NYPD Top Cop: Kids Might Become Vandals if They See Graffiti in Museum


Thomas Hawk

The Museum of the City of New York has a rich exhibit on "the golden age of New York graffiti" but one man isn't happy at all about the display. New York City Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner William Bratton is downright furious that pieces lauded as comparable to "Ali Baba's cave of secret art treasures" is being shown to the public… to kids!

"I find it outrageous that one of the city's museums is currently celebrating graffiti and what a great impact it had on the city," he vented to The Wall Street Journal about "City as Canvas," which explores the explosion of street art in '70s and '80s and features the work of "seminal figures in an artistic movement that spawned a worldwide phenomenon, altering music, fashion, and popular visual culture." Pish posh. Bratton fears the consequences of "having New York City school kids at the impressionable age of 12 years old walking through looking at this stuff and having it advertised as 'Isn't this great?'"

Isn't it, though? Art's got a subjective side to it, and what the commissioner sees as 150 pieces of visually-digestible criminal inspiration, The New York Times celebrates the practice that "flourished so wonderfully" in part because "the nearly bankrupt city government lacked the resources to stop it" and the fact that this exhibit memorializes the history of "street art, a symbol of the disaffection felt among young men (and a few women) of color, attempted to reclaim streets and communities from systemic neglect." Others embrace the fact that "the show highlights the role of street art as a tool of self-expression."

Wikimedia Commons

The museum director politely responded that promoting crime to kids is not the exhibit's intent. But it's little surprise Bratton jumped to such a far-out conclusion. His blood has long boiled at the sight of street art, and earlier this year he pushed to put ugly bandaids on the problem by having officers divert their focus from other crimes and diligently paint squares over tags.

Bratton is a big believer in "broken window theory" law enforcement, the notion that snuffing out low-level crimes in a society will prevent the rise of more serious ones. Whether this actually works is up for debate as much as the artistic merit of graffiti. Bratton's own boys in blue have a bad history of manufacturing petty crime while not dealing with bigger ones, though, and Bratton himself has defended such policies even in the face of tragic, lethal abuses like last month's killing of Eric Garner, a father of six who was allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.

But let's remember, what Bratton is throwing a fit about this week wasn't a crime, it was a museum exhibit. The commissioner seems to have become a self-parody in worrying that in the skulls of children are brains so malleable, so easily impressed upon, that seeing something in an educational setting might transform youths into criminals. 

No one tell him that there's another graffiti exhibit in an old NYPD precinct building.

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  1. The obvious solution is to shoot graffitists on sight.

    1. I’ma go all John on this one and agree – the only way to stop this scourge is to shoot a few of the fuckers ‘pour encourager les autres’.

      However . . . regarding the article. That shit isn’t ‘street art’, its graffiti. For every piece of ‘street art’, there are 9,999,999 pieces of some punk pissing paint all over the side of a building like he’s a dog marking a fire hydrant.

      And fuck Bansky.

    2. Sure… stop & shoot has to be at least as successful as stop & frisk, right?

  2. I remember hanging out in Alphabet City back in about 1980 and seeing things all over tagged with epitome

  3. This is just absurd. Does Bratton really think kids in New York won’t know what grafitti is, except for seeing it in the museum? Also, a fifteen minute walk outside of the police headquarters would tell him that there’s a distinction between imbecile scrawl and some of the work that people appreciate as much or more than the city-subsidized “public art” that gets put up.

    1. Of course NY kids are regularly exposed to graffiti and know precisely what it is. That’s not the point. The point is, it’s offensive and morally objectionable to glorify vandalism, which is what this exhibit does. And that glorification tells kids (and others) that it’s OK to desecrate others’ property if you pretend that it’s “art”. That’s a very bad message to send, and frankly I’m surprised to see a libertarian publication defending it. Libertarians are supposed to be defenders of private property rights, aren’t we?

      1. Logic fail… cause if there?s one thing in the entire world that is sure to make all teenagers stand up, pay close attention, and alter their behavior – it has to be art shows.

        Libertarians are supposed to be defenders of private property rights, aren’t we?

