Canned Style

Canned Style: The Evolution of FUA and Meanings of Graffiti in Rochester, NY

Posted in Uncategorized by cannedstyle on May 3, 2010

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Clusters of people moved up and down the sidewalk as the sun filtered down through the muggy Rochester summer. Most stopped as they passed by His N Hers, an urban fashion boutique whose parking lot currently served as the outdoor clubhouse for a group of vandals, writers, and artists. Some  of these slouched with their backs alongside the adjacent market, graffiti murals sprouting from behind their heads. Adventurous kids entered the lot, holding white t-shirts above their heads, hoping to have them quickly and expertly covered in aerosol and catchy slogans. Discussions among the passers-by centered on their favorites of these newly applied murals, and anyone with a proclivity to linger was led back to the street and shown one piece in particular.

Along the sidewalk, so both pedestrians and motorists can see, a red, black, gray, and white piece sat a few feet off the ground. The viewer’s first glance recognizes the styrofoam tray and deep red of a prime cut steak available at the grocery.  A white streak of fat cuts through the middle, emphasizing the outline of an increasingly perceptible human figure.  The outline continues to take shape. An outstretched arm reaches for the ground while the body lies suspended in the air. Suddenly, a breaker, a hip-hop dancer, is this cut of meat. This prime steak, with its American connotations of consumption, wealth, and pleasure, is painted with the logo of this graffiti happening, the 2009 B-Boy BBQ, a hip-hop celebration led by FUA, a Rochester, NY graffiti collective.

The placement of this piece, which each artist is proud to point out  even though it was the work of only one single artist, attests to the piece’s importance. Its clean lines and original content are a pronounced public statement on the skill of FUA. They are a prime cut, top-of-the-line graffiti collective. Their graffiti art is desirable, and, if someone should choose to do so, requires someone to pay top dollar. Analogous to FUA and the graffiti art world itself, this piece makes an important statement on the visibility of this art and the people who practice it. What should be so different between this realistic aerosol art and a billboard displaying beef for a supermarket? This paper will examine graffiti art and what this cultural form says about control of our public space, wealth, achievement, and community. Specifically, it will consider a particular form of graffiti art, the piece (short for masterpiece), and how this form has come to reshape, and challenge the traditional social roles of FUA in Rochester, New York. I examine FUA and their evolution within this scene and consider how FUA’s markings are a challenge to the societally held notion that public space must be bought and paid for. Provocatively, their graffiti attempts to redefine the space that the power brokers in society have offered to the highest bidder.  Accepted everyday signs and billboards are only arbitrarily different than graffiti and other types of street art. Additionally, these illicit markings offer empowerment, achievement, and community to those who practice them and witness their products.

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Graffiti has existed as an art form since humans first began creating art. The application of marks upon surfaces created the first cave painting, and ever since people have deliberately marked physical surfaces to create a more enduring statement. In the modern era, this became known as graffiti. This term derived from the Italian, graffito, a plural form of “to scratch” and can refer to anything marked or scratched onto a surface. Starting in the 1960’s, the current subculture began to emerge as people began using aerosol paint and markers to write names, phrases, or pictures on walls. Over these past 50 years, graffiti has drawn the notice of academics, who have considered graffiti in myriad contexts.

In 1982, Craig Castleman wrote the first in-depth ethnography of New York City graffiti artists in his seminal work Getting Up. Castleman’s goal was to construct an outline of exactly what graffiti writers were doing, with a focus on how they were operating in the face of a New York City government and Metropolitan Transit Authority graffiti crackdown. Castleman’s work was not only important to academics, but its descriptions of how these writers worked and “got up” drew the attention of curious future writers, who used it as a reference for their own work. The following year, graffiti-photographer Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver produced Style Wars, a PBS documentary focusing mostly on graffiti (it discusses breakdancing and rapping as well, albeit briefly). In interviews with writers, police, and politicians, Style Wars documents writers’ struggles to succeed on the street, especially with the new implementation of “the Buff”, a non-stick chemical coating used to clean and keep clean subway trains, the medium of choice for the most prolific graffiti “kings”. Due to its success as on PBS, Style Wars began circulating as a documentary and helped precipitate the deluge of hip-hop and graffiti films that would continue through the 1980’s. In 1993, Sociologist Jeff Ferrell published Crimes of Style. Ferrell followed Denver graffiti writers who, 2000 miles away from New York City and the epicenter of the American graffiti world, had began to run into similar problems as the writers in New York City. Graffiti was being seen as urban degradation and visual pollution. Graffiti was the first crack in the windowpane, and it was devaluing property, supporting gang activity, and helping propagate blight across the neighborhood. Ferrell’s interviews with artists, community leaders, and politicians showed how the Denver political system was decrying graffiti to proliferate racial stereotypes, impose political will, and generate money for the leaders and their cronies.

These three studies are only a small percentage of the work done on graffiti. Because what actually comprises graffiti is anomalous, it has been used to discuss “official” graffiti, community space, gang creation and demarcation, urban violence, and many other varied fields of focus. Subculturally, as graffiti continues to mature, its breadth will continue to expand across academia.

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As the mercury rose above 60 degrees in late March, I felt a need to soak up as much sun as possible. With a friend in town visiting Rochester for the first time, I wanted to have her see the view from Cobbs Hill Park where the entire downtown is framed in a break amongst the trees. While we visited the park, I walked to the Water Towers, two gigantic empty towers upon whose outsides graffiti neophytes practice their art. The surfaces are covered with aerosol, but no piece is truly breathtaking. It is a practice canvas where lots of subcultural threats regarding ability and the use of space are played out in cross-outs, disses, and threats. As I walked around the back tower, I passed three people who seemed to be young twenty-somethings. They were dressed in an alternative-punk fashion. Zip-up hoodies, ripped shorts, and mid-size skateboarding shoes fit all three of them. They wore a hodgepodge of accessories, the shortest wore glasses,  while the tallest had gauged ears and trucker’s hat perched unevenly on his head. The tallest strode behind his friends, and as we passed I noticed he held cans of spray paint in his hands. I quickly asked if he had seen anything good. The group stopped and the tallest’s vision vacillated between the tower and myself. “No. It’s all shit here. No Space. You gotta go to the ‘hood if you want to find anything decent”, and he motioned in the general direction of the North Clinton neighborhood downtown. I quickly agreed and told him I had just been over there surveying some of the newer pieces. I asked what he wrote and if he had anything up here. It turned out his name was Downer and he wasn’t from Rochester.  He was equally curious about myself: was I from around here, was I a writer? I explained my interests and we wished each other well and continued on our separate ways.

The open manner in which our conversation took place is a far cry from the world in which TAKI 183 grew up as helped bring graffiti into the American public consciousness. As a single teen roaming New York City by himself, TAKI starred in the mainstream media’s coming-out party for graffiti: a 1971 article in the New York Times titled “TAKI 183 Spawns Pen Pals”.[i] This article focused on how TAKI 183 was inspiring kids throughout the city to appropriate public space for themselves. His moniker, a combination of a diminutive of his first name and the block on which he lived, had created a public identity for himself. His motives weren’t fame or wealth, but simply a way to “pass the time” and express himself beneath the deluge of advertisements, political posters, and stickers that littered the streets and subways of New York City. Tired of all the external media covering their walls, youths throughout the city followed TAKI 183’s lead and began to seize public space with their own tags.  Decades later, discussions like the one I had with Downer are possible and comprehendible as graffiti has exploded from the streets of the largest cities to smaller cities, towns and all transportation routes across the world. Although many writers are guarded about their activities that can cross the line of legality, many are equally willing to lecture on, and discuss their passion for this art, that drives them. As these artists lead the vanguard into making graffiti a legitimate form of expression, wealthy companies and powerful figures are not too far behind them.

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Although graffiti may take many forms, there is no doubt that the wide-ranging “graffiti art” movement has mushroomed over the past several decades. In just the past several years, British stencil artist Banksy has become world-renowned through his innovative and highly stylized brand of political stencils. In 2007, one of his pieces sold at auction at Sotheby’s London for £102,000 ($153,000)[ii]; famous pop celebrities like Christina Aguilera have also spent thousands of dollars on his pieces, giving this sometimes-maligned artist even more international recognition. The graffiti craze is not limited to Europe. In 2003 Scion, a division of Toyota Motors whose “mission is to satisfy trend- leading youthful buyers through distinctive products and an innovative, consumer-driven process”, began a touring installation that had graffiti artists paint their works on scale models of Scion cars.[iii] As American consumers can now enjoy graffiti on anything from their cars to their lighters, debates flare up around the world as to where the current graffiti mecca may be. New York City, Berlin, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, Montreal, Paris, can all lay claim as the world graffiti capital. If the definition is extended to stencils, both Melbourne and Sydney can add their names to the list. The fact that these cities are across the entire globe (Africa and Antarctica being the only unrepresented continents), it is easy to see how graffiti culture has been eagerly consumed around the world.

