Graffiti's Story

February 5, 2010

Graffiti’s Story, From Vandalism to Art to Nostalgia

Original NYTims article appears here

Eric Felisbret stood by a chain-link fence, watching three men spraying graffiti on a backyard wall in Upper Manhattan. One man smiled and invited him over.

“You can go around the corner and when you see a sign for a seamstress, go in the alley,” the man said. “Or you can jump the fence, like we did.”

Mr. Felisbret, 46, chose the long way. Not that he is unused to fence-jumping. In the 1970s, that was one of his skills as a budding graffiti writer who stole into subway yards. Using the nom de graf DEAL, he was part of the Crazy Inside Artists, a legendary crew from East New York, Brooklyn. This time, though, instead of wielding a spray can, he pulled out a camera and took a quick snapshot of the artwork, done with the landlord’s permission.

“It’s really retro,” he said. “Look inside the 3D letters, how he added all those spots.”

He would know, and not just because the artist was his brother, Luke. Over some 30 years, the two men have amassed a photographic archive of New York City graffiti that is among the most comprehensive collections anywhere. Since 1998 much of it, along with interviews of artists, has been showcased on their Web site,

And now Eric Felisbret has published a thick, glossy new book, “Graffiti New York,” a survey of the art that mirrors his own life trajectory — from outlaw origins to mainstream respectability.

What started in the ’70s as a visual assault on commuters has attained a certain acceptability, if not cachet, thanks in part to the city’s crackdown on subway graffiti in the late ’80s. Today, ambitious aerosol canvases hang in galleries, while corporations like Nike, Coca-Cola and Sony hire graffiti muralists to paint storefront advertisements. Vintage photographs plucked from archives have inspired a small industry of coffee table books.

Old-school graffiti — with intricate tangles of kinetic letters and cartoonish characters — is just about everywhere except the place that was once its sole domain: the metal skins of subway cars.

While the city seems far removed from the days of entire trains slathered in spray paint, Mr. Felisbret believes there is probably just as much illicit graffiti in town, only more scattered — on trucks, rooftops or the upper floors of buildings. His book shows examples of all sorts.

But today’s renegade writers dazzle more with risk taking than artistic merit. Unlike the artists who executed elaborately drawn and colored tableaux decades ago, younger outlaws have little chance to develop into accomplished painters.

“The train yards used to provide the opportunity to do things illegally and creatively at the same time,” Mr. Felisbret said. “You had privacy and time. Now if you do something illegally, you have to be quick. You can’t stand on a corner and paint for hours.”

His Web site’s name is a nod to one of graffiti’s most famous spots — the “writer’s bench” at the 149th Street and Grand Concourse stop on the No. 2 line. During graffiti’s heyday, the bench was where artists gathered to trade ideas and admire rolling canvases.

Then, as now, photographs were the only lasting evidence that a piece had ever existed. But today the photos reach an audience that far outstrips that of even the most hyperactive All-City Bomber from the ’70s.

“The trains used to move your name around,” said Mr. Felisbret, who is a freelance graphic designer. “Now the Internet moves your name for you.”

Henry Chalfant, the photographer and filmmaker who was among the first to document graffiti’s boom years in New York, said Mr. Felisbret’s Web site and insider’s perspective have helped propel graffiti onto a global stage.

“His site is the most important one, along with Art Crimes,” Mr. Chalfant said. “It has transformed the scene internationally, where everybody can find out everything they need and link up with people.”

The site’s current mix of elaborate pieces and quickly written tags also underscores a tension in a community of artists that now spans several generations. To some younger artists, the beauty of an intricate wall done with permission — and time to spare — is no match for the adrenaline rush of fast and dirty bombing on the sly.

“You could paint 100 pieces legally, put them on the Internet, and somebody in Germany will say, ‘Wow!’ But they won’t know that the writer took no risks,” Mr. Felisbret said. “Face it, there are two ways to get credibility — artistic merit or the assumption of risk. And for traditionalists, the assumption of risk carries far more value in the culture.”

That might be why some European aficionados arrive and immediately start asking how they can paint the side of a train. (Mr. Felisbret says some also think that teenagers rule the city and all graffiti writers are break dancers.)

“They have this idealized view of the culture,” he said. “They have fetishized something that does not exist anymore.”

The teenagers who could once slip through fences and dart among the rails are now middle aged. Some, like Mr. Felisbret, stopped writing graffiti long ago and embarked on more mainstream jobs in the arts. Others, like Joe Lopez, consider themselves weekend writers who don’t need to break the law to pursue their art.

“You get a job, you make some money, you get married and things slow down after a while,” said Mr. Lopez, 52, who started tagging CLYDE when he was a teenager in the Melrose neighborhood of the Bronx. “The last time I did the trains was in the ’70s. Then I branched out to other things, Central Park.”

Where? “The whole park,” he said. “The rowboats, everything. Every boat was mine. For about two years I burned it.”

Now his name can be found — legally — on walls in the Inwood section of Manhattan, not far from the fabled “ghost yard,” a sprawling maintenance depot that runs north of 207th Street along 10th Avenue. He does his art for fun, not for money — and with permission from landlords.

“I don’t have to hustle,” he said. “I have a good job.”

His days of sneaking into a train yard are over. He can walk in through the gate.

“I work for the Transit Authority,” Mr. Lopez said. “Believe it or not, I’m a supervisor in the No. 4 yard.”