        Yes, but since this isn?t a question about whether graffiti is in and of itself ok, legal, or have any redeeming values at all, your attempt to point it out as if it were some brilliant ?gotcha? is just stupid.

        The question here is whether the police chief is stupid in thinking there would ever be any logical connection between an art showing and teenage behavior.

        To my knowledge – no private property implications there.

        Additionally, since you are apparently unaware, we have this pesky little thing in this country called the first amendment. Among things that use to mean, was that LEOs, including Police Chiefs, shouldn?t be openly objecting to the exercise of that freedom.

        You know – because when the guys with the guns tell you that your event is hurting people – it might, you know, have a negative impact on open speech.

        Indirectly – there are private property implications – seeing as how the art show is likely on private property, sponsored by free people, all while observing their Constitutionally protected rights and LEOs shouldn?t be abusing their positions of power to try to stop that in any way… but no private property implications which need direct defending here.

        So your point?

    2. Bratton doesn’t have the balls to have the curators arrested for criminal solicitation, so he goes whining like a puppy to a nearly bankrupt newspaper.

  4. Explain to me again how defacing someone else’s private property without their permission is an acceptable form of personal expression.

    1. It isn’t. However, a museum displaying photos of such vandalism is.

      1. But the museum should not get taxpayer money.

        1. But the No museum should not get taxpayer money.


    2. It isn’t.

      There are some instances, tho, where someone else’s personal property becomes such a visual blight on a neighborhood that attractive illegal art can soften the degrading aspect of decaying property. Owners of said property clearly don’t give a shit about how their lack of property maintenance affects a block so why should I care when a group of artistic kids applies art to the eyesore?

      1. *Owners of said property clearly don’t give a shit about how their lack of property maintenance affects a block so why should I care when a group of artistic kids applies art to the eyesore?*

        Because it’s still SOMEONE ELSE’S PROPERTY. There are laws and procedures to remove or repair eyesores.

        1. That ‘someone’ is perfectly within their rights to address the illegality occurring on their property.

          If YOU wish to run over there and save someone else’s shitty building from the graffiti artist then more power to you, friend.

        2. If the property owner doesn’t give a shit about the property, I don’t see how anyone is harmed.

          1. How about writing on public property?

            1. Graffiti artists do their thing and police do their thing trying to catch them. That’s just the natural order of things.

              I don’t know what else people want here. Should we be shooting graffiti people on sight?

              I’m perfectly happy to appreciate the art for what it is if I think it is good and also be OK with it when people get arrested for vandalizing someone’s property.

              1. Subversive art is always cool.

            2. Didn’t someone get convicted of vandalism for chalk drawings on a sidewalk?

  5. earlier this year he pushed to put ugly bandaids on the problem by having officers divert their focus from other crimes and diligently paint squares over tags.

    Which would be hilarious if it violates a public union code, and suddenly the Mural Painters and Traffic Stripers 9328 is riding his ass for breach of contract.

    1. When the painters’ union and the police union get together…oh boy. Industrial painters tend to be a little crazy from all the fumes. I imagine the cops would just want to bust their heads for seeming high.

      1. Once there was this guy see, all high up on paint fumes. Makes you superhuman, can’t feel pain. Took 8 shots to put him down.

  6. There’s a huge difference between “street art” graffiti and tagging. The latter is just some idiot signing their name in paint on your building or street sign — there’s nothing artistic about it. Let’s not confuse the two.

    1. See below = ‘style wars’ doco debating both sides of that question.

    2. Tagging can be applied hugely and beautifully, actually. Think Conrail. Ugliest rusty buckets on rails but an amazing tag is a jaw-dropper when held up by one, imo.

      1. Agreed, and I’m not defending vandalism, just noting that too often supporters will point to Banksy and other examples with actual artistic merit as representative of all graffiti, when the vast majority is some asshole writing his name on every sign, building, pole, window on the block.

        1. I could I think, easily make the argument, that even tags could be artistic in nature – as many tags, while nothing more than some assholes writing their group name, in the right location, they are extremely meaningful and act as a guide to people in other groups of where safety is and is not.

