With the advent of the culture section on this site, I’ve decided to pull out some pieces I’ve written in the past two years that I feel hold some sort of cultural relevance and could spark discourse. I posted a snippet of this paper while it was in the works last year (bit.ly/VZAQk4), and below is the full thing. An edited version of this essay was published in NYU’s Mercer Street collection in 2012:
“You are poets and we are poets, both makers of the same strain, rivals and antagonists in the noblest of dramas…”
-Plato, The Laws
From a distance, what stands at the intersection of Jackson Avenue at Crane and Davis Street in Long Island City, Queens looks like the brainchild of a kindergarten art class: an eruption of adrenaline in the form 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 five full blocks of flashing cultural commentary. The spray paint screams zealously that there is no escape from this creative tangle. A distorted graffiti depiction of the classic Alice in Wonderland parades a stoned White Rabbit, 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 inverted and 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 muscular, shirtless men holding blood-stained weapons, their figures like frames from the most unnerving scenes of Apocalypse Now that embody the painful cries of the Vietnam War. The flaming ethos of the site, named 5Pointz to represent the meeting ground of the five boroughs of New York City, is sprayed at the top of the center wall: “Higher Institute of Burnin’”. The destruction of the accepted and the celebration of fervent youth. A magnifying glass for the burning of the status quo in an urban playground.
I am overwhelmed by this fascinating labyrinth of expression, completely enthralled by the splatters of paint and passion. That is, until my eyes lock with those of Biggie Smalls, The Notorious B.I.G. He looks deep into my pupils with a strange and almost unnerving look of simultaneous regret and wonder. Something agitates me about this black-and-white graffiti portrait of a rapper’s mixed sentiment of discomfort and hope. And then, my vision lands on a green tie-die door at the side of several larger than life murals. The bold purple letters sprayed onto the wood read: “Paint With Permit Only”.
Graffiti and permits? I am reminded of how I felt when I toured the Universal Studios lots in Los Angeles, how disillusioned I became when I discovered that thousands of scripts from new writers go unread every year and pile up in the dusty corners of executive offices because no-name means no gain for studios. The movie magic that had inspired me for years had suddenly become a number game, a series of careful maneuvers and manipulations to further deepen the pockets of rich producers. I had believed then, as a younger and less mature teen, that the spirit of making movies was about telling a story, about putting everything on the line to bring to life an artist’s vision. Not about reading the first page of what could be the next groundbreaking piece of cinema and then tossing it into oblivion because the writer’s name doesn’t equate to monetary success. Something about the disenchantment I felt as an aspiring filmmaker in a world run by the dollar sign strikes a familiar cord with the graffiti permit sign in front of me.
I find, after some research, that in an attempt to minimize the spray paint vandalism that was plaguing public space in New York, a group called the Graffiti Terminators took a major commercial complex called the Williamsburg-Brooklyn Industrial Zone in 1993 and turned it into a place for graffiti artists across the globe to showcase their work in a legal environment. When management of the site switched to Jonathan Cohen- aka “Meres”- in 2001, 5Pointz took the contradicting ideas of graffiti and public sanction to yet another level by transforming the site into a public cleanup effort of sorts, which, according to the now extinct Madrid- based art magazine Subaquatica, “involved 5-20 kids each Sunday who wanted to learn aerosol techniques with Meres and help him rebuild the space… paint the walls, clean old paintings, take care of the area…” (1). Graffiti, legality, and sterility. I try connecting these disparate dots in my head, but to no avail. Biggie’s eyes, for a moment less distant, seem to glint with a quick flash of mutual confusion. Something about 5Pointz just isn’t right. Like the rooms of unread scripts weren’t right to a spellbound cinephile who had discovered the ugly secrets to the magic she never wanted to stop believing in.
