“New York is one of the ugliest cities in the world,” declares Hugo Martinez in the no-nonsense, self-assured drawl so characteristic of the Capital of the World. “It’s a cacophony of fourth-rate architecture, all mixed up. It doesn’t have any grand buildings. What gives the city character is the immense fight between the classes – you can’t picture NYC without graf in the background.”
Contentious words guaranteed to strike a chord with some and a nerve with many, not least Lieutenant Mona of the dramatically-titled Anti-Graffiti Task Force. Spearheading the city’s zero-tolerance initiative – including a dedicated 311 graffiti-reporting hotline, although work in progress merits a 911 call – Mona’s official line is one of rigid condemnation. “I refer to them as vandals, because that is what they are. Make no mistake, they are not artists. Vandals are not interested in artistic expression, or social commentary, all they care about is getting their ‘ups’ all over the city.”
It’s statement that Martinez dismisses as “moronic” – although he doesn’t deny the core accusation. “Why can’t an artist be a vandal?” he counters. “I don’t trust art that’s legal. The world is fucked up – art is institutionalised if it’s legal. Art has to change something.” Dismissing the vast majority of the world’s graffiti as “bullshit”, Martinez argues that NYC remains the undisputed vanguard of the culture not only because the city gave birth to it, but because of the fiercely defiant attitude that still beats at its heart. He lists just four other cities worthy to share this kudos: Los Angeles, Rio, Sao Paulo and Mexico City.
Romanticising the situation a tad in favour of the underdog, it’s that age-old struggle between the trampled underprivileged and the ultra hard-line establishment – the former spraying their way back into public consciousness to re-appropriate a city that’s sold its soul to the high-rise fat cats; the latter scrubbing and scouring away their identities and clapping those “poor working-class schmucks” in the slammer.
But then battling the system’s no fun if the system rolls over and takes it. In January 2006, with the sale of aerosol paint to minors already prohibited – and merchants obliged to keep it locked away from potential shoplifters – Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr. developed controversial legislation that would make it illegal for anyone under 21 to possess spray-paint or permanent markers. This sparked outrage from fashion mogul Marc Ecko, who sued Vallone and Mayor Bloomberg on behalf on art students everywhere. They backed down in May.
Bring it on, eggs Martinez. “Repression leads to aggression,” he asserts, exposing the core of any self-respecting class struggle. “Republicans are really good for graf – they believe in repression, and hard-line measures have made graffiti boom. Writers are inspired by being erased, and come up with quicker, more unusual ways to do it.”
“There are 11,000 train cars and 140,000 buildings in New York,” he goes on, clearly having done his research. And the advent of ‘the buff’ in the early ‘80s – a chemical wash that stripped the paint off trains every night – didn’t stamp out graf so much as fire it up further. “When they attacked the subway system and brought in graffiti-free trains, it moved onto the buildings,” he observes. “In the last twenty years, graf has blossomed again. Everyone’s killing the streets; they erase them much more often than the trains.”
Now in his mid-50s, Martinez has been immersed in the culture since his days as a philosophy student in 1972 – when he shuffled some Puerto Rican teenagers painting trains into a loose collective called United Graffiti Artists. Now, as part of his All City Project – the phrase ‘all city’ designating a writer with visible tags in all five boroughs – he’s invited an eclectic group of graf writers from teens to middle-age to spray their multicoloured mark all over the regulation décor of a low-income 1960s apartment.
And he has no qualms about sharing his views on the rest of the art world. “I didn’t want to turn it into a latrine for the wealthy, like every other gallery,” he scowls. “The art world is fifty people, and it represents their culture. Art’s a commodity.”
“There’s no such thing as a graf artist,” he continues, building up steam now. “That describes beautifying private property; figurative art. That’s not graffiti. It’s like Pat Boone is to rock ‘n’ roll – a dumbed-down version. A true graf writer will wait for a muralist, and then go over it. They have no love for private property – it’s more like punk rock. NYC is all about fighting and appropriation. Art doesn’t have to be legal – on some level, it’s all against one institution or another.”
© Nick Carson 2006. First published in Issue 5 of TEN4 magazine