The Transformation of New York Graffiti

By Maurice Pinzon
At last week’s political rally in Bryant Park in Manhattan, Democratic presidential candidate Dr. Howard Dean used as a backdrop for his talk to supporters an ersatz graffiti-covered wall. New York Council Member James S. Oddo, a Republican who represents a district in Staten Island, saw it as a type of symbolism he would rather do without.

In a telephone interview with New York News Network, Council Member Oddo said he was offended by Dr. Dean’s use of the graffiti backdrop because he believes that in most New Yorkers’ minds, graffiti is associated with a time when New York was a “dark, dank city full of despair” — a time that Mr. Oddo said no longer exists. Mr. Oddo does not think Dr. Dean should have reminded the country of this dismal period in New York’s past when “lawlessness ruled, where every subway car was riddled with graffiti” and when “we were on the verge of municipal bankruptcy.”

Mr. Oddo was referring to New York City’s fiscal crisis during the 70’s, when many City services were cut to the bone and capital spending was drastically reduced, resulting in the deterioration of the public infrastructure.

The council member, who is one of only three Republicans in the City Council, said he had told someone in discussing the graffiti issue, “Hey, don’t forget I’m the one who walked out of Gracie Mansion on the Republican mayor.” Mr. Oddo said he understood Dr. Dean’s political strategy in using the wall with graffiti as a political prop. According to Mr. Oddo, Dr. Dean was “trying to appeal to this Internet, MTV, young, disaffected disenfranchised universe of folks.” Mr. Oddo said Dr. Dean’s prop was in a similar vein of trying to appeal to a youthful audience as “Bill Clinton going on MTV and saying he wears boxers.”

Mr. Oddo’s understanding of the strategy notwithstanding, he thought Dr. Dean had hurt New York City’s image across the country. He said, “And I don’t think seeing the leading Democratic nominee standing in front of a graffitied wall in New York City seen on the TV beaming across the country does New York City well across the country. I took offense.”

The graffiti artist at the center of attention for directing the creation of Dr. Dean’s backdrop discussed with New York News Network the attention his work has received. The artist, known as “Keo,” said the graffiti work was rushed with the help of assistants, and painted in 15 minutes because of a delay in setting up the stage at the park. Keo said he would have tried to do something more artistic if he had the time. He thought it was ironic that a council member and others were complaining about the graffiti at a time when the techniques, if not the exacting wording, of graffiti artists were being imitated in the commercial advertising world.

Keo said, “You never saw in the 70’s or early 80’s an entire bus, the exterior, from top to bottom wrapped with advertising. That was a graffiti tactic to paint the exterior of public transportation top to bottom.” Keo explained that major corporations must have realized that you could “profit from selling that space.”

Keo, who used to “tag” subways back late 70’s and 80’s, said: Right now you have young ad executives who grew up in my generation. Many of the creative cats even wrote graffiti in the 80’s.”

Indeed, Viacom, which owns CBS and is the sole adverting vendor in New York City subways, has on its website an explanation of what it offers its clients. In what Viacom calls “Station Domination” the company explains that its control of adverting space allows “a single advertiser to blanket the traditional media within a terminal and to enhance the display with special sites strategically placed in high-traffic areas. The result is a virtual exhibit that surrounds the consumer with multiple messages throughout their commute.”

In promoting the bus wrapping Keo referred to, Viacom says on its website that “Wraps” allow their advertising clients to “combine the market penetration of a bus with the size and impact of a billboard. These moving posters travel through crowded streets, turning heads and making lasting impressions. Wrapped vehicles provide creativity and dramatic impact.”

There was a similar objective in painting subway trains. Keo explained that “you could catch the subway laid up in Brooklyn and by the next day people in the Bronx had seen your work. If I painted a wall in Brooklyn, nobody would see it except the guys on that block.”

On New York subways commuters are familiar with single-brand dominated subway cars. When asked about what he thought about this type of advertising, Keo said: “Those were all our tactics — repetitively coding a subway train with your name over and over again. These were ways to get noticed. No one used to advertise in the subways except like dentists, a guy who would fix your zits for you.”

But Keo does not believe the graffiti problem has been solved. Instead he said it has been displaced from outside of the subway cars to the streets. He said, “These kids today they still have that same urge to express themselves and be heard but they don’t really have a space in which to do that. And it’s everywhere now.”

Keo does not like the graffiti on his block either because, he explained, “I gotta go out and clean the outside of my building as well.”

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