Situated in a side street in the heart of Long Island City in Queens, the graffiti capital 5Pointz is, from a distance, the brainchild of a kindergarten art class; some overly colorful mesh of crayons and clay with the wrong pieces in the wrong places. There is no sense of order and the site is a factory of frenetic splashes and mismatched hues. But move in closer and the wild experiment gets its hand on a little Adderall. The fog around the graffiti jungle clears and the walls become more coherent discos of cultural commentary. Spray paint images of iconic social figures and symbols flash vibrantly on every inch of space for five whole blocks, screaming to their audience that there is no escape from this creative tangle. Some of the art is too nebulous to pinpoint a specific meaning, but others yell with voices of angst and rebellion. For example, the disfigured representations of pop culture. A distorted graffiti depiction of the classic Alice in Wonderland consists of a caterpillar smoking Hookah, Tweedledee and Tweedledum as Oriental tourists wearing “I Love New York t-shirts, and a revealing Alice strutting a seductive pose. There’s the Cat In The Hat bowing to what look like upside down drowning versions of the same characters from Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish against the backdrop of crumbling red and black. There are also Half-human half-monkey creatures derived from Planet of the Apes adorned with skulls and rakes as an evil pig in a chef hat grins menacingly with its razor-edge fangs at its audience.
And then there’s the political graffiti. Intricate green, orange, and purple paints bring to life a menacing Statue of Liberty, a symbol of American exceptionalism being choked by the destructive tentacles of some repulsive octopus monster that throttles our pedagogic national identity. Muscular, shirtless men tattooed with exotic symbols and holding blood-stained weapons of slaughter look like frames from the most unnerving scenes of Apocalypse Now that embody the painful cries of the Vietnam War. And then there’s the New York corporate skyline being shadowed by red devils and clouds of thick black smoke that make the city look like a roaring snapshot of hell. What are first just undecipherable splatters of paint and passion become representations of cultural and political icons that we identify with, but are forced to rethink and deconstruct because of the twisted spray paint recreations.
The essence of 5Pointz is captured in the larger than life black-and-white graffiti portrait of rapper Biggie Smalls, or The Notorious B.I.G, who glares at us with his strangely woeful eyes of simultaneous regret and wonder. This mixed sentiment of discomfort and hope echoes through the paints of almost every piece of art that shapes the site, but especially in the flaming ethos of 5Pointz that is sprayed at the top of the center wall: “Higher Institute of Burnin’.” Could this be the shared vow of the artists who pour their deepest pains and fears onto the walls of this graffiti mecca? To take a necessary spin off what it means to learn in an institute of higher education? Do they believe true learning comes from deconstructing the accepted to find a more profound and real meaning in life? Whatever their ultimate purpose is, the striking and thought-provoking art that dominates five blocks of space in Queens makes it clear that 5Pointz is a magnifying glass for the burning of the status quo in an urban playground. From the bizarre portrayals of classic pop culture to the scathing portraits of political dystopia, these graffiti artists are fearless in their effort to light a match against complacence.
Yet, the hollers of restless defiance that lurk beneath the spray paints of 5Pointz are challenged by what surrounds the site. Turn your head up towards the sky and the first thing you see is a towering metal rectangle of corporate superiority: Citi Bank. It looms threateningly above 5Pointz much like the Brown Brothers Harriman building overpowers Isamu Noguchi’s Red Cube below it. The presence of Citi Bank seems to go against everything the graffiti hub stands for, the juxtaposition of commercial conformity and the agitation with it creating an invisible war in the area that surrounds 5Pointz. And then, the trains. The elevated tracks of the Number 7 subway line stand directly in front of 5Pointz, transporting people forward, but without a stop at the site. Isn’t that insulting? It feels mocking and belittling, just like it is for someone to walk right past a human being crying for attention. And isn’t that what 5Pointz is doing? Using its art to yell for public attention to nonconformity?
And yet, the paradox is that this freedom of creative expression is a curtailed freedom, bounded by stringent requirements for permits listed out on the doors of the site and even an application process where a painter must submit samples of their graffiti art to prove their credibility to the almighty beings that govern what does and doesn’t go up on the walls of 5Pointz. Most jarring of all, the site is owned by Long Island land developer Jerry Wolkoff,who is planning on razing the iconic home of graffiti art to build more condos. So what is 5Pointz? Can it really be a sanctuary for voices that need to be expressed when it belongs to the mighty first of commercialism and is under the eternal watch of one of the most powerful banking institutions in the world?