Graffiti turn away from topics of terror


For months, the mural on the side of Jorge’s Deli in the Bronx was a colorful tribute to New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. But last summer Joey Vega, who lives nearby in the Evergreen housing projects, got permission from the owner to whitewash over the twin towers and planes, and spray new paint against the brick.

This time Vega’s graffiti “writing” reflected what it always has -- life in this neighborhood, the concerns of people in this part of the city. The new mural is a 40-foot ode to 20 years of hip-hop history with pictures of black, white and Latino teenagers, of subway cars curling around corners and well-known “tags” of graffiti writers such as LEE, TKID and DOZE. Vega goes by “SERVE.”

“This is what people in the Bronx care about, their history and life,” said Vega, who emerged sleepy-eyed from one of Evergreen’s 20-story apartment buildings on a recent morning to explain his wall.


The classes and races of New York united for a brief time after Sept. 11, mourning a disaster in which elevator operators and Wall Street investors died side by side. But it wasn’t long before they all returned to their respective corners and concerns, and that division was reflected in the preoccupations of New Yorkers last week.

In elite corners of the city, particularly in Manhattan, apprehension was high. People were stocking up on water and food, and hoarding duct tape to seal their windows against a chemical attack. A Central Park West matron found herself running into a bank to replenish her dwindling stash of emergency cash -- $5,000 -- spent down on cab fare and groceries in the months when high-alert warnings had abated.

But at Jorge’s Deli they weren’t demanding duct tape last week. Maybe Jorge sold a couple extra cans of Chef Boyardee. Several ladies, bundled against the cold and waiting for a bus near the deli that would take them to jobs in Manhattan, said their only concern about terrorism was that if something happened they wouldn’t be able to get to work. And how could they cover their rent if they didn’t get paid?

Some of the kids in the projects, however, were more interested in how their names would look spray-painted on walls than that an Al Qaeda madman might explode a nuclear bomb on Midtown.

Scrawling letters with an aerosol spray -- “bombing” -- still means something important here. It’s a statement of identity and a snub of authority. It’s also how a very few poor kids in previous decades moved from jumping subway turnstiles to the realm of elite gallery artists. Even the kids acknowledge that wall writing of any sort can be pure vandalism, evidence of public disorder that New York cops tend to see as a precursor to violent crime.

Vega’s wall, although not necessarily an image worthy of a Soho gallery, speaks to the enduring quality and quantity of graffiti in New York, and to a subculture that persists despite aggressive policing against it. Three times while Vega was painting the wall last summer, cops pulled up and questioned him. Did he have permission to spray the wall? They checked his identity and took the names of his “apprentices” -- kids who watch him while he works. The city’s Vandal Squad was notified, but the cops left Vega alone.


The Vandal Squad now includes 60 officers, 30 fewer than when William Bratton was running the police in New York and made eradicating graffiti a top priority. But L.A.’s top cop has moved his case against graffiti west.

By the end of the 1980s, New York had wiped out graffiti on subways and in other prime public places. Since then, however, it has been glorified elsewhere, including in highbrow art and advertising circles, and in a few books, including “Aerosol Kingdom,” a recently published history of ‘80s subway paintings.

“Like the proverbial palm tree -- bowing under the pressure of a cyclone, yet able to rise up from the breaking point -- aerosol art testifies to a will to live and a refusal to submit,” author Ivor L. Miller writes.

The culture has changed, but it survives. Says Vega: “The era of just being famous because you put your tag everywhere is over. The cops are making sure of that. You’re better off if you put your tag on a real canvas and get 1,000 bucks for it -- that’s something. Or you can do a comic book about life in the Bronx -- that’s really something.”

Vega, 34, admits that once in a while he sneaks into a train yard like he used to as a kid and scrawls his name on a car. “That’s only for me to get my little whiz for doing illegal [stuff]. I don’t take a chance on hitting the main subways. The cops stay there all night, not just for graffiti. They’re also looking for terrorists.” Vega, who supports himself as a DJ and freelance graphic artist, is more interested in educating kids who live in the projects about graffiti’s past. He wants to convince them that scratching their tags on subway windows -- the newest street-kid sport -- or scrawling them on businesses in their own neighborhoods is not a life.

Last week, it felt strikingly luxurious to discuss art-versus-vandalism with Vega and author Ivor Miller and the chief of the Vandal Squad, Lt. Steve Mano. With the country hurtling toward war and Times Square occupied by cops with machine guns, it felt like New York had moved on to a larger, scarier threat than these old urban concerns.


“I wish graffiti was all that we had to worry about these days,” said Mano, whose officers are now doing double duty hunting taggers and terrorists in the subways.

Vega was certain that the Vandal Squad wasn’t wasting its time worrying about terrorists infiltrating his apartment building. Unlike the twin towers, the Evergreen projects are not proud symbols of American prowess. “Nobody here thinks those bad guys are hitting the Bronx any time soon,” Vega said, chuckling.

And so instead of obsessing about covering his apartment windows with plastic sheeting, Vega is thinking about his next mural. He’s imagining the deli wall filled with colorful portrayals of African gods. “A good graffiti wall always has a message,” Vega said. “In this neighborhood, African gods, they’ll get noticed.”