Taking the Train

How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City. by Joe Austin

by Davin Heckman

31 July 2002


Destroyer Art

“A vandal is somebody who throws a brick through a window. An artist is somebody who paints a picture on that window. A great artist is somebody who paints a picture on the window and then throws a brick through it.”
—A-One (a graffiti artist), quoted in New Yorker

Sometimes I sit by the tracks waiting for the trains to blow through this small town in Northwest Ohio, hoping to catch a glimpse of a city I left behind splashed in vibrant colors across the sides of a freight car. Feeling nostalgic for what was, in my childhood, the cryptic signs of a secret city—“TVR,” “the Aves,” “Thumper,” “El Sereno”—letters which signified another world hidden beneath the sunshine and smiles of my happy childhood. Inside an alcove, outside of the bar where my father worked, I stood mystified by the words “Spider Temple,” imagining chained bodies being devoured by tarantulas while men in black robes chanted by torchlight committing dark deeds in the temple of their overlord. I once pointed at a painting in the L.A. River, asking, “Mom, what does TVR mean?”

cover art

Taking the Train

Joe Austin

How Graffiti Art Became An Urban Crisis in New York City

(Columbia University Press)

“That means Toonerville—it’s a gang. There used to be a show called Toonerville Trolley, and the people in the gang live near the train tracks, so they took the name Toonerville. The Aves, is short for the Avenues, which is another gang. When I was a little kid, I knew some of them. They were nice back then, it’s not like that today.” An impressive amount of information . . . more than I expected (I was only six or seven at the time) and it was the early 1980s, when the concern over youth gangs in Los Angeles was quickly becoming a full-blown moral panic. Drugs, shootings, and street gangs had the public looking for answers not unlike those described in Joe Austin’s outstanding book Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City.

There is a world of difference between what was going on in Los Angeles and what went on in New York from the 1970s through the 1990s, but the discourse was framed in much the same way: A great city on the verge of collapse versus a savage group of youthful predators. And although I sit waiting for the signs of this “decay” to whirl by on the train tracks, the signs are sanitized by distance and speed, obscuring their meaning and hiding the all too human stories behind them. Taking the Train aims to tell such a story.

Beginning with an interesting history of the Big Apple, Austin points out the two chief discourses through which residents and visitors find meaning in the city: The Naked City or the New Rome. The New Rome is the pinnacle of civilization, the city where dreams are fulfilled, fame is won, and riches earned. The Naked City, on the other hand, is the seedy metropolis of noir films, where life is cheap and virtue meaningless. It is these two themes which mobilize the battle for New York, with the powers that be pushing back the Naked City in order to save the New Rome. It is in this context that a New York teetering between two worlds gave birth to contemporary graffiti writing and its institutional response. Austin tracks a loose history of writing pieced from available sources and interviews, but without the certainty that is available to art forms that are sanctioned and legitimated by the institutions of mainstream society. As an underground movement, the origins may be hard to track, but as an official “menace” the response by authorities and media make writing’s status as an urban crisis impossible to miss. Legislators looking for sensational solutions to the city’s (and the subway system’s) problems, turned to graffiti as its nemesis, claiming that graffiti (rather than the escalating violence or increasing number of train derailments) was the source of the citizen’s unease in the ailing public transportation system. Using numerous interviews with the writers themselves, Austin traces the development of an art form against the backdrop of several “wars” being fought against it. The end result being an art culture that evolved as both a form of creative expression and as a strategy of resistance by which writers sought to consistently outwit efforts of the authorities to diffuse the crisis.

Similarly, Austin tracks the development of writing in the face of its provisional “acceptance” by the fine arts community during the 1980s, as well as the development of the “hip-hop” movement which seeks to unify writing with hip-hop music and dance as a unique and positive urban cultural milieu. But Austin avoids putting writing into the ready-made places for it to occupy in both the fine arts tradition and in the hip-hop community (although he does acknowledge many of the beneficial relationships to be had within these two worlds). Instead, he opts to stick to writing itself as culture, tracking the development of styles, techniques, and innovations within the community. Austin tracks the divergent trends in writing, one being to produce elaborately planned and detailed “masterpieces” and the other being to produce numerous “throw-ups” or hastily produced markers of identity. Similarly, he tracks the movement of writing from the outsides of subway trains to their insides; to the city walls, freight trains, and off the walls into the pages of numerous zines and media circulated around the world. Using brilliant bits of information offered by the writers he interviewed, Austin is able to paint a picture of the entire “prestige economy” which has developed around writing, creating reputations through one-man (or woman) guerilla public relations campaigns through which the writers gain recognition through volume, skill, audacity, or a combination of the three.

Beautifully written and a pleasure to read, Taking the Train is an amazing study of an underground youth culture and its evolution and growth in the face of numerous moral panics and urban crises. With the help of inspiring ethnographic work and a thorough sampling of the mass media, Austin is able to produce a sincere, thoughtful, and thought-provoking study of an unprecedented art phenomenon that has grown to establish its own rules and methods of prestige and circulation. By charting the writers’ development of tactics in the face of an increasingly hostile media, public policy, and system of surveillance, Austin’s work is an exemplary contribution to the study of popular culture and everyday life.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Jason Molina's Mythological Palette, Warts and All

// Re:Print

"Osmon lights the oil lamps on the process of Molina’s creative wonder, from toddling on the shores of Lake Erie to the indie folk pedestal he so deservedly sits upon today.

READ the article