          & since art by in large is derives most of its value from the context – presented correctly, tags could be art.

          SLD: If the property owner doesn?t want you to tag their property – it is and should be illegal to do so.

          But this whole argument on what constitutes art – what an odd argument for libertarians.

          As the answer to ?what is art?? for libertarians is easy ?if the buyer of said item believes it?s art, then it?s art.?

    3. van Gogh could paint “Starry Night” on the side of my house and it would still he vandalism without my permission.

      1. Right, but if van Gogh broke into your house and stole canvas and painted “Starry Night” on it, it would still be “Starry Night”.

        I’ll bet half the gold objects in any antiquities exhibit are made of stolen gold. And probably EVERY coin in any numismatics exhibit was stolen at least once. Nah Mah Problem.

        1. The perceived value of something created using stolen property seems immaterial when considering the crime required to obtain it, somehow.

          1. You can’t get around the fact that it would be quite simple for me to demonstrate that if you removed every object in every museum that was either stolen at some point in its history or was made from stolen materials the museums would be empty in short order.

            You’re asking me to take particular offense at this exhibit, and not at others. And I would think it would have to be all or nothing.

            1. Not to mention the entire process and 8,000 page legal document detailing exactly what is ?stolen? – what percentage of theoretical stolen parts in any piece would mean it shouldn?t be shown.

              & then wait for people to just show up – ?that there Constitution thingy – you know that in 1776, it was well known that all the ink used by the founding fathers was stolen directly from my great, great grandfather Lewis Gutenberg Parchment. Which we reminds me, he also patented Parchment – so give me my percentage of the doc or maybe a lump sum. We ain?t greedy – only asking for around 8 trillion – it?s well less than a single year?s GDP (for now anyway)?

              That – and even with legitimate claims… what?s the standard of proof?

              But what do I know – maybe meticulous, well kept property records can be found going back thousands of years – or even hundreds of thousands – like global temperatures.

    4. So…. burners are cool, but not fills or tags?

      1. Anyone trying to parse the ‘rights and wrongs’ / ‘good and bad’ of the stuff are starting from the wrong place entirely.

        No one’s saying it isn’t vandalism. Writers aren’t making a case why what they’re doing should be ‘legal’.

        Its a crime and they know it. Which is partly the point.

        1. Its [sic] a crime and they know it. Which is partly the point.

          Agreed – most of the value art has is based upon the context in which the art was created – such as the great 60?s songs of protest. They are still listened to, but they don?t and cannot have the same impact in a different context.

          & part of graffiti?s value – is in the illegality and the theoretical ?f**k you? the author can give to ?society?.

  7. If people have never seen them (and both are sort of mandatory ‘American cultural history’ documents)…

    Style Wars


    Wild Style

    What is notable about both films (~circa 1982 & 1983) is that there is a sense in the Bronx communities that had ‘invented’ the graffiti styles, hiphop, DJing, breaking, rapping, etc…. that it was all going to die within a year or two. Because it was becoming ‘popularized’. All of the main characters, the people who are seen as the early ‘pioneers’, are fairly jaded in *the early 80s* that the whole thing is being co-opted and commercialized…

    which in retrospect is a little hilarious. Fab 5 Freddie was considered the ‘biggest willy’ simply because he could earn a living just by promoting hiphop. the idea that anyone could actually make any ‘real’ money was preposterous.

    1. Graffiti is a counter-cultural art movement. If it was understood by Bill Bratton and the pragmatic autocrats within the various political orientations it wouldn’t be nearly as vibrant and underground in nature.

      Bill Bratton’s remarks here validate the anarchist visual impetus that rejects the social hierarchy through illegal art. Bratton has unwittingly elevated the graffiti movement.

      Not so shocking since most idjits in law enforcement are narrow-minded ninnies who grasp little about social fringology.

      1. neither here nor there…

        …but one of banksy’s rare moments of *genius* was creating a fake ‘National Highways Agency’* logo, and putting this little seal on certain walls and objects around london saying, “OFFICIALLY DESIGNATED GRAFFITI ZONE”, which were within days completely bombed to shit by people who then thought what they were doing was ‘legal and sanctioned’.

