GREY CITY, Winter 2015: Ode to the Unholy

The following article was originally published in The Chicago Maroon’s Grey City Magazine Winter 2015 issue, viewable here.

In my version of prehistory, the cavemen of Lascaux who one day mixed color into animal fat and let loose on the walls were the earliest heroes of the human race. Probably because I, too, once aspired to be a caveman. Like the time I used up three cans of spray paint on the back walls of my apartment complex (and almost got my family evicted)—or the time a bunch of us young and naïve wannabes hit the school gate with yellow paint (we spent three days in the principal’s office and another three scrubbing the walls under snowfall). That phase of my life is over now, if only because I suck at hand rendering. But I remained in touch with that culture as a kindred spirit. It was thus a moment of ecstasy when I first came upon the graffiti wall on 53rd Street, which to my utter shock lay in ruins during my third pilgrimage. Vue53—Coming Fall 2015: Who needs graffiti when you can have more luxury?

On the surface (pun intended), what went down to make way for the new University-backed building was a mound of bricks with some paint on it. And in a sense, its demise was nature taking its course. Walls come and go—in their absence, writers and crews will hit their usual underside of bridges, exterior of trains, or wherever else they find to work their magic. My intent in writing is neither to mourn the wall itself nor to slap anyone for being a spoilsport. Graffiti, at least in my familiarity with it, never cried for eternal preservation. At some point all graffiti gets painted over, either by property owners or by other writers, and that elaborate dance with prohibition and temporality has made the very act of eluding an art in and of itself. Graffiti doesn’t look back, because that’s how it grew up.

Yet there is something to be said about the institution that razes decades-thick paint to half as many inches in renovation paperwork. The premise is implicit: Graffiti is something to be tolerated until the space it inhabits becomes otherwise necessary—at which point it must give way for a higher (and more profitable) cause. As a community we shall have more commerce, more living space, and fewer things of such little relevance to this esteemed bubble that one day, without relocation or re-designation, they are no longer found again. It is truly a shame that academia has yet to confer postmodern existential neo-neo-conceptual art status on the graffiti. The great University of Chicago might have cared more then.

This is an ode to the unholy art of infraction, gangbangers, and low culture—or so the association goes, though in general this could not be further from the truth. Gangs tag to mark territory; aesthetics isn’t exactly the prime consideration. By contrast, most of today’s graffiti arose as part of hip hop in the mid-1970s, in tandem with skater subculture and street dance—the same kind that I and countless other students on this campus partake in and enjoy. It saved lives and cut violence. Writers would group into crews and battle each other through art, emphasizing fair play and good rules. Chicago’s graffiti underworld is a self-sustaining educational network for urban adolescents, and a world-class one at that. Which, by the way, owes an ironic thanks to the city’s own $4-million-a-year Graffiti Blasters® scheme that commits to free cleanup within 24 hours of notice. When you can’t claim a renaissance to writerhood after tagging two corners because your work will be overpainted, you either survive through persistence or you don’t survive at all.

So Chicago’s graffiti is a damn pride. Talent runs deep in the lifestyle and culture, which comes with its own complexities and issues. The characters trace their lineage to the word-based, message-based roots of the art, which learned to boast individuality first through big, bold fonts, and then through uniqueness and style. Spray paint is the most common medium for kicks, but markers and brushes can get thrown in too. The different nozzles, the variation in distance between the can and the wall, the writing speed, the colors used—all shape the texture, flavor, feel of the throw-up. Gender and personality are asserted. There’s a whole exhilarating history of comic-book art and anime influence. Sometimes you have to hit the road mid-piece and come back to finish because the man’s coming after you. Each writer hones their skills through time, money, effort, ripped clothes, multiple abandoned ladders, respiratory health risks, and feverish passion. New-school writers sometimes collide with tradition, which old-school writers then lament (“kids these days”). There’s as much rivalry—horizontally between crews, cities, regions and vertically between generations—as there is love. Here too, graffiti commercialization drives its own set of problems.

And this is important: Why on earth the wall? It’s a public statement and challenge. Graffiti demands you to look twice and be provoked by it. Let us also not forget that conventional art has never really been for the masses to afford. I never grew up with much extra change for sketchbooks and paintbrushes—is my art superfluous when it’s not on a canvas?

On occasion “legal walls” come into being, where graffiti is permitted to flourish in the property owner’s backyard. Unless curated by the host, usually someone familiar with the subculture, the wall will go through an extended period of tagging and crew rivalry that will last anywhere from months to years. But slowly equilibrium is reached, and rules are established. What follows is a sort of auto-curation, in which quality pieces tend to be kept intact for longer before the next layer of paint takes its place. The permission wall becomes a safe and respected hub for artistic interaction where individuals and crews are able to showcase their talent. The accomplishments in this vein behind the 1300 block of East 53rd Street until a year ago were a human triumph. Yet opinion steeped in elite aesthetics will always miss the point.

The tragedy is ours—the University’s, the students’, Hyde Park’s. At least when Jerry Wolkoff tore down 5Pointz in Long Island City, NY for a condominium complex, he didn’t claim to do it for the benefit of his community. The Hyde Park graffiti wall was a reminder that graffiti could be innocuous, artistic. It was a stroll through the back alley by which to think twice about our assumptions regarding art and culture, what the University values or fails to value, and the bubble sense of security that we live in. The demographic representation of graffiti artists is hands down the best I’ve seen in any form of art across all socioeconomic scales. I trust I need not waste words here on the sheer gravity of what this calls into question in this segregated city.

This is an institution that floods you with resources for academics and high culture. Privilege in that kind of setting is knowing what else is out there. Perhaps too efficaciously, the University has bulldozed that to the ground. As of 2014, the domesticated residents of Hyde Park will not know art beyond the museum unless they are willing to travel for the unholy. Many will go on with not an inkling of the difference between bathroom stall etchings and the masterpieces that teach us something beyond the classroom. That is a loss no amount of Indiana Jones, business, and living space will restore to this community.

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