Graffiti art is a medium that has, ever since its emergence as a method of territorial marking in late 1960s Philadelphia, fed off a deeply instilled belief in revolt through artistic expression. In “Bomb: A Manifesto of Art Terrorism”, a proclamation of graffiti’s exclusive role as a voice of social rebellion, street artist Raymond Salvatore Harmon asserts that “when you pick up a can of paint and go out into the world and make marks with it you are performing an act of defiance, an act of insurgency. You are pushing against the reality being created by most of the people around you,” (6). Banksy, one of the most significant icons in graffiti culture who paints anti-establishment messages anonymously in corporate-owned spaces across the globe, affirms Harmon’s belief. “Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. You owe the companies nothing… They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.” Graffiti is a highly unique and subversive medium in the sense that almost anyone with a couple bucks can get their hands on a can of spray paint and some public space. Unlike the creation of other art forms that are dependent on significantly more expensive tools-filmmaking on cameras, fine arts on special paints and clays, music on instruments and recording equipment- graffiti is a relatively cheap path to expression that therefore becomes accessible to the masses. But it is an infringement on this accessibility that manifests the tension between graffiti and its sanctioned presence at 5Pointz.
If the creation of graffiti thrives on this sense of absolute freedom without public consent, then is the very presence of 5Pointz an affront to the spirit of the art form? Like the rooms of disowned screenplays in Hollywood are to the passion of writing? What began as an honest and well-meaning effort to minimize graffiti vandalism by providing a legal haven for artists to paint within became an antithesis of what graffiti actually stands for. 5Pointz provides a tolerant framework for creative expression. But the peril and consequences associated with painting illegally are elemental to the statement graffiti artists are making. Harmon predicts “cities and councils will create ‘graffiti zones’, functionally neutering any insurgence against the stream of acceptable forms of expression,” (5). Isn’t 5Pointz precisely this?
In his essay “The Panaroma Mesdag”, which considers the dynamics of a work of art that cannot be contained within the traditional boundaries of frames, Mark Doty visits the titular painting by Henrik Willem Mesdag in the Dutch Hague. Seeing the “Mesdag”, however, is an experience far removed from Doty’s traditional expectations of art on exhibit. Rather than just a frame on a wall, he sees “Mesdag” become a 360 degree presence that shatters his notions of what “we’re used to….art held in its place, contained, nailed to the wall, separated from the world by a golden boundary that enhances and imprisons it. What if art refused to stop there, on the museum wall? Wouldn’t the result be revolution?” (228). “The Panaroma Mesdag” refuses to obey the accepted notions of what museum art is, bleeding out of the label “display” and becoming a roaring force grander than the literal space it inhabits. Doty’s experience in reflected in Harmon’s manifesto when he says that “a revolution must occur, the walls of the art world must be taken down. We must reject all that it is in order to become the future of art…” (10). “Mesdag” in its size and stature tells us that are our presence is trivial against the scale of the universe. Perhaps 5Pointz is also suggesting that graffiti on its own will always be subordinate to the vast world it belongs to. And that maybe those ignored scripts in Hollywood will always be too.
Perhaps fear of Harmon’s “revolution” and a need to assert power over insurgence are what drove the Graffiti Terminators to open 5Pointz almost two decades go. After all, what is vandalism but a public portrayal of social and cultural dissent? Of protest through paint? 5Pointz becomes the bottle that contains this fizzing can of tensions, preventing it from exploding into revolution beyond the five blocks of space the site inhabits at Jackson Avenue. It becomes the “Panorama Mesdag” of graffiti. In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s essay “The Politics of Performance Space” about a collision between powers trying to claim control over a theater space in post-colonial Kenya, he says the “real politics of performance space may well lie in the field of its external relations; in its conflictual engagement with all other shrines of power, and in particular, with the forces that hold the keys to those shrines,” (13). Thiongo’s discussion of how the Kenyan national theater decided to showcase western plays over traditional African performances during a time that was crucial to the public perception of Kenya’s culture and identity falls right in line the decisions of 5Pointz’s “shrine of power”: Long Island land developer Jerry Wolkoff.