Debating whether or not stencils should be considered when characterizing a “world-class” graffiti city shows the difficulty in defining exactly what graffiti is or what it constitutes, and it makes a uniform graffiti taxonomy almost impossible to create. There is no consensus among academics, writers, police or others about how to accurately create classificatory categories of graffiti. The city of Rochester, NY (working in conjunction with artists, the police, and community) divided graffiti up into three distinct categories: gang, tag, and art.[iv]  In his book Crimes of Style, Sociologist Jeff Ferrell divides art graffiti up into 3 categories by itself.[v]  Crook, a Rochester writer and informant, believes there are at least 5 different types of graffiti.   Snoe, an artist from the same crew, FUA, as Crook, divides graffiti into 4 categories.[vi] In Getting Up Craig Castleman divides graffiti in “seven basic forms” (1982:26). Crook and Snoe’s different classifications show that the absence of a uniform taxonomy across the culture is not simply a specific misunderstanding across time or space. There is so much meaning within every application depending on the artist, the location, and the content that graffiti is extremely amorphous.  What is seen as art to some is blight to others, while the exact same message might be seen in a completely different light if the piece was in a gallery.

Graffiti Designations

Regardless of what taxonomy is used to classify graffiti, graffiti does have several basic characterizations that are important to distinguish in any discussion of graffiti. Within the scope of “art graffiti” tags, throw-ups, and pieces are the main distinctions. The mastery of all three of these types and then “getting up” as often as possible and as visibly as possible, will help a writer rise through the subcultural ranks and possible gain the rank of a “king”: a truly skilled and respected writer.

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Tags are the quick and immediate placement of a persons name (“tag”) upon any surface. These scrawls are what most often draw the ire of the public and governments’ focus. They are sometimes illegible, can be done for a variety of reasons, and are often arbitrary. All dedicated graffiti writers began their careers by tagging. This quick motion allows them to practice their style, get their name out, feel an adrenalin rush, and get a feel for working with markers or aerosol. The mechanical difference to be able to tag in marker allows a person better and more access to public space and much more clandestine mobility than aerosol. While tagging is a legitimate first step towards becoming a graffiti writer, many taggers do what they do without any intention of becoming what is considered a graffiti artist. Either to get their name out, feel an adrenaline rush, or for some other reason, many taggers’ goal is simply to tag in as many places as possible as often as possible. The art is their scrawl only; no deeper artistic skill is required or necessarily desired.

The simplicity of tagging allows random people to graffiti. Whether it is a 10 year old kid who found a bottle of spray paint in his grandfather’s basement or a teenager bent on temporary social destruction, it is recognized that there are people who will tag once, twice, or twenty times, but never pick it up again in their life. It is a fleeting activity. These people still leave their mark on property and experience the same thrills as the tagger or graffiti writer, but they are graffiti transients. Perhaps they had just seen a show on Banksy or passed a sharp, professional mural; they dabble in the art and drop it to pursue other interests. Just as likely, they felt compelled to see their visual imprint on a physical surface or wanted to irritate someone.  A spontaneous desire to apply something semi-permanent to an alien space gripped them for a fleeting moment. The inevitability of these occurrences makes a profound impact as they still speak in the public discourse. They share in the tragedy of the commons when the message, and its cleaning, must occur and remain in eyesight for all to see. It is for this reason that although grudging respect might occur for a tagger who can truly bomb all over a city, many artists generally disparage taggers.

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Throw-ups are a middle step for artists between tagging and pieces.  Often bubble letters with a filled in design, they are larger and more time consuming to put up, but still can be done quickly. Typically a writer will shorten his tag if it is longer than three letters to an abridged version appropriate to “throw up”. Throw-ups allow the writer to work on their style and technique. Importantly, they necessitate a move from marker to aerosol. Using aerosol is a much different medium and being able to successfully control and manipulate the can takes a lot of time and practice.  For these reasons, throw-ups are done by a much narrower scope of participants. Simple taggers do not care to master aerosol or make their tag necessarily better and more aesthetically pleasing. Throw ups are not simply for writers working their way up the graffiti ladder, however. Many accomplished writers still use them to showcase quick skills and deft movement. With a real masterpiece requiring hours of planning and implementation and possibly costing upwards of a thousand dollars, throw ups are quick and cheap ways to showcase one’s skills, keep one’s name public, have fun and continue to participate easily in graffiti culture.

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Pieces are graffiti’s most public and respected face. Short for “masterpiece”, a piece is an in-depth and artistic work that is often done by multiple people over an extended period of time. A piece is often worthy of its title, although within a piece taxonomy there can be considered different kinds of pieces depending on geographical and physical placement. Pieces on hard to reach places, on different spaces like trains, or that require large paint rollers are differentiated by artists and these differences alter an artist’s credibility. The ability to be able to handle a paint roller creates different respect within the community than someone who “gets up” all over the train yard and thus all over the country. Pieces also generally require a substantial monetary commitment. Although most artists enjoy spending the time to create camaraderie while doing pieces and enjoy the activity of painting, some pieces require 10-20 different cans of paint. Price differs by brand, type, and location, but even a “nominal” investment of $70 dollars is often required to create a fleeting, ephemeral message that might be wiped out within12 hours. Larger installations require much more time, effort, and paint, and can end up costing a small group of people several hundred dollars. Snoe, an artist from FUA the main graffiti crew in Rochester, claims that the crew produces larger, mural productions on average about once a week, requiring around 20 hours of labor (Fien 2007). The ability to create beautiful artistic pieces is what cultivates respect among artists, promotes the individual, and opens up the possibility for mainstream art-work such as tattooing, airbrushing, custom art work, and other potentially profitable outlets.

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The necessary investment for pieces and other works led to what was once considered a rite of passage in the graffiti culture: racking, or stealing, cans.  In Bomb the System, a 2002 movie based on famed New York City graffiti duo Smith and Sane, the protagonist claims that “racking spray paint is the one and only way for a graffiti writer to acquire his tools. Writers who buy their own cans are considered toys. Bitch-made pussies with no heart. Racking is a must”.[vii] In reality, racking seems to be more of a myth within the culture and a gross misperception when viewed from the outside. “I have looked into [racking]” states Officer Majewicz, a Rochester police officer and former writer himself “and I am sure there is, but the thing is that’s more…of a toy thing. It is part of the culture and in every movie there is a racking scene,” but it doesn’t seem to be much of an issue (Majewicz, Brooks, 6/29/09). Crook, a current Rochester artist, agrees. He admits that “Yes some people steal their spray paint some people buy their spray paint. Sometimes it’s given to you and sometimes you find it. You find your niche and from then on you buy what you do” (Crook, Brooks, 6/24/09). It is only the toys, the disrespected neophytes, who seem to continue with the process of racking paint in an attempt to imitate an “authentic” graffiti culture.  Rochester in 2009 doesn’t seem to be an anomaly, either. When Jeff Ferrell studied the Denver scene in the early 1990’s, interviews with artists made racking seem like nothing more than a “legend” in the current graffiti culture.[viii]

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Graffiti writers do not all harness the same skill sets. As with any sport, musical instrument, or complex activity, each writer brings particular attributes to the field. To establish themselves as a legitimate writer one must either prove themselves in getting up, artistic merit, or have a new, unique technique.  Keeping lines straight, avoiding drips, and creating scenes and color combinations that work well together all help bring a writer to the top of their game. The level of artistry among even accomplished writers can very greatly. The amount of previous artistic experience and exposure makes it difficult for some writers to begin graffiti with any real artistic experience. However, an originality of style is one other way to gain graffiti respect. Although one may have difficulty stopping drips and controlling the paint, an innovative mind can help one make their own way in the graffiti world. Crook describes how he “used to do everything back asswards…[being] pushed into [his] own as an artist, learning trade secrets”. Unable to handle a can well, he made his name in his crew by being “big into [things that] no one in [his] crew was. So for a while Crook does 3-D, he knows how to blend. Now I do whippy stabby structures” (Crook, Brooks, 6/24/09). Unfamiliar with aerosol and techniques that are learned best by trial and error, his ability to find influence from all over the world and extrapolate his own artistic style helped gain him prominence within the graffiti community.

If a writer’s artistic skills never mature, the writer relies on repetition and relentless bombing to achieve recognition and respect among other artists. There is cache in getting your name and work out there more than any other writer. Chino Malo, a New York City writer from the 1970′s and 80′s remarks simply “the more you get up, the more famous you are” (1982: 81). Being able to “hit” (graffiti) particularly difficult or public places can be as valuable as creating one truly masterful piece; it shows dedication, determination, and courage to achieve so much public acknowledgement.  Additionally, the more prolific a writer is, the increased possibility of respected writers seeing their name around and attributing respect and recognition.

Writers often meet in quiet bars, coffee shops, or some other location to discuss, analyze, and constructively criticize each other’s work. These “black book sessions” (named for the black sketch books writers traditionally carried around to sketch, draw, and practice in) help writers gauge their style amongst their peers. When impressed by a writer they are meeting for the first time, writers will often sign each other’s books. These signatures are one of the few tangible and lasting products of graffiti.