        *the “royal seal” of which was a copy of the crest on a pack of Marlboro cigarettes

  8. Just because Bratton says something doesn’t make him wrong.

    From the description, the supporters of the exhibit seem to be celebrating an aspect of petty crime which was part of NYC’s general lawlessness pre-Giuliani.

    Yes, it encourages kids exposed to the exhibit to put graffiti on property which isn’t their own. Fortunately, I doubt many of them go to museums or read silly cultural criticism in the New York Times.

    1. When anyone associated with the museum tells kids to go out and paint on other peoples’ property, then you can honestly say “it encourages kids exposed to the exhibit to put graffiti on property which isn’t their own.” Until then the exhibit merely celebrates the artistic merits of the pieces without commenting on the legality of the canvas.

  9. So libertarians are okay with defacement of other people’s property? Or just as long it ticks of a cop, somewhere?

    1. Please point out where that was said.

    2. This Libertarian isn’t OK with the defacement of private property. I will allow the others to speak for themselves.

      However, illegal art represents social movements understood by few on the straight and narrow shall we say. The gritty nature of poverty and its association with societal disenchantment and detachment spills out in ways that become visual expression.

      Just because something is illegal doesn’t mean intelligent appraisal of certain positive aspects should be suspended.

      1. The gritty nature of poverty and its association with societal disenchantment and detachment spills out in ways that become visual expression.

        Funny, I grew up poor but for some reason it never occurred to me to deface other people’s property.

        1. Obviously, you were part of the privileged poor.

        2. Funny, I grew up poor but for some reason it never occurred to me to deface other people’s property.

          It also (likely) never occurred to you to become SecDef like Colin Powell.

          & both points seem irrelevant as no one made the point that poverty makes the poor become taggers, just as no one made the point that poverty creates SecDefs.

    3. Reason doesn’t have a good record with property rights. That and illegals. Oh, and anything ENB writes about, yikes.

  10. I’m guessing the Museum of the City of New York is tax-supported. So overtaxed business owners pay for people to glorify petty vandalism.

    A Cosmotarian may be defined as someone who isn’t outraged by this, but *is* outraged that the police chief criticizes it.

    1. Well, then I guess there aren’t any cosmotarians anywhere in the world, then.

      I don’t know any cosmos who don’t want the NEA defunded.

      Can I be outraged that the police chief doesn’t give a shit about the stolen taxpayer money used to fund the museum, but cares about what art the administrators of that stolen money choose to talk about?

      1. Half of the point of my post is simply getting under people’s skin by using the c-word (the other one).

        In principle, I suppose there’s no difference between spending tax money on good art vs. bad art. If we’re in a time when austerity is called for and essential public services need attending to, that should not be a high priority.

        But the post here was defending the exhibit as a culturally expressive blah blah of marginalized blah blah.

        1. ha.

          One might point out that the Ballet or many other forms of ‘Art’ that people might point to as the purest examples of REAL CULTURE or what art is supposed to be (dead, kept in controlled environments)… are all funded by Taxes.

          Taxes ‘stolen’ out of the pockets of people who if given the option would say, “fuck no i don’t want to pay for the ballet = all i’m doing is fucking subsidizing the hobbies of the super rich!”

          No one insists the ballet is without merit because of it.

        2. the post here was defending the exhibit as a culturally expressive blah blah of marginalized blah blah

          Well, it is. Graffiti is often, and rightly so, illegal. That has nothing to do with whether it has artistic merit or is an interesting part of the culture worth examining.
          I don’t know why so many people think it either has to be completely OK in every way or be entirely worthless. It can be both vandalism and good or interesting art. There is no contradiction there.

  11. So, no ability here to critique or appreciate the art itself, despite its origin? Don’t go looking at any old castles, manor houses, cathedrals, temples, pyramids etc. Many of those were the product of forced labor, indentured servitude, oppressive political systems etc.

    1. Well said.

    2. I would do a step beyond that and point out that ALL NEOCLASSICAL ARCHITECTURE of any kind, anywhere, looks the way it does because people deliberately aped the design of cities ruined by plunder and war.