Wolkoff decides who does and doesn’t get to use the site’s Crane Street Studios, apartments for artists to rent out as working space. He decides when to pull the plug on their stay. And now, according to New York Daily News, he has grand plans to “build two high-rise towers with a Manhattan-like-mix of amenities, stores, restaurants, a supermarket, and even a swimming pool for residents” (1) in the place of 5Pointz. The survival of graffiti is at the mercy of its “external relations” much like the Kenyan dramas were to the power of the national theater and like LA’s rooms of cold-shouldered scripts are to the money of Hollywood executives. Banksy’s belief in graffiti’s ability to counteract the reality that society has created is turned on its head by the management of this site, which, using its role as a “shrine of power” not only forces the creative process of graffiti into the confines of a corporate model, but according to current plans, into the art’s own destruction.
The hazy future of the site aside, as long as artists are continuing to paint courageous commentary on the walls of 5Pointz, the issue here isn’t really money controlling art or power defeating the relatively powerless. Graffiti has always been at the mercy of something more potent than itself. If not to the commercial authority of Jerry Wolkoff, spray paint would still be victim to time, weather, public cleanup efforts, and the other inevitable forces of destruction that surround it. Harmon says himself that “Street art is by nature a transient thing. As soon as it is spotted it is removed by city council workers. Constant turf wars are occurring over much of the global urban landscape between the creative/destructive actions of the inhabitants and the cities they inhabit,” (46). So if graffiti by its very nature is meant to be an impermanent art form, then it has to be more than just commerce’s influence over art that is so unsettling to me about 5Pointz.
In all of these above cases, there is a very distinct line between graffiti art and the external powers that threaten it. These forces live and breathe in their respective realms of existence, interacting with graffiti only when they feel the urge to remove it. But in the case of 5Pointz, corporate power and public expression engage in a ferocious reaction that becomes the very framework of the site, as if the graffiti is accepting of its influenced role. “When you take a step forward or back, the experience is nothing like approaching or retreating from a painting hung on a wall, and; instead, weirdly you realize you are inside of something. The ‘world’ around you is a work of art, and you are at its center” (227), says Doty. 5pointz as a site has become art that exists only because of its parts, and yet, embodies something wholly different than those pieces that make it up. Thiong’o’s collision of powers, now fused into a new entity, manifests a complicated question: “When will society begin to see the difference between the content and the container?” (Harmon, 29). Between individual art and the society that clutches it?
My memory transports me suddenly to a place I can never forget. I am in Angkor Wat, the great temple of Cambodia constructed by King Suryavaman II of the Khmer Empire at the beginning of the 12 century. Without its individual bas-reliefs, stone asparas (figures of Indian mythology), and Dravidian Gopuras (towers), Angkor wouldn’t be revered as the grander architectural masterpiece it is. And yet, the power, majesty, and brilliance of Suryavaman and the Khmers that the temple represents as a greater body stands in contrast with the messages of the engravings from the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic, that line Angkor’s walls. The Sanskrit text emblemizes not power, but truth and morality. Both these ideals are far from what we feel when we see the breadth and splendor of this temple. We feel power. And to this day, when I think of Angkor, the life principles and values carved into its walls are always subsidiary to the glory of the place as a whole. Several years later, I experienced a similar sentiment in Luxor’s Karnak Temple in southern Egypt. Standing at the gates of Karnak, speechless at the hieroglyphic-stamped obelisks that towered above me, I felt what most of Egypt feels about the temple as an entity. It is an inspiring symbol of the country’s rich history, a sacred representation of dynasty upon dynasty of religious and political evolution. And yet, it is only when you step inside and take a closer look at the artwork, especially that of Amenhotep The Magnificent who was the pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty, that you realize that a lot of what you think belongs in Karnak was never supposed to be there in the first place. It is art that was dragged across the Nile and placed in Karnak for visual bolstering (Banksy would say that these “great works of art are so often stuffed into museums that they lose a part of the humanity that was their inspiration.”). But these nuances are almost always ignored. Stephen King puts it well in his sci-fi western Gunslinger: “size defeats us (110).” It is instinctual for us to succumb to the bigger picture instead of the “atoms which whirl and revolve like a trillion planets within it” (110). The “sites of physical, social, and psychic forces” (14) Thiong’o’ describes that are intrinsic to the meaning of any site become reduced to their impressive outlines. We always see the entity over its parts.
