Gregory J. Snyder wants us to know that the kids are all right. Graffiti is not, as school principals and police commissioners might have us believe, a gateway to more serious criminal activity for precocious teens. It involves vandalism, trespassing and, often, shoplifting, but the illegality of it isn’t the point, Snyder argues in Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground. It is the means to an end, and what these artists are after is simple: fame.
Snyder shows that graffiti writers can and do successfully segue into professional careers in graphic design, fashion or guerilla marketing. Graffiti writers are intensely competitive risk-takers who are ambitious enough to scale buildings and brave dark and dangerous subway tunnels to make a name for themselves. MBA programs can’t teach that. The second half of the book profiles several of Snyder’s “informants” and the careers they have developed, often by bringing their unique design styles to alternative media, or by simply documenting the subculture and selling it to a mass audience. The Real World: Brooklyn house didn’t decorate itself, people.
Graffiti Lives makes the case for graffiti as a legitimate art form, which hasn’t really been up for debate since Basquiat. Still, one of the more entertaining profiles in the book is of Steve Powers, a prolific graf writer under the moniker “ESPO,” who has since gone on to become a Fulbright Scholar and to display his paintings in the Venice Biennial.
Snyder, who teaches Sociology at Queens College, sometimes slips into academic jargon when describing this subculture, which, though interesting as ethnography, can be jarring right next to his breathless anecdotes about joining his spray-can associates in some of their adventures in vandalism. And while his many photographs are a welcome addition, the glossary seems unnecessary; if you’re reading this book, you probably already know what it means to “dis” someone, or to “fall off.” But overall, Graffiti Lives is an engaging book written with enthusiasm by someone who is at once a fan, a scholar and a team player in the great sport of urban exploration.