How Graffiti Became Gentrified

New York's 5Pointz in 2011Hohlfeld/ullstein bild/Getty

"Two decades after Rudy Giuliani tried to rid New York City of graffiti, the art form is flourishing..."

New Republic - June 2019

Graffiti artists learn early not to get too attached. Ephemera is as central to their medium as spray paint. Some works last months, others don’t make it through the night. Even the most famous pieces are not guaranteed to last. Many of the defining works of the late 1960s and 1970s in New York City—“DONDI” wrapped around the side of an entire subway car, “TAKI 183” sprayed on a brick facade—have been lost, painted over, or torn down entirely. So much of what is enshrined in the iconic 1983 graffiti documentary Style Wars cannot be found in the urban landscape today.

... Even as the hip-hop era subsided, and the forces of financialization took over the city, the campaign to criminalize and stigmatize graffiti soldiered on. In 1994, The New York Times reported on a crackdown in which a 25-member vandal squad arrested 21 people in 17 days. In 1995, Giuliani established the Anti-Graffiti Task Force by executive order to examine “the effectiveness of existing provisions of law aimed at curbing graffiti vandalism,” and propose “amendments to strengthen such legislation.” Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern said the deleterious effect of widespread graffiti was best shown in 1962’s A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess’s tale about nihilistic youths with a taste for ultra-violence. “Graffiti is not a fashionable expression of the counterculture as it has been regarded in the past,” he said. “The ’60s are over.”

... In 1999, Giuliani’s office helped lead an effort known as Graffiti-Free NYC (GFNYC). It allowed property owners to report illicit street art via the city’s 311 civic hotline or fill out a Forever Graffiti Free form giving the city blanket consent to “clean” their property. Even in 2019 in Brooklyn, it would not be out of place to see a GFNYC van on one side of the street and a tour headed to the Bushwick Collective, an open-air street art shrine, on the other.

As police chased graffiti artists from their canvasses of choice in the city’s subway depots, tunnels, and bridges, they began to take refuge in arrangements that relied on the kindness of more lenient and enlightened property owners. The art form metamorphosed, with graffiti, once known for its hurried, look-over-your-shoulder “throw ups,” merging with a nascent genre of street art: the less nefarious “mural.”

That change was reflected at a recent panel presented by the Center for Art Law at Fordham Law School titled “International Perspectives on Street Art.” In a sheet of key terms, graffiti was defined as “unauthorized artworks that are word-based,” while murals are “works typically authorized, if not commissioned.” Street art can encapsulate both these terms, although exact definitions vary among artists—some artists further legitimize the medium with the term “aerosol art.”

Was the work at 5Pointz graffiti, a mural, or something else? Well, it depends who you ask. The whole premise of GFNYC, marking its twentieth anniversary this year, runs against the appraisal work done on 5Pointz, which debunked the notion that graffiti brings properly values down. Quite the opposite: The art dramatically increased the value of Wolkoff’s property. And Wolkoff didn’t need a court judgment to know it. In 2012, the production company Summit Entertainment had rented studio space from Wolkoff in order to shoot its film Now You See Me with 5Pointz art as backdrop. By 2013, as many as 10 tour buses, chock-full of tourists, were coming to 5Pointz a day. Rents in the fledgling new cultural epicenter of Long Island City went up—and developers took notice. ...
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