I now stand in a contemporary temple. Not one rooted in religious or spiritual mythologies, but in painted mirrors of modern day truth and morality. The bas-reliefs and obelisks of this sacred palace are sentiments and societal reflections in the form of graffiti. But this temple as a whole, which represents a safe haven for graffiti artists, fails to incarnate what the graffiti stands for in the first place: “a form of cultural terrorism, an act of defiance, an individual resurrection of creative expression” (Harmon, 8). Not safety. But risk and revolution. And yet, in becoming the “museum” that offends Banksy and intrigues Doty, this mecca of spray paint art – like the temples of Angkor and Karnak- protects sensitive art from hair-trigger deaths.
I stare at whirlpool of churning white. There is a swirl that unravels on the dark asphalt blacktop at the center of 5Pointz like the stars of the mystical cosmos against blackness. From the outside, the expanding curves form the contours of some exotic, ancient symbol trying to carve its identity through the sudden and jarring twists and turns of its not-so-linear motion. And then, I step inside. I look around me and the mysterious swirl has become the universe. Its expansiveness is visually deafening. I slowly swivel 360 degrees and allow the letters and words and images to penetrate me. I close my eyes and an imaginary soundtrack of an elementary school orchestra tuning all its instruments at once rings in my ears. At first, it is unpleasant chaos. Tinnitus. But then, when I open my eyes and look back into Biggie’s eyes, the discordant noise settles into the familiar melody of a Bob Dylan tune never forgotten. “Admit that the waters/around you have grown…you better start swimmin’/Or you’ll sink like a stone/For the times they are a-changin”. Perhaps the blending of two sides that are, by principle, supposed to remain divorced, is part of the constant mutation of our world into something more united. Like how “The Panorama Mesdag” banded man with universe and Thiong’o’s collision of powers intertwined politics and artistic tradition. And then it hits me that in the scheme of our society as a whole, maybe this coming together at 5Pointz of two conceptually opposed concepts- art and commerce- was meant to be.
I realize that no art, no matter how far on the outskirts of modern civilization it runs towards to escape control and embrace freedom, can exist in a vacuum as long as the world keeps changing. To isolate our society’s deeply ingrained capitalistic ideals from art to maintain an absolute purity of expression would be to retrogress impossibly into a past that is too far removed from the world we live in today. By crushing the fence between artistic democracy and corporate dominance, 5Pointz manifests one of the most necessary demands of the 21st century: compromise, a middle ground, hybridization. Extreme paradigms of art thriving independently of the socioeconomic climate in which it is born is a quickly fading nirvana. Film schools are putting as much if not more emphasis on producing as they are on mastering craft, fine arts programs are expanding courses on the international art market, and music curriculums are pushing students to take business and technology courses to gain a more wholesome footing in a world that has reached a crucial crossroads of finance and creativity. 5Pointz may cap the “defiance” and “insurgency” Harmon and the bulk of the graffiti community believe is inherent to the art form, but concurrently, the site has for almost twenty years provided a space where the medium could flourish without a public ready to tear it down. Perhaps that woeful time has now come, but the meeting of graffiti with a shrine of power willing to support it did, at least temporarily, help shield the medium against a society eager to vilify it.