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When graffiti culture began, simple one-dimensional letters quickly gave way to block and bubble letters. Larger and more impressive styles incorporating letters, pictures, and smaller words developed as artists gained more skill with practice. New York Wildstyle is one of the most impressive yet convoluted styles of graffiti. It is  “a name used to describe almost any ‘unreadable’ style” (Castleman 1982: 25). This semi-incomprehensible blend of all that an artists can imagine, comes together to form a legible piece if the viewer knows how to read the work. It is a style that is extremely difficult to master. Besides the imagination it takes to create a wildstyle piece, the production itself is extremely intricate and time consuming. It often takes lots of shading, bordering, blending and many colors to create a piece that blends together while retaining distinct letter formation. It has come to define American graffiti. In Europe a cleaner, more 3-D, legible style developed; the lines are extremely tight and well-defined. In Asia, a more cartoonish, anime style has developed while Brazil’s Os Gemeos are an example of an American and European blend; they combine sharp colors and tight lines with an infusion of everything imaginable.

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In addition to graffiti pieces, aerosol art has also helped birth the stencil. Made famous by social artists such as Banksy and Blek le Rat, these are pre-cut pieces of material applied to a surface. The material has an outline of the words or picture the artist wants to transmit and spraying the aerosol over the stencil leaves these marks in place. Stencil artists are often more focused on the message than the art, and these artists are currently more often embraced by younger generations as spokesmen for political and social change within the world.

Rochester and Graffiti

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Situated on I-90 roughly halfway between Buffalo and Syracuse, Rochester is the third largest city in New York State; the 2008 US Census lists Rochester as having just over 200, 000 people.[ix]  2008 is a far cry from where Rochester stood at its heyday in the 1950′s. Helped built by major technical innovations by Eastman Kodak, Xerox and other local companies, and its location as a major transportation hub on both Lake Ontario and the Erie canal, Rochester flourished from the late 19th century until the mid-20th century. With major roads, railways and nautical transportation all running through the city’s urban industrial core, Rochester was able to create many ideas and commodities that quickly diffused across the US and around the world.

The result of this prosperity was an urban core that reached its peak in the middle of the 20th century with an infrastructure made for about 350,000 people. As the city began to decline from a population high of just over 330,000 urban decline hit much of the infrastructure and industries that had built Rochester decades earlier. When the Inner Loop (I-490), a continuous route of interstate highways designed to speed up movement and decrease traffic in Rochester’s downtown opened in 1965, Rochester had unwittingly set the stage to become a small graffiti mecca when the subculture would blossom 20 years later.[x] The city had a small but dense urban core that would continue to degrade as the city’s industries left downtown. Many buildings now stand abandoned and at least partially dilapidated; they are perfect spaces for graffiti artists to hone and display their craft. Just as importantly, the city showcases three different types of commercial and private transportation. A sprawling highway system offers many blank walls and guarantees visibility to millions of people. Train yards bring in loads of people daily from New York City, Buffalo and beyond, with many commercial and freight trains criss- crossing all over the country. Finally, the Erie Canal and a location on Lake Ontario add a maritime transportation ability few cities can boast of.

Demographically, the racial composition of the city also lends itself to graffiti. There is a minority population that slightly outnumbers the white population of the city. Many of these minorities are a recent influx of people that have settled the city over the past 50 years. The relatively new addition of various races and ethnicities adds to many of the tensions that initially fuels graffiti in cities; being underrepresented in political and social activities, spatially limited or repressed within the public domain, and the desire to be heard, understood, and appreciated by those around you. In a very positive sense, graffiti offers an art-based bridge across a cultural divide. It is another medium of expression between people who perhaps might not have otherwise had a common ground upon which to communicate. Castleman notes that  “in a much-fragmented [New York City], writers are among the few young people to reach beyond the bounds of their own neighborhood and travel throughout the city, meeting and getting to know young people from other boroughs and a variety of ethnic and economic groups” (1982: 71). When graffiti as a subculture became a national and international phenomenon in the 1970s and 80s, Rochester had the space, vehicles, and people to make graffiti a relevant artistic and social topic in the public forum.

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Geographically, the city itself is divided along a north/south axis by the Genessee River.  Main Street bisects many city streets into south and north sections, and the river acts as a natural designation between east and west. The railroad tracks that serve both Amtrak and commercial service come in relatively due east of the downtown and go north, mirroring I-490 before it gently slopes southwest and out of the city. The downtown is fairly small, and it is centered around a cluster of company headquarters in the central business district.

As the city grew in the beginning of the 20th century, plans were made to build a trolley-based subway system. Beginning service in December of 1927, the subway ran northwest to southeast for a total length of slightly under 10 miles.[xi] It consisted of multiple lines with plans to connect more freight and passenger lines in the future. Due to diminishing population and riders, the subway was terminated for public transportation passengers on June 30, 1956. Halfway between being forgotten by public consciousness and city government indecision and inaction, the subway has stood completely abandoned since the 1970s. There are several access points along the route, and the eerie corridors attract, among many others, graffiti artists who voraciously consume the long stretches of unused and dismissed concrete. Some of the few visible external walls of the subway are also perfect graffiti walls, surrounding main thoroughfares that include landmarks such as Rundel Memorial library (the city’s main branch) and the Blue Cross Arena. The part of the subway that is most accessible runs by St. Paul Street, Court Street, and Broad Street, important avenues that are at the heart of the central business district.

If one leaves the subway via the Court Street entrance and turns down Woodbury Boulevard, they would be on New York State Route 31, a road that turns into Monroe Avenue two blocks later as Chestnut Avenue meets I-490. Monroe Avenue is one of the main commercial districts of the city and consists of a variety of shops, many of which would be considered counterculture. Shops along this corridor known as Monroe Village include 3 smoke shops, 3 book stores, 2 piercing/tattoo parlors, 2 poster shops, 2 craft shops, an independent drugstore, restaurants representing at least thirteen different cuisines, bars ranging from alternative to Irish pub to upscale, a local branch of the library, a community art and photography space, a yoga studio, a YMCA, a youth center, a war crisis center, and one graffiti shop. All of these places occur within this small commercial strip between downtown and an exit for I-490.The neighborhood has, somewhat successfully, marketed itself as an alternative strip.

Just over half a mile from the I-490 exit is Cobbs Hill Park, a public park that offers a beautiful vista of the downtown, and is also home to a large reservoir and two water towers. Unlike the reservoir which stands out markedly atop the hill along the entrance to the park, these water towers require a bit more determination to access.  Towards the eastern end of Reservoir Road is  small enclave of trails known as Washington Grove.  A person must descend into the grove and ascend a smaller hill in the back of the park before arriving at the towers.. Nestled largely out of sight, these towers have become a new graffiti hotspot within the city, attracting many toys (inexperienced and unskilled writers) who are slowly covering up the work of the more skilled writers of the city.  The towers are also abandoned, and because they are tucked away in the back of the park they rarely attract many people. Relatively easy access to the park, however, does make the water towers a popular spot for toys and inexperienced writers.

Further east in the city, the “Legal Wall” constitutes a series of walls surrounding an old warehouse in the back of the Village Gate commercial and residential complex along South Goodman Street. This area also abuts the freight railyards, a somewhat symbolic placement that helps emphasize its importance within the Rochester graffiti community. No longer appropriately legal, the “Legal Wall” is a series of facades of an abandoned office building along Anderson Avenue. As the parking lot extends back from both North Goodman and Anderson, old trucks, embankments, and the asphalt itself  become increasingly cluttered with aerosol art. Without exploring too deeply, a person can be fooled into thinking the “Legal Wall” is merely 4 or 5 walls. Fenced off and topped with razor wire is a small area that affords glimpses of what probably used to be prime graffiti space, but gives the current viewer only a teaser of the past; graffiti extends up a fire escape, layers old truck trailers and is still impressive even in its weathered state.

If a person walks over the sand embankment separating the parking lot and the edge of the train yard, the real space is realized. Walls and corners multiply and the tags and pieces explode everywhere. There is now a crushing squeeze for space. Neither maintained nor regulated, this area is now used by anyone who comes by. Broken and rusted cans of spray paint litter the corners, infiltrate the weeds and pile up, material artifacts indicating the continual use of this liminal space. No longer a mecca but certainly not dead, the “Legal Wall” is the epitome of graffiti space: abandoned areas in the public domain that are still used, but untended to and uncared about by the majority of the outside world.   Remnants of pieces and intricate stencils peak from behind a constant supply of freshly applied tags and throw ups.

A shell of the outdoor studio it once was, the “Legal Wall” is a misleading misnomer. A series of outside walls of adjoining privately owned businesses were opened to anyone who wanted to draw on them. It attracted both kids, who would be dropped off by parents during the day to play around with paint, and artists who would consume larger tracts of outdoor canvas. Adjacent to the railroad tracks it was the literal and metaphorical entrance to the Rochester graffiti community, and the wall’s reputation grew as artists used this central real estate to display their work to all members of the community, but especially to other artists who would arrive to work on, look at, or ride the trains.

The harmony of this space was unable to last without any supervision, however. Although every subset of people takes pride in their ability to control what they consider their own domain, the “Legal Wall” was not actually overseen, cared for, and not legally owned by anyone in the core of the graffiti community. As the Legal Wall’s popularity grew legitimate writers used it less and less. Like an inside joke leaked to the public, local writers began to avoid the Wall itself and instead focused on the railyards several hundred yards away. Dealing with the toys and neophytes squeezing the space was an annoyance that did not help them gain cache, respect, or recognition. The railyards offered trains: mobile canvasses that could spread a writer’s name much further than any wall and harkened back to the golden age of New York City graffiti.

