Graffiti Is Metastasizing Again in New York, and Guess Who's Applauding

Heather MacDonald on the Gray Lady's Love Affair With 'Artists' Who Destroy Others' Property
July 17, 2002

By Heather Mac Donald

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 drunken-driving checkpoints.

(Presumably, Mr. Missing has never known anyone slain by a drunken 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.)

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Missing's childish martini glass, and Mr. Missing has been unapologetically scarfing up the profits. More hypocritically still, Mr. Missing pursued an abortive licensing agreement with a skateboard company to use his anarchist icon. "How can that be?" you ask. How can Mr. Missing own property rights in his obsessively repeated scratching-he who scorns anyone else's claim to ownership free from vandalism or appropriation?

The Times doesn't try to answer this conundrum, for it doesn't even perceive it. It sees Mr. Missing only as a trailblazing nonconformist who pursues his métier with unflagging dedication. The valentine to Mr. 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 Mr. 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, to take just one of many other examples, 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 to Time 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."

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 Mr. Butts opens his shop in the morning, and it's 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, Mr. 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, Mr. Butts is black. Whether he survives economically should be of far greater concern to city opinion-makers than whether Mr. Missing's martini icon reaches immortality. Mr. 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 of taxpayers' money that New York City shells out for graffiti removal each year.

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 Mr. 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.

Ms. Mac Donald is the author of "The Burden of Bad Ideas" and a contributing editor of City Journal, from whose latest issue this column is adapted.

©2002 New York Sun