proliferate on its imposing edifice? Should some graffiti vandals "bomb" The Times building, it would be instructive to measure the seconds it would take publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., to dragoon a sandblasting crew there to remove the mess.
Until this edifying experiment takes place, we can expect a continuing stream of graffiti idiocy from our sensitive newspaper of record, along the following lines:
—September 21, 2000: The Times reports a dispute between graffiti "artists" and an art gallery over who owns the "art" works (graffiti-splattered stolen subway doors) in a museum show. The Times overlooks the irony of the vandals' ownership claims.
—September 22, 2000: The Times lauds the "exuberantly pictorial writing of graffiti art."
—September 27, 2000: The Times quotes a "graffiti artist" who calls graffiti part of the "visual arts."
—October 10, 2000: The Times notes with surprise that the police "consider the spray-painting of other people's property a crime and not art," a misconception that led to the arrest of an "artist" in a gallery show of graffiti.
—June 19, 2001: N. R. Kleinfeld reports on some "graffiti writers" who began by "decorating" subway cars.
—March 1, 2001: The Times fawningly profiles one of the "most sophisticated of the graffiti writers who moved aerosol art from the New York subway system to the embrace of the gallery world," an "aesthete" who made "even the hostile environs of the subway his own."
This romanticization of lawlessness is hardly innocuous. A Brooklyn inner-city high school teaches graffiti for academic credit, aping the elite's touting of graffiti vandalism as heroic self-expression. No matter that the school's students are being robbed of an academic and moral education. And the New York Police Department's crucial battle against public disorder as a precursor of violent felonies cannot be helped by TheTimes's constant worship of property defacement.
Before they assign their next "exuberant" graffiti article, The Times's editors should profile a small businessman like Reginald Butts, who struggles against the defacement of his Brooklyn Mail Boxes store by graffiti punks. When Butts opens his shop in the morning, and it has been newly tagged, there's a "momentary hurt," he says. "You wonder: 'Why would they do this?' They don't understand what's involved in running a business. We attempt to render a service to the community."
The Times is enamored of the alleged expressive purposes of graffiti; maybe it should recognize the communicative efforts of struggling entrepreneurs. Asked why he removes graffiti, Butts says: "What goes on our walls is designed to represent our business to passersby. We have to be crystal clear what we are offering. We can't just leave it up there, because we want our business to be…" He pauses. "I want to say, 'pristine,' so people will want to come in."
Like many of his fellow shopkeepers, Butts is black. Whether he survives economically should be of far greater concern to city opinion-makers than whether Peter Missing's martini icon reaches immortality. Butts has chipped in $1,200 to bring Bruce Pienkny's Graffiti Answers into North Flatbush to clean up the scourge, a cost he can ill afford. Too bad he didn't invest a mere 75 cents a day in a New York Times subscription, so he could have learned how unnecessary that $1,200 outlay was—or how unnecessary is the $1 million a year of taxpayers' money that New York City shells out for graffiti removal.
The Times purports to dictate to politicians and voters how to run New York with compassion and equity. Yet from their supremely establishment position, the graying and balding baby-boomer editors continue to nurse their adolescent fantasies of rebellion. They confer celebrity status on unknown losers such as Peter Missing (he once met Allen Ginsberg! The Times reassures us, so he's not just a nobody) and thrill to their criminal behavior.
The Times is a fitting mouthpiece for a generation that refuses to grow up.
Heather Mac Donald is the author of The Burden of Bad Ideas and of the forthcoming Are Cops Racist? She is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and is a contributing editor at the Institute's City Journal ( www.city-journal.org ), from whose Summer 2002 issue this article is reprinted.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.