As experienced writers began bypassing the Legal Wall, the problems of keeping the wall in appropriate shape were exacerbated.  An increasing number of people using the limited space was not the problem, but keeping the graffiti to the specified outside area was. Unbridled and energetic youths soon started using the buildings for more than just graffiti. Broken windows attest to the continued presence of miscreants. As soon as the activity leapt to the inside of the building, the owners revoked the graffiti “privilege”. Understandably, they did not want their valued possessions put at risk by having an unmonitored flow of people creating public art on their property. The current fences and cameras were erected and installed.  The “legal” section of the “Legal Wall” was no more, and the space degraded into the wind-blown state it lies in, affected by the fancy of anyone who has the energy to try and find an open space where their work may or may not be mindlessly covered or altered in the very near future.

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Past the geographical and demographic composition of the city, Rochester’s economic status helped facilitate the creation of graffiti writers.  Beyond the empty space of abandoned buildings and the various, highly traveled transportation arteries, a depressed city offers fewer chances for gainful employment. A bleak future creates a population eager to make their productive mark on society. Graffiti requires a literal application, and creates a product that is very public. Graffiti is a cultural production that supports not only the writers themselves, but includes the local neighborhood and community as well.  Graffiti offered an activity and an opportunity to control how someone focused their energies. Separate from schooling, city-run rec leagues, church groups, or family, graffiti offered an outlet that resulted in positive artistic achievement with a visible, refined product.  In a withering city, these are opportunities people are excited and eager to take.

FUA

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FUA is the dominant graffiti crew in Rochester. Based out of the North Clinton neighborhood, they are currently an amalgamation of twenty or so writers who work together on illegal pieces, commissioned works, cultural graffiti events, and graffiti public relations. When the city needs to discuss any potential graffiti problems, as it did in 2007, it contacts the crew’s leader Range, or some other public member. They are so well respected that Rochester Police Officer Eric Majewicz believes that he could have FUA put up a mural in most areas of the city without it being touched by outside writers or crews.[xii] Their presence is felt and acknowledged in every major graffiti area of the city, but none more so than North Clinton.  FUA boasts multiple ethnicities, creeds, races, and locations. Members range from places as diverse as Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Wisconsin, San Francisco and Puerto Rico. They believe that they are even the namesake for an unaffiliated crew of the same name based in Los Angeles.[xiii] While FUA continues to grow around the world and gain prominence, it is the North Clinton Avenue base that has allowed for FUA to rocket into graffiti heights.

Fierce Urban Assault, From Up Above, Find Us Anywhere, and Famous Urban Artists are just a few possibilities for the FUA acronym, and they echo the many permutations the crew has undergone since its inception in 1982 and emphasize the ambiguity of meanings within their work. Fierce Urban Assault recognizes the battleground over graffiti in cities. For FUA to survive, the name implies, they must operate with ferocity and intensity in the city streets. From Up Above connotes the heavenly skill with which they tag and bomb the streets. Additionally it expands the range of their work; if a graffiti writer descends form above it means they can bomb high, difficult to reach places, which affords recognition within the graffiti world. Find Us Anywhere refers to the importance of getting your name in as many places as possible and shows the ubiquity of the crew around Rochester and beyond. Famous Urban Artists is a more progressive name, identifying themselves as more than just graffiti writers but as legitimate artists.

FUA was started by Jester, a local artist who ended up joining the military and is now based overseas. He handed the reigns over to his younger brother Con before he left, and the group floundered. Con was not as dedicated as his brother, and in 1989 he bestowed leadership upon Range. By this time in North Clinton “he was already big, everybody knew him in the neighborhood” (Congo, Brooks, 8/22/09). Range “was just known in the school, since grade school doin’ graffiti, b-boy characters, bubble letters all types of different [things], you know the building skylines, all the old school class graffiti. Real clean with his work from day one” (Congo, Brooks, 8/22/09).

This fierce drive to get up, tag, and bomb all around the city was the first step in asserting crew dominance within Rochester. As graffiti culture was flourishing around the world, Rochester crews battled for space. Every free wall was contested and Rochester was like any other city; it had become an urban playground for bombers that wanted to feel the thrill of applying paint to a wall, create something unique, gain reputation, and earn respect. Being respected as a skilled bomber led to Range’s ascension despite the fact that he was only a teenager.

To deal with the rising political and government backlash and the vortex of emerging graffiti crews, Range quickly organized FUA into more than the loose blend of artists. By the time Range had inherited FUA he already had several smaller crews, and after Range had control of FUA, it consisted mostly of him and his brothers (Rame his older and Congo his younger) and their local friends who had grown up enjoying the same culture. Soon, however, it mushroomed as they continued to demonstrate their skills. Weekly meetings on Sunday evenings occurred in shifting places to organize upcoming projects, analyze and work on sketches, discuss possible new members and just generally talk shop. The group expanded to over 50 members as people brought in friends and discovered new artists who not only had new and different artistic skills but the appropriate chutzpah and general interests as well.  There was lots of energy and enthusiasm in the crew, and “even less artistic members were just down for whatever. Whatever position, whatever task we gave them…we were hangin’ with each other all the time, so we had more time to spend with each other, hang out late, into the next day with our piecebooks, beats playin’, rhymin’, you know, we did a lot of different things besides graffiti. In our crew there’s djs, music producers, breakers, we had a whole chapter called triumph, they’re the breakers. So ya it was more than just graffiti. We had a little family. (Congo, Brooks, 8/22/09)

As a large group of young adults primarily composed of minorities, FUA still had to contend with the misconception that they were a gang. A composition of so many people, FUA at first attempted to have crew colors. Green and black were chosen simply to represent FUA, but were quickly misinterpreted as gang colors; they were dropped. Graffiti language didn’t help the situation as normal lingo such as “king” (attached to the front of a tag “King Range”, King Congo, etc) coincided with the “Latin Kings” gang. Terms such as “battle”, “bomb”, and “hit” are all violent and most people would not consider these words within a graffiti context. Additionally, the skills that were allowing FUA to ascend to the top of the Rochester graffiti scene (relentless bombing combined with extreme artistic merit) were conspicuous attributes. Despite the pseudonyms of taggers, within the neighborhood many people knew the top artists. As more and more areas were “defaced” and public outcry grew louder, FUA became well known in legal and political circles. The mayor called Range’s house and police knew most members by their first name. (Congo, Brooks, 8/22/09). To combat these negatives, Range and FUA began to look for how they could continue their passion as their activities continued to move them further from society’s shadows and closer to the artistic void they envisioned themselves filling.

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The support of a wider group of people is very important for a graffiti crew. If local businesses and residents largely support these endeavors, which include appropriating space one does not have a legal right to, graffiti writers will soon run into fierce political and legal resistance. Businesses do not like having their walls defaced, communities often misinterpret graffiti as a harbinger of gang activity, and many people simply feel graffiti is a blight that decreases both their visual enjoyment of an area and their own property values. Excelling in graffiti however, just like in athletics, music, or any other activity, can have a unifying effect. North Clinton is generally proud of FUA and supports their activities. The B-Boy BBQ coincided with the Puerto Rican Pride Festival this summer and residents eagerly ran up to the artists to have them draw something on their clothes they would then wear to the parade as it streamed past the BBQ.

As their work became increasingly respected as art across town, the North Clinton neighborhood was warming to FUA’s activities. They were local boys from the neighborhood and they were succeeding at their craft in all the neighborhoods across town. Businesses soon found out that if they opened their walls up to artistic graffiti from FUA, ugly scrawls and tags would almost completely disappear. Eager to continue to shed their negative image, FUA members began doing commissioned work for businesses. When one business saw the new, hip artwork displayed by their neighbors, they asked for their own signage as well. Members started tattoo parlors, did autobody work, drew scenery for the local theatre, and taught art classes at local high schools and Monroe Community College.  Perhaps most importantly, FUA showed that although they were a collection of young males, they were not a violent gang. They were featured in respected-art galleries such as the Memorial Art Gallery and Rochester Contemporary Art Center. What had once been a divisive issue had become a unifying neighborhood characteristic for most denizens.  Walking down North Clinton Ave are residents proud of the art that adorns their public space. In 2003 FUA held its first annual B-Boy BBQ.

The B-Boy BBQ has grown every year and FUA is now considering perhaps changing locations to accommodate the increasing number of people.  In July 2009, FUA launched its own website, http://www.fua-krew.org, where updates on events, work, and thoughts are posted. Although not fully completed yet, Congo hopes to include an online store to purchase FUA work, a gallery featuring FUA’s work, a calendar of events, and all the amenities a professional website would include.

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The recognition that FUA has received, initially from North Clinton and now from across the state and country, illustrates FUA being close to the pinnacle of hip-hop graffiti culture.  Being recognized is the primary motivation of graffiti writers. Recognition indicates that your name and work are noticed and appreciated.  When graffiti first began to spread as a national phenomenon, it was passed down like many other crafts. Young, promising writers would learn under the tutelage of a “king” or some other experienced writer.  Initially their role would be as a lookout, and as they worked at mastering the craft and paid their dues they would receive elevated responsibility. They would start creating the necessary backgrounds required for pieces or fill-in larger areas with single colors. As their skills with cans continued to increase they would become increasingly independent, having achieved recognition in their apprentice role.