The coexistence of power and art isn’t news, it has always been part of our history. The breathtaking depictions of the Mahabharata would be merely visions in the mind of a sculptor if the almighty Suryavaman hadn’t allowed for the creation of the art in the first place in the 12th century. The work of Amenhotep The Magnificent would be lost in the Nile had Luxor’s Karnak Temple not provided a secure home for its preservation during the Eighteenth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt. And the graffiti murals of seductive Alice and the raging warriors of Vietnam could have been taken out sooner by other forces of artistic destruction here in the 21st century if 5Pointz hadn’t served as their home and armor. A shrine of power’s inability to let absolute creative democracy reign loose does, at the very least, celebrate otherwise rejected art in the form of sites like 5Pointz.
Perhaps Biggie wasn’t disturbed as much as he was just saddened, acknowledging but not accepting that his inspirational verse about how the “sky is the limit and you know can have what you want, be what you want…” has faded to modern day utopia. But what perplexed me about Biggie’s eyes to begin with was the strange hope that accompanied the remorse. I look around me once again. From the bizarre portrayals of classic pop culture to the scathing portraits of political dystopia, the graffiti artists are fearless in their effort to light a match against complacence. The hollers of restless defiance that lurk beneath the spray paints are still revolutionary in their intent, screaming in voices of both joy and angst that are impossible to ignore regardless of the corporate dominance 5Pointz may represent as a whole. Now, Biggie’s reserved optimism makes more sense to me. Because in all this socioeconomic change, there is one thing that has remained constant. And that is voice of revolution graffiti has always stood for, unwaveringly.
The intimidating rooms of unread scripts that years ago slapped my dreams of being a successful storyteller into check are no longer rooms I fear. Rather, they are bittersweet. Because although it is saddening to acknowledge that my art is collateral to a greater power – one that has existed and impacted the creative process since the dawn of all human civilization- this upper hand has only fed my artistic drive. It’s not just about the movies anymore, not just about the art. Time and change have spurred Doty and Harmon’s “revolution”, thrusting art out of its sacred seal and into the rocky waters of the larger world that only protects the creativity it deems worthy enough for preservation. Now, making my mark as an artist comes with the simultaneous responsibility of maneuvering around what could be a commercial bulldozer to my passion. And this task, more challenging than anything I ever imagined having to face as an artist, will require a delicate balancing act of collaboration, courage, and like the graffiti at 5Pointz, a voice that is too loud for anyone to quiet.
Delena. “5 Of The Best Banksy Quotes .” Web Urbanist . N.p., n.d. Web. 7 May 2012. <http://weburbanist.com/2008/08/19/banksy-quotes-and-sound-bites-part-six-in-and-eight-part-banksy-series/>.
Doty, Mark. “The Panorama Mesdag.” N.d. Essay .
Harmon, Raymond Salvatore. “BOMB: A Manifesto Of Art Terrorism .” Raymond Salvatore Harmon. Raymond Harmon , n.d. Web. 7 May 2012. <http://raymondharmon.com/BOMB.html>.
Lauinger, John. “Owners tout plan to rebuild 5Pointz in Queens’ Long Island City, haven for graffiti artists.” NY Daily News 10 Mar. 2011: n. pag. NY Daily News . Web. 7 May 2012. <http://articles.nydailynews.com/2011-03-10/local/28689311_1_rental-units-5pointz-rental-market>.
– – -. “Owners tout plan to rebuild 5Pointz in Queens’ Long Island City, haven for graffiti artists.” NY Daily News 10 Mar. 2011: n. pag. NY Daily News . Web. 7 May 2012. <http://articles.nydailynews.com/2011-03-10/local/28689311_1_rental-units-5pointz-rental-market>.
Thiong’O, Ngugi Wa. “Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space.” N.d. Essay .
Yague, Patricia. “5Pointz.” Subaquatica 30 June 2006: n. pag. Subaquatica . Web. 7 May 2012. <http://www.subaquatica.com/en/index.php/2006/06/30/5-pointz/>.