You see them everywhere – on sidewalks, on fences, on mailboxes, wherever there is space and a chance to be seen by passersby. On the pavement of the Union Square greenmarket on March 23, 2016, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels:
On the Horatio Street sidewalk recently near an entrance to Jackson Square Park, just south of West 14th Street:
I was caged
but I fought back
In white chalk, so I thought, but it must have been white paint, since it has since survived several days of rain. Under the words were two crudely drawn chickens, or maybe two squawking ducks; the artist’s skills were limited.
On a mail storage box on West 13th Street recently, squeezed in with a host of scribblings and crazy art:
Some are problematic, as for instance, on the sidewalk at an intersection:
Good advice, but for whom? Similarly, on East 4th Street:
And on Eighth Avenue near Jane Street:
And on the scaffolding masking renovation of a building on West 4th Street:
TAKE ME TO THE ALLEY
when there was no alley in sight. Just as enigmatic, also on East 4th Street:
I DON’T WANT
You rarely know who the graffiti artists are, but in some cases I assume young teen-age males, known for their blatant candor, as in these two instances, seen by me long ago, though I don’t know where:
If Satan gets my balls we’ll play tennis
farts are healthy
And in the Union Square greenmarket, scrawled on the pavement in fading chalk trampled by busy New Yorkers who paid no heed:
Some show signs of sophistication, as for instance this one, scrawled on the wall of a men’s room on the Columbia University campus eons ago, which was much quoted and became legendary:
God = mc2
For the knowing few, of course, this was a take-off of Einstein’s renowned physics equation, E = mc2, meaning that energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light, squared.
But my favorite graffito (yes, that’s the singular) was one I glimpsed, I don’t know where, back in the rebellious 1960s:
but Moses invests
This post will not attempt a history of New York graffiti, least of all their evolution from crude sidewalk scribbles to the exuberant multicolored art of minority youth spray-painting the sides of the city’s subway cars in the 1970s, until in the 1980s the authorities with great effort eliminated the art – and art it was, in my opinion, however misplaced – and scrubbed the cars ruthlessly clean. For some, the graffiti-ridden cars symbolized the city’s moral and physical decline, which goes to show that one man’s art is another’s vandalism. And the debate continues today, when an alleged resurgence of graffiti art has inspired tours in certain neighborhoods to view it, while the New York Post declares that the city must beat the “cancer of graffiti.”
One graffiti artist who announces himself is Hans (“Ace”) Honschar, age 42, whose colored chalk snippets appear all over the Upper West Side, and who briefly about a year ago invaded the West Village – my turf – and left messages on the sidewalk outside the D’Agostino supermarket that I patronize. His messages – at least, the ones that I have seen – are relentlessly upbeat:
the two most
of the year
the end of
find ur talent
& fulfill your
for you are
I saw that
my life was
a vast, glowing
and I could do
What he does, of course, is fill every empty space he sees with his multicolored bits of wisdom. In the process he even makes a buck or two, for shop owners pay him to leave an inscription in front of their shop, and passersby pay him to take their picture for five dollars or, for double that, to have their picture taken with him.
Fulfilling his destiny, alas, has led to a tangle or two with the police, since graffiti are technically forbidden, but like a good New Yorker he persists. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to a strict religious family that attended a Pentecostal church, he grew up in Florida and migrated all over Canada before landing in New York where, like so many, he knew he had to stay, with a special fondness for the Upper West Side.
I wake up
and I say
‘Well, I’m still
in New York,
thank you God’
No matter what the outcome of his skirmishes with the police, he will continue to fulfill his chalky, polychrome destiny.
Graffiti have always been with us and always will be. They have been found in the ruins of ancient Egypt and Pompeii and surely go back eons, probably to the dawn of writing. I can well imagine some enterprising young caveman sneaking a few raw squiggles onto the walls of a cave otherwise adorned with marvelous drawings of the animals hunted by our ancestors in prehistoric times. Graffiti are usually anonymous, often irreverent, often bawdy, but sometimes uplifting and inspiring. And by their very nature subversive. No city has contributed more to their fame and notoriety than New York.
The book: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received two awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction, and first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards. (For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.) As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: Mysteries of New York: Scavengers. Who are they and what are they up to?
© 2016 Clifford Browder