      There probably wasn’t a single white surface anywhere in the city of Rome, when the Empire was a going concern. So anytime you see gleaming white neoclassical buildings anywhere, it’s an artistic homage to the fact that most west Roman Empire urban settings were depopulated and left exposed to the elements for a few centuries.

      Damn you Thomas Jefferson! How dare you celebrate (literal) Vandalism!

      1. Did Jefferson publish an article saying the ruins were “street art, a symbol of the disaffection felt among young vandals, [as they] attempted to reclaim streets and communities from systemic neglect”?

        1. Who cares?

          He found the ruin to be in superior taste to the living building.

          If somebody hangs skeletons in their house because they think skeletons are more tasteful than living people, we can make inferences from that aesthetic judgment.

          There is a giant canker of death worship at the center of most antiquarianism, and neoclassical architecture is one of the worst sufferers.

          1. OK, I don’t know about that to comment!

          2. I’m curious how you know that Jefferson had an example of what the “living building” looked like to compare with the ruin, much less that he preferred it. What was the state of architectural study at the.time, and did they have enough information to reconstruct what the original would have looked like?

        2. Do you want to argue Jefferson loathed the morality and intention of classical artists, whom he aped and adored?

            1. Spot on, this.

  12. Since I would imagine in almost every case we’re talking about exhibiting photographs of property that once was superficially damaged, there’s no real property issue here. The photograph and the underlying object are not the same.

    Matthew Brady took pictures of dead guys. All the time. And people go to museums now and look at the pictures of dead guys and gravely discuss the artistic merit of their composition, blah blah blah, blithely passing over the fact that these are pictures of dead guys.

    If pictures of dead guys can be art, photographs of defaced buildings can be art.

    From the museum’s website:

    The exhibition City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection includes over 150 works on canvas and other media, along with photographs of graffiti writing long erased from subways and buildings. (Emphasis mine.)

  13. How about objecting to this because Banksy sucks ass?

    1. Everybody’s a critic

    2. What do you base this on?

      1. hating on banksy is actually a perfectly legitimate POV

        He’s about as “graf” as Keith Haring was. Yes, he does street pieces. I think his Bombing actual museums is actually more ‘innovative’ in ways.

        but he is way too often held up as an example of something he’s not. he’s not “the good graffiti”. He’s not anything. He’s his own thing.

        If you’re going to defend graffiti, you need to start with something like “Cope2“, who is far more representative of the people who start tagging and work their way up to being recognized as talents.

        1. I rarely ‘hate’ on something as subjective as art. But I find it difficult to minimize the political thoughtfulness of some of Banksy’s pieces. He introduced a more modern and European twist into graffiti that was divergent from what composed the various American scenes.

          1. (strokes chin, nodding)


    3. I wish Banksy would bomb my property.

      1. The greatest Banksy work of art was, as usual, not the ‘art’ itself, but the subsequent cultural confrontation.

        See the Awesome, as East Brooklynites charge Williamsburg Hipsters money to see Banksy’s ‘stencil art’.

        1. The city of London (or Brighton) removed Banksy’s Pulp Fiction Banana Gun piece some years back under anti-graffiti laws.

          The neighboring businesses howled with protests as it cut off tourist money.

          A business owner even called out the Gov’t. specifically as idiots.

          1. Again, the thing people really laud about his work is less “the work” so much as the social-theatre surrounding it.

            I exchanged emails with him a few times. i lived in london 2002-2003 and saw some stuff of his and tried to convince him to sell me some canvas prints. He leaked stuff out (although i doubt he’s done that in a ddecade) for cash. I was about $500 short and was like, fuck it. I’ll take some pictures.

  14. God damn, people are stupid when it comes to art.

  15. Well, we all remember the chaos when the King Tut exhibit went through and all the impressionable kids were dying from swaddling themselves in bandages. And don’t get me started on the diorama addiction that was all the rage.

    1. I was at the King Tut exhibit in NYC in 1979, and it was a mind-blower

      I was obsessed with Egyptology for the next few years. And Star Wars, natch.

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