Briefly Noted: Outlaw Art


“Writers talk all the time that they won’t write graffiti on churches, on private property, on people’s houses,” one graffiti “writer” told sociologist Gregory Snyder in Snyder’s book Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground (NYU Press). If true, this complicates the traditional objection to graffiti on property-rights grounds. Another graffiti writer quotes Sam Keen: “While the rebel is merely rejecting the established, the outlaw is motivated by a quest for self-government.”

In the mid-1990s, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani ignored such airy theorizing. Motivated by the “broken window” theory (“one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares”), NYC police cracked down on unauthorized art around the city.

Snyder’s book explores how graffiti evolved under this increased police watch. Interaction with the law grew to define the medium’s very nature, since graffiti work requires physical acuityâ€"quick painting, climbing trees, dodging copsâ€"as much as painting skills.