Making sure that aspiring writers ascend through the culture in the correct fashion also ensures that tacit rules and understandings are passed down throughout the ranks.  A writer has to know where and when it is appropriate to write, what style is someone else’s and how they can add original content to the graffiti scene. This helps ensure that graffiti will be constantly revolutionizing itself. With the advent of the internet and the ability to begin to learn how to practice graffiti without learning from a master means the conventions that have been refined over the past thirty or forty years will not be known by all writers. Important subcultural values that are valued as private will only be known, and thusly adhered to, by certain members of the community.[xiv]

Having cache within the graffiti community is extremely important to help make your work as enduring or visible as possible. Space is a limited resource, and extremely public space is even more limited and highly coveted. A writer whose name is respected will not have his work immediately covered up or crossed out. If this happened then the offender risks retribution from not only the particular artist but also any artists associated with him. This is a major reason why most artists, when invited to join a recognized crew, will jump at the chance to do so. A respected crew will have access to some of the best space and has the size to defend any signs of disrespect shown to one of their artists. Additionally, each individual will recognize the crew or other members in their work. It is not unheard of for one artist to do a piece of work and then sign it as one of his close friends. This creates substantial work that is attributed to a collective rather than an individual and increases the amount of respect for everyone involved.

Graffiti and Hip-Hop

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In his 2007 song “YGM”, Minneapolis indie-rapper Atmosphere croons that he “wrote graffiti on the mainstream application”.[xv] The song focuses on his independence, originality, and distinctiveness as a rapper and a person.  He is not only a maverick, but a leader for his friends and someone who should be respected. The song is filled with allusions to successful illegal acts and his achievements in wowing the crowds, wooing women, and making money, as well as the dismal and embarrassing exploits of his opponents. The song ends with him gracefully “holler[ing] at some friends” as he recognizes his crew. Crimes of Style opens with a comparison of a Phaze3 piece and Ice-T lyric.[xvi] One slight change is all that separates these two statements; Phaze3 is clearly displaying his respect for Ice-T as a fan of his music and political statements. The independence and similarities of both art forms, their mutual quest for fame and money, and their disregard for mainstream public ethics and cleanliness (both literally and metaphorically) help graffiti and hip-hop reinforce each other. Hip-hop clothing includes not only bright and attractive colors, but graffiti designs and styles. This connection is fully functional within the Rochester hip-hop community. FUA and Rochester rapper Emilio Rojas mutually support and publicize each other. Posters and notifications regarding Rojas’s and other rappers’ shows are posted on FUA’s website, and in Rojas’s video for “585”, FUA is featured prominently by name and by location (a majority of the video occurs in the subway, where FUA’s pieces conspicuously cover the walls).[xvii]

The important relation of hip-hop to graffiti cannot be ignored. Ferrell notes that “hip-hop culture [is] the primary stylistic influence in the development of…graffiti” (1993:43). Not only did graffiti help spawn hip-hop (being the visual element of the four tenets of the culture along with rapping, dj-ing, and breaking), but graffiti’s evolution alongside the entire movement and its eventual break-off offers an incisive look into how the culture and its values first emerged, matured as an underground subculture and then slowly welcomed itself into the commercial spotlight. The way the more popular elements of hip-hop (rapping and dj-ing) dealt with inundating commercial appeal and mainstream acceptance heavily affected how the graffiti movement initially and reluctantly dealt with fame. Its maturation within the commercial sphere is still affected by the trials and tribulations the other hip-hop elements have dealt with; as a commercial art form graffiti still lags behind rapping by at least 10-20 years.

The link between graffiti and overall hip-hop culture still exists. However, graffiti is now more of a separate entity that is loosely connected to the other parts. For Crook, while hip-hop may have emerged nationally along with hip-hop, hip-hop wasn’t the sole contributor. He notes that death-metal offered many of the similar counterculture allures such as the rejection of the status quo and a desire for one’s own personal voice and feelings within a mainstream culture that largely ignores many people. In an interview regarding his 2007 graffiti documentary Bomb It, filmmaker Jon Reis echoes Crook’s sentiments regarding the often-unseen division between graffiti and hip-hop. To Reiss, punk rock is an equally informative musical genre that gets lost in the discussion of graffiti and music. He points out that graffiti started many years before hip-hop music became any type of art form.[xviii] For Congo hip-hop and graffiti had and have an important connection. Graffiti is its own individual art, but the emotional and symbolic roots of the art form are inextricably intertwined with the initial rise of subcultural hip-hop. The maturation of subcultural elements that emphasize personal triumph, freedom, and independence are now manifested in different art styles. It is not important that hip-hip became mainstream before graffiti. Their creation had the same means: to express oneself within a dominant culture.

During the 1970’s and 80’s graffiti was squarely a hip-hop pillar. Famous hip-hop movies of the mid-1980’s can be seen as a major factor in bringing graffiti to the masses. Previously graffiti was generally nothing more than something urban denizens passed on their way to work, school, or play. The effect these movies had, Wild Style and Style Wars in particular, were very profound. Style Wars, a PBS documentary was released in1983 and hails itself as “the original hip hop documentary”.[xix] Primarily focused on graffiti, the film also discusses scratching, breaking, and rapping. It highlights the desires of New York City kids trying to get up just to get up, rebelling against authority, and documents the deep personal emotions artists feel when appropriating space for themselves and their graffiti. Wild Style was released in 1982, the same year as FUA’s creation. It follows the story of Zoro (played by real life graffiti legend Lee Quinones) as he deals with life’s vicissitudes and attempting to do what he loves, write graffiti for a living. More of a focus on all aspects of hip-hop than Style Wars, Wild Style stars several prominent writers, djs, rappers and breakers. The consecutive releases of the films displays the first breakthrough into the mainstream for hip-hop culture. Future studio feature films such as Breakin’ (1984), Beat Street (1984) and Turk 182 (1985), all proclaimed hip-hop’s arrival on the mainstream commercial stage. The fact that the protagonist of each of these films was a different race underscored the symbolism of this seemingly African-American underground subculture being appropriated by mainstream, multi-cultural America.

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Watching hip-hop be subsumed by the mainstream might have made certain artists wary of the spotlight, but the beginning split between hip-hop and graffiti widened as many of the principles of the hip-hop movement were lifted from the streets. As rappers and djs began earning large sums of money and the music became a viable job opportunity, hip-hop found itself able to attract audiences despite what they said. While they could curse out the police, degrade women, and abuse drugs, all of this was done orally. No laws were being broken and the elementary American right, freedom of speech, protected what they said. Since millions of dollars were being generated through the commodification of these words and thoughts, this “maturation” of hip-hip music was never questioned and its evolution continued at a breakneck pace.

Several important differences separated graffiti from rap. Graffiti was visual, did break laws and it did not make the power-brokers money. The market was not only absent, but the culture itself seemed to depend on breaking the law. Since graffiti artists did not start appearing in galleries until the late 1980s the debate over whether graffiti could exist inside legal grounds could not even be considered. Its appearance across New York City cost the city (by lower estimates) hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. While many people considered it a beautiful public art form, many people saw its appearance as blight.  The amount of people publicly supporting graffiti paled in comparison to rap despite the similarities the cultures shared in message content. In fact, as Ferrell notes in his introduction,

those who shape public perceptions of urban graffiti– local and national media, anti-graffiti campaigners, and others—intentionally and unintentionally blurry the boundaries between graffiti and graffiti writing, confusing one with the other in their condemnations of all graffiti as vandalism and crime. (1993:5)

Graffiti was following a similar path trod by other subcultures that “what finds itself encoded in a subculture has been subjected to a certain amount of prior handling by the media” (Hebdige 1979: 85). It made sense that graffiti and hip-hop began to diverge as the mainstream culture adopted one but not the other.

Graffiti in Mainstream Society

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At 2:00pm on a sunny June Monday I have driven through the North Clinton neighborhood and parked outside the Northeast Neighborhood Service Center, a non-descript one-story building on Norton Street. I am meeting Officer Eric Majewicz, Majic, a crime prevention officer who works at the Service Center. In a firm voice Majic greets me and for the next four and a half hours I am Majic’s ward as he drives me to the graffiti hotspots within the city. A 27 year-old former writer who moved to Rochester several years ago and got a job with RPD, Majic has used his knowledge of graffiti to become a liaison of sorts between the graffiti community and the city. Other than property disputes graffiti hasn’t been the cause of any significant crime in Rochester, and Majic believes it is an important duty of his to make sure things stay that way. Several minutes into the ride, Majic gives me his opinion as a police officer and a former writer: “you can quote me: we don’t have a graffiti problem” (Majewicz, Brooks 6/29/09). FUA has turned Rochester into a graffiti haven and given the city a unique asset that most cities (larger or smaller) should wish they had. As we criss-cross the city, a more well rounded picture of disagreement in regards to economic viability, cultural promotion, political representation, and graffiti in Rochester begin to fall into place.

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The advent of the 1990’s found graffiti beginning to stand on it’s own legs independent of general hip-hop culture. It had developed a following nationwide and had already conquered Hollywood a decade earlier. As Maggie Dickinson documents in “The Making of Space, Place, and Race”, graffiti’s popularity had blanketed New York City walls with a variety of tags, throw-ups and pieces. These markings showed the city as the home of unappreciated and unrepresented youth who did not mesh well with the desire to be the financial capital of the country and the world. As public leaders began pushing through anti-graffiti legislation they painted pictures of wild, unruly, and sometimes violent hooligans who controlled the streets, diminished property vales, and were generally antithetical to a city “catering to the needs of white-collar professionals” (Dickinson 2008:35).

In Rochester, the scene was not very different. With the explosion of graffiti, Rochester responded to these “tags on top of tags on top of tags” as many other cities did. As graffiti began to surface in the late 80′s editorials in newspapers began to appear decrying the movement. A ban on the sale of spray paint to minors was proposed, and the activities of FUA and other crews became increasingly scrutinized. By 1991 there was an “adopt-a-block” program in place, and by 1992 Mayor Ryan had created his “Looking Good Together” Program. This city program created the “G-Busters” (a graffiti-focus unit combining members of the county and city governments, police, community organizations, local businesses and youth organizations), provided awards and incentives for property owners to clean up graffiti, created the “Graffiti Bomb Squad”, a telephone hotline for citizens to report on graffiti, and introduced the possible creation of a legal graffiti area to channel these energies. However, the youthful graffiti movement continued relatively unabated.   Graffiti was expression, conversation, and a completely open forum. Despite the ephemeral nature of graffiti, writers gained respect and recognition from the people they desired it most as they flaunted the law.  The city responded with the introduction of “the Buff” a chemical sprayed upon surfaces to eradicate every design painted on it, and by 1996 Mayor Johnson had introduced the “Defacer Eraser”, a single truck designed with express purpose of traveling all over town and eliminating graffiti. The Mayor increased the portion of the city budget used to fight graffiti by almost 50%, dedicating an additional $150,000 annually.

The debate over visual pollution within the city was now almost completely focused on graffiti; only four articles in the two main Rochester newspapers, the Democrat & Chronicle and the Times-Union had discussed graffiti as a problem before 1990 while myriad letters, editorials, and articles focused mostly on the proliferation of unwanted political signs; primary and general elections led to posters, signs, and billboards that residents felt were unwanted, detrimental to the public, and ugly. To a lesser extent, commercial billboards were also derided. By 1990 however, articles on vandalism and visual pollution ignored political and commercial signage and were concentrating solely on this new, youthful property defacement.

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While hip-hop continued to explode as the 90′s wore on and the new millennium began, the graffiti element cooled somewhat within the mainstream. Although exponentially more people wrote graffiti than 15 years previous, the voracious graffiti consumption of the late-80′s and early-90′s had petered out. This was due to a variety factors encompassing a general lack of interest, the aging of graffiti’s main practitioners, increased city and police prevention and punishment, and also the lack of flair the activity once had as an underground, alternative form of entertainment, expression, and even destruction. Public outcry in Rochester, at the very least, had dropped substantially. Records kept at Rundel Memorial Library indicate only one public discussion of non- gang graffiti in the 5 years after Mayor Johnson’s expansion of the graffiti eradication program in 1996. Graffiti continued around the city, but it had lost any novelty it once had. Residents and businesses continued their complaints, writers continued to write, but gradually a homeostasis set in. As FUA and its member’s grew older, they developed repartee with local businesses and politicians. When Robert Duffy ran for Mayor in 2005, he commissioned FUA to draw a mural on his campaign headquarters on St. Paul Street. A huge piece requiring several days of effort and several artists, the piece tried to connect Duffy, the former police commissioner, with all residents of the city regardless of age, race, or ethnicity. Several FUA members believe the mural was instrumental in showcasing Duffy’s positive relations with minorities in the city and helping swing their vote in his direction.

In 2007, the homeostasis that the Rochester graffiti culture had enjoyed over the past half-decade or so came to an abrupt end. Stop 176 and Spaine, two peripheral members of FUA, started calling themselves the Heaven Dwellers and began a mini- competition to see who could get up most often and in the highest places. At 50 Chestnut Street, they completed a collaborative piece on a high-rise building. The building owner was furious as he attempted to clean the building and called the city to complain.  At the same time, Static and DEA, two younger writers began to bomb all over Rochester. While FUA had controlled the graffiti scene for the past twenty years, they were now mostly adults over thirty. A younger generation that had grown up with graffiti was trying to work their way into the scene, which meant continuous bombing and tagging was necessary. Attempting to prove his merit and courage, Static even tagged over an entire police car on the street. Graffiti complaints overall jumped from 36 in the 2004-05 fiscal year to 654 by October 1, 2007. It now required on average almost 30 days for a graffiti removal request to be accepted and actually removed, while between 50-75 requests were backlogged with 120 cases awaiting city approval.  Mayor Duffy created the “Graffiti Task Force” (GTF) in September 2007 to consider and deal with these renewed issues and problems.[xx]

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The GTF was headed by Neighborhood Empowerment Team (NET) director Molly Clifford and was an interdepartmental team that included members of RPD, NET, the Department of Environmental Services, the city Law Department, Economic Development Department, the Office of Customer Satisfaction, the community organization Pathways to Peace, and Zone, a FUA member.  Over a six-month period they consulted each other, studied other cities, and studied graffiti within the Rochester community.  The GTF created a short report on how they believed the city of Rochester should best combat this returned urban scourge.

They created their own 3-pronged taxonomy of graffiti: gang, art, and tag. Gang graffiti was to be removed as quickly as possible after noting the content and placement in an effort to discourage and dissolve city gangs.  Tags were deemed inevitable, but due to the concentration of prolific taggers, the GTF believed that one or two high-profile arrests would perhaps diminish tagging.  Art graffiti was seen as a positive, and the committee hoped that increasing art and entrepreneurship at local recreation centers and the introduction of a new legal wall would help focus graffiti art in these areas. The GTF noted that a previous program decorating public traffic boxes by local artists funded through the Arts and Cultural Council had so far been graffiti free. New training and focus for RPD to abate graffiti within the city was a key focus of the GTF report. New interfacing and databasing of graffiti and tags throughout Rochester was supposed to “analyze and track graffiti incidents to enhance their knowledge of gang activity, share data with Pathways to Peace, and assist with investigation of high impact tagging for better enforcement”. The arrest of one or two high-profile taggers, more police filing and prosecution of graffiti incidents, and better enforcement of current legislation regarding the illegality of posters, stickers, and signs were all made RPD’s responsibility to help combat graffiti.  The GTF also suggested the city reach out to more neighborhood organizations with information about how to fight graffiti in their neighborhood and provide them with “prep packs” and training so they could start to clean graffiti immediately themselves. The GTF financed the purchase of an additional “Defacer Eraser” truck, and outfitted both trucks with cameras to photograph the graffiti it cleaned.  They proposed updating and clarifying legislation about what rights and expectations both the city and individual property owners had when it came to graffiti and graffiti removal. The city will now remove graffiti on private property one time per calendar year (gang tags and obscenities will continue to be removed whenever necessary at City expense); repeat incidents will be the responsibility of the property owner, recognizing that the cost of significant graffiti vandalism is covered by property insurance.

As the city’s GTF was meeting among themselves to clarify and advance the city’s position on graffiti, an important discourse began in City Newspaper, a free weekly publication that claims to reach around 100,000 people throughout Rochester and Monroe County. In “Tagged: A Beautiful Nuisance” two FUA artists, Crook and Snoe, revealed their identities and discussed how they started writing and why they continue to do so. The dialogue included Albert Algarin, president of the North Clinton Business Association, Molly Clifford (composer of the GTF), Nick Petitti (RPD and GTF member), John Klofas, a criminal justice professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Councilman Bob Stevenson. The article was an important landmark in the Rochester graffiti discussion; comments have accrued on the web article quasi-continuously in the two years since publication. The timing of the publication, as the GTF tried to update Rochester’s laws and positions, showed how graffiti was a culture affecting all city residents and the mixed feelings residents had over this form. Algarin complained that graffiti was economic blight and made “the neighborhood look cheap and poor” (Fien 2007). Graffiti was no longer a unifying community presence, but a sign of apathy, disrespect, and class.  Business, from Algarin’s point of view, cannot co-exist with graffiti past a certain point, and wherever that point lies, the North Clinton neighborhood had moved far past it.  Any additional educational, community building, or other positive attributes graffiti might engender were minor and ancillary to the discussion.

After the GTF reported their conclusions there was a slight uproar over the campaign mural FUA had been commissioned for by Duffy. This large and striking piece was viewed as hypocritical by certain residents; the building was property rented by the local Democratic party expressly for Duffy’s campaign. The property now stands unused, and allowing graffiti to stay on the walls did not jibe with the new control and abatement procedures. The mural was eventually removed. This practice is uncommon for most commissioned murals. These pieces are some of the most permanent works unless the space is so desirable that they end up being covered up by another artist (a subcultural sign of disrespect to the original artist) or the original artists to put up something new. These actions, however, helped frame the current state of Rochester graffiti: a tumultuous cultural compromise trying to find an acceptable middle ground between the city, the police, local citizens and neighborhoods, businesses, FUA, and other graffiti artists.

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Majic was a member of the GTF because of his former life as a writer. He has since assumed a de facto position as graffiti liaison because he is friends with many FUA members, and is well respected within the city administration and RPD.  He wants to see graffiti continue to progress in Rochester. His goal “is keeping it good for [writers]”.  Majic’s de facto position might not seem vital to the Rochester graffiti scene, but at the very least he plays an important role as a neutral, sympathetic observer who has the ability to affect the processes at work. In reality, his position is extremely important to keep the graffiti subculture and its opponents engaged in a compromise. The president of the South Wedge Business Association consulted him when he wanted to address what he viewed as a graffiti problem within the South Wedge.  When Static, a young artist, tagged all over a cop car in 2009, Majic saw it as somewhat comic, but was more surprised that he was not given a mandate to find him and have him arrested immediately. In an attempt to show his mettle and determination, Static had needlessly brought negative publicity on himself and the entire graffiti subculture. As a de facto liaison this is the type of activity Majic tries most to curtail. It is equally important for him to make sure there are no overreactions to these anomalous events. With the general health of Rochester graffiti in mind, Majic is an integral player in the overall Rochester scene and graffiti culture. His experience and knowledge within both spheres of public graffiti allows him keen insight into this complicated subculture.  His job is to synthesize and communicate the more complicated aspects of what drives these artists to the city. This is an extremely important counterbalance to the commercial actors who have spearheaded the public outcry over graffiti in Rochester over the past decade.

The charge by the business community against graffiti is nothing new or unique to Rochester. Considering the Denver graffiti scene of the 1980’s and early 90’s Ferrell is acutely aware of the tight ties between business and government and the immense profits to be made off of an anti-graffiti stance. Coordinating themselves with CHUN (a local neighborhood association) “which views the neighborhood in terms of business development and property ownership”, it is hard not to notice the money these government officials, association leaders, and businessmen stand to make. In Ferrell’s mind this “point[s] to a single conclusion: the Denver anti-graffiti campaign—and indeed the status of graffiti as a local problem—results less from the nature of graffiti than from the enterprise of those who stand to benefit from its obliteration” (1993:114-15). Following the lead of previous criminological studies he notes that “these [moral] crusades are rooted not only in abstract notions of the public good, but in the concrete realities of political and economic power” (1993:116). In Denver this has resulted in a backwards punitive process: “the perception of a graffiti ‘problem’ has not led to a campaign against it; instead, the campaign against graffiti has taught its participants to perceive graffiti as a problem” (1993:117).

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While FUA currently holds a hegemonic position within Rochester graffiti culture, they are not the only graffiti writers in the city. Incessantly random taggers dot the landscape and will always propagate.  Transient artists like Smut move around the country writing, and the new generation of graffiti writers are now in the midst of trying to prove themselves within their culture. This has set up an interesting battle between the now-well-respected and well-established FUA Krew and the younger generation of writers, which includes crews like HFK, FFL, EBS and Chill Headz. During graffiti’s cultural ascension through the 1970’s and 80’s, the movement was largely youth-oriented. Police records used by Castleman in 1982 showed that the majority of writers “began their careers at about 11 years old and retire[d] from writing at age 16” (1982:67).   One artist interviewed, Blade, was 23 when interviewed and was attempting to engineer his fourth comeback after retiring from graffiti.[xxi] There was no older generation of artists to set any precedent of when it may be appropriate for a writer to gracefully step away from the art.  An aging FUA has created a cultural problem, how can they continue to enjoy and control the graffiti landscape the crew has achieved while dealing with then inevitable rise of the younger graffiti generation?

As an organization FUA went through similar rites of initiation that all artists were experiencing as the culture emerged. They were young adults who bombed consistently and incessantly. They tagged throughout town and displayed their graffiti skills as often as possible. As the first full generation of Rochester writers, they learned from each other and felt the force of the law as Rochester grappled with graffiti as a major problem for the first time.  As the group and its members matured, their situations started to change.  FUA is now composed mostly of adults. People had started families and needed real jobs; they had to deal with how to align their graffiti passions with real- world necessities. The questions of civil appropriateness, property defacement, neighborhood identity and empowerment now had to jibe with economic success. Combining the passion FUA members have for graffiti with these economic necessities and the years of legal and police hassle they had felt for their actions led to a logical, in some minds, decision. FUA could, and perhaps should, work with the city and police to make graffiti a more legitimate, mainstream, accepted activity. No longer completely underground, it had moved into the “alternative” realm, another subculture to be viewed and (perhaps grudgingly) accepted by society.

When members of FUA began to push the commercial boundary of a subculture traditionally based on subversion and illegality, it magnified questions of how these artists represent themselves. Is the collective more than the sum of all its parts? Is each individual artist’s worth as much on their own without their crew(s)? These are questions that individuals must decide for themselves, but examining FUA offers an example of the crew surviving as different members have taken antithetical stances on mainstream acceptance. In Hebdige’s seminal work on subcultures, he defines style as the way in which subcultures challenge and resists the mainstream order (1979:133).  As graffiti’s style became more public, it was inevitable that it would become comprehendible. It’s vocabulary, apparel, designs, and overall “style” was, like every subculture, based on consumption by a particular set of people.  This makes it difficult “to maintain any absolute distinction between commercial exploitation on the one hand and creativity/originality on the other” (1979:95).

As capitalism carried on its normal, time-proven course many artists have jumped at the chance to do commissioned works, appear in galleries, and effectively “sell out”. Although this does affect how artists view each other, as a crew, each member still viewed himself as an individual. Their graffiti might survive because of the crew or it might support the crew, but each artist is able to make their own individual decision. A true graffiti king does not actually need to rely on a crew because they should still be able to get up as often and with just as much proficiency as before.

As they continued their illegal activities, FUA also started their commission work. FUA artists joked about selling out with each other as they worked in the Rochester Contemporary Art Center. They are “tryin’ to take graffiti to another level. A more professional level, not just influence everybody by taggin’ buildings…move forward in a positive direction” (Congo, Brooks, 8/22/09). They started their independent graffiti businesses, worked with the city on the GTF, represent themselves in public, appear in mainstream art galleries and don’t shy away from commercial opportunities. To continue doing what he loves, Congo is very aware that he wants and needs “to get paid off this like a business, and of course we want the city to respect us as graffiti artists not as vandalizers” (Congo, Brooks, 8/22/09). Congo is not the first artist to feel this way. He is cognizant that people might think of him as selling out, but he dismisses this an unimportant and uninformed.  In the late 70′s Tracy168 took a similar view in regards to artists. “I don’t care who uses my style,” he stated “as long as they pay me for it” (Castleman 1982:25).

Crook’s outlook is somewhat different. He is “not trying to make money off it, it’s a completely spiritual thing” (Crook, Brooks, 6/24/09). It is an empowering activity, and because it is so important it is worth all the risk and the effort. Graffiti is a way around the economic and social inequalities, it is blinders to the myriad billboards around the city. Perhaps most importantly, it is a community builder, a unifying action that Crook undergoes “to save what little community I have left… [and] they support that. To them we are the artists who can’t afford canvases. We can’t buy the $200 paint set to make the $400 painting” (Crook, Brooks, 6/24/09). At worst Crook’s graffiti is an aesthetically pleasing art, and at best it is a reclamation of self, community and identity. It is his job, therapy, and passion.  Crook and Congo each highlight a different end of the spectrum; Congo’s self-identification comes with proving the legitimate financial worth of graffiti, while Crook finds his worth in the visual and actual re-appropriation of space and community graffiti can provide. Since a graffiti writer must first make their name through illegal work, and because there is a division within the subculture about whether or not graffiti still exists legally, it is understood that how a proven writer or king wants to present their work is a purely personal choice. As Eye Six, an influential Denver writer proclaims, “when you’re doing graffiti, you choose your own vision” (Ferrell 1993:42).

vii

The emergence of FUA as independent hegemonic actor creates an interesting cultural scene in Rochester as they are seen as being leaders of an independent, underground culture that in reality is impossible to represent. Younger graffiti artists must also prove their merit, however it must be in an arena that FUA has tried to stabilize. As the city and FUA have developed a mutual respect for each other over the past twenty years, they have created a closed playing field. The rites that younger artists pursue and undertake are in defiance of the accord reached by the government and FUA. The general public, largely unaware of the balance achieved only reacts to the art or vandalism they see. The culture is no longer subject to a three-way dialogue between city, public, and FUA, but the city, the public, FUA, and other, separate artists. How and where to step in and assert their dominance within the scene can be a difficult proposition for FUA. They are aware of the more active artists and could step in and “pull their card”, but at the same time, as their business continues to grow, they are hesitant to stop a maturation they see as legitimate and necessary; their strongest feelings and guidelines were developed with the same code.

Graffiti as Meaning

i

Although perhaps mischaracterized as blight by outsiders, when a community supports a graffiti culture, a stronger community and solidarity often results. North Clinton Avenue has a strong visual identity. Blank walls are a medium to say or draw anything, and what has developed is an empowering, positive social identity. For a neighborhood that is trying to revitalize itself, graffiti offers attributes that even more “alternative” or “independent” neighborhoods like the South Wedge or Park/Monroe Avenues cannot offer. The effect North Clinton has had in molding FUA and their ideas and positions on graffiti should not be overlooked.

In 1974 the Nation of Graffiti Artists (NOGA) was formed in New York City. NOGA was a collective of graffiti artists that were led by Jack Pelsinger in an attempt to use graffiti writers’ creativity to empower their community. NOGA was open to writers of all ages and races, and in 1976 were invited to do a mural at Prospect Hospital in the Bronx.  As NOGA began the mural painting, as [they] always preferred, [it became] a community event. Bloodtea (a writer) played the conga, and a crowd gathered to hear the music and watch the progress of the painting. Children from the neighborhood, one of the poorest in New York, were encouraged to take part in the activity.

NOGA became disheartened and disrespected, however, upon completion. They were forced to resort to haggling with hospital director for what ended up being a $100 commission for all the artists combined. More importantly, the canvas upon which they had been working, and which had brought this community together, was removed from the outside, and then “rolled and stored in the hospital basement rather than displayed where the public could see and enjoy it” (Castleman 1982: 1331-132). The whole point of the artistic exercise was repudiated by removing the unifying communal act to a secluded, private room.

The aversion and displeasure expressed by Algerin, the head of the North Clinton Business Association, at FUA’s public works echoes the removal of the NOGA mural from the public view. Graffiti’s positive aspects—its community building, artistic prowess, and creativity to name a few—were not as important as any negative economic implications. This viewpoint ignores other important factors that graffiti can contribute to people. This is especially true in a neighborhood like North Clinton where prospects for social and economic ascension are limited by discrepancies in wealth, political representation, and educational opportunities.

As a subculture graffiti both offers and promotes self-respect and public recognition. It allows for very public, though anonymous, success and fame. It can create a notoriety for someone that is often absent for youths who may not be standouts on an athletic field or in a classroom. As funding for the arts and music is continually cut in school budgets, graffiti allows people to enter the art world on their own terms. Their success lies in their own hands. They do not have an assignment they must turn in on time for a grade; if their style show promise, originality, or skill they can continue to write and survive.

The allure of the art-world is one that has captured writers since the subculture began. The writers Castleman studied didn’t, in general, do well traditionally in school, even though they “almost invariably…have good handwriting, an important quality much appreciated by teachers” (1982:70). This interest starts with graffiti, is practiced in their sketchbooks and outdoor work, and then often developed into “a desire to go on to careers as cartoonists or animators. [Writers] take a greater interest in techniques of illustration, photography, calligraphy, printing, and painting than many other people their age. Writers sometimes [seek] inspiration for new designs for their pieces in art books and museums”.  (Castleman 1982:70)

Crook’s experience growing up in Rochester 20 years later echoes their sentiments regarding art. His academic exposure to art ended when he entered middle school, and funding for the arts was cut. There is an entire cultural education that is lost in the mainstream focus on traditional disciplines and athletics. Crook’s respect for the art is noticeable in his speech; he interchangeably uses the terms “writer” and “artist” even though it is a “writer” that these people identify themselves as. These connections between art and graffiti continue to echo back and forth through space and time. Speaking of his own work, Bloodtea decried New York City’s crackdown on graffiti because “all they [were] doing is moving graffiti from the outsides of the trains to the insides, It’s the inside graffiti—the tags—that the public hates. All [they did was get] rid of the outside pieces that the public likes” (Castleman 1982:146)

No matter the mark or message, graffiti remains a public art. Its existence proliferates in the places where artistry lacks the most and the physical elements of human culture—decaying buildings, transportation infrastructure, and public elements —sit idly within people’s view. Speaking of the NYC MTA crackdown, Daze bemoans the misunderstandings and misrepresentation of their artform and criticizes the MTA for not realizing that graffiti is “one of the best things the subways have going for them. If the city would back us up and treat as artists instead of vandals, we could contribute a lot to the beauty of New York” (Castleman 1982:176).[xxii]

The opportunity for people to consume public art is often an aspect left out of the graffiti discussion.   Exposure to the arts is an educational experience. While some people are raised in environments that cultivate an appreciation for art, the majority of America does not always have an opportunity to consume art. Consumption requires time, money, and travel.  When the Rochester Contemporary Art Center (ROCA) held its 2009 State of the City exhibit, it featured several FUA members. Graffiti on the museum walls attracted more school groups, especially from schools with more minorities, than previous exhibits. Blue Cease, the gallery’s director, noted that these groups came specifically for the graffiti; it was graffiti as art that led to what most would consider an important cultural outing for young students.

ii

The inability to define graffiti consistently and in its many permutations other than its existence in the artistic world extends its ability to communicate messages, thoughts, language, and power. Lady Pink, an early female writer in the vanguard that helped popularize graffiti as a movement thinks that graffiti means nothing when taken out of the street. The current activities of FUA demonstrate an alternative point of view. This debate can and will not ever have an end. There is as much disagreement over the respectability of tags and what types of throw-ups and pieces might be considered “legitimate” graffiti. Regardless of however an artist defines these terms and conditions personally, all graffiti, regardless of art, placement, and content, continues the public dialogue on graffiti and how people within and external to the graffiti subculture receive it.

iii

New York Wildstyle is the predominant contemporary form of American graffiti. It combines whips, slashes, pictures, and letters to form a holistic picture that says something. Although often it is incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t consistently read graffiti, for writers, the opinions that matter are those of people who can decipher their words.  Other opinions matter because of their auxiliary meanings (what space is legal or illegal, will the public pay for my art, etc), but graffiti is at its core a message. It speaks to many people, but most of all to the writers themselves as they strive for acknowledgment and respect.

There can be no mistake however, that as writers use a public medium, they begin public discourse on the acceptability of linguistic transmission open to everyone. Although wildstyle messages may be incomprehensible to read for some, there is no doubt that these people see it. 3-D block and bubble letters are often very legible, and the messages are clear. Artists choose spaces like highways to work on because of the number of people that can see their work. Even if it is the opinion of artists that matters, it matters that other people see it.

The public nature of their work makes legislation regarding graffiti emotional and imbalanced more often than not.  People believe that graffiti crews are violent gangs spray-painting all over public and private property. Stereotypes about what type of person “graffiti-s” proliferate and embed themselves in both minds and dialogues. Maggie Dickinson notes that the anonymity of graffiti helped business and political leaders of New York City in the late 80′s and early 90′s to characterize all graffiti artists as faceless thugs participating in violent activities. Unable to visualize these people, a violent rhetorical war began and “[although] these notions of who was writing on the trains did not account for the middle-class, non-minority participants who were also involved in the subculture, the criminalization of the practice enforced anonymity in a way that allowed politicians, the business community and the media to portray writers more or less how they pleased” (2008:37).

iv

Graffiti’s power as a political and social statement is perhaps its most potent and dynamic tool. The appearance of tags across a city reminds residents that there are other denizens who may not be as comfortable in society’s current incarnation as others. Discontent and unhappiness are still very real, painful, and powerful. Utopia remains far-off. Shephard Fairey, the visual artist probably best known for his creation of Barack Obama’s “Hope” portrait”, created a well-known series of stencils based on Andre the Giant and a 1988 John Carpenter film entitled “They Live”. This film depicts a late-1980’s America where the upper-class is a mixture of aliens and human collaborators who brainwash the rest of society for mass material consumption through hidden, subliminal messages on billboards, television, and other commercial mediums. Although far-fetched, the message it sends about the importance of advertising in shaping, stifling, and directing independent thought and action is very clear. The messages purchased and paraded by wealthy companies are words and pictures designed solely for the companies’ own good. The individual must close their eyes to their own world to ignore these messages. Graffiti writers, separated and alienated as much as everyone else, see it as a societally-blessed action for a person to try and advance their own ends. If McDonalds can put their name in the public arena, why should they not be able to as well? The fact that these corporations pay sometimes-exorbitant sums to broadcast themselves illustrates the uneven playing field individuals are on. Individual people generally do not have the means to access this public space,  to which most people believe everyone should have a right. Writers see the commercial advertisements that dot the landscape and see little difference between the billboard art and their work. Crook notes that a person in Rochester is “always driving by 50 Cellino and Barnes billboards, and won’t think twice about it. It’s corporate graffiti. It’s ok for them to do it, but your average citizen doesn’t have the money to spend [on a billboard]” (Crook, Brooks, 6/24/09). Opposing the controlled, commercial billboard, graffiti is the untamed, open space available to everyone. It is not surprising then that “the most popular areas in [train] cars on which to tag…are the large corner panels and the wide panels under the advertisements”(Castleman 1982:29).

The prominence of billboards and advertisements while mainstream society rejects graffiti concentrates the question of who gets to control public space. Hegemonies around the world disparage graffiti because of its uncontrollable, empowering, and community-building possibilities. Speaking of a New York City that aimed at becoming a neoliberal financial haven, Maggie Dickinson accurately notes that the public, shared community graffiti foments is antithetical and impractical to the private community desired by many business leaders.  Across the world in Palestine during the First Intifada, Julie Peteet noted that graffiti offered a sense of community by creating communal ideas, nursing sentiment, as well as causing participation in the reading of graffiti. It was acknowledged as a way to continually frustrate the Israelis and demonstrate important resistance, and could be used as initiation into a group.

This jibes with an alternative Hebdidge considers about subcultures; it is one that focuses subcultures as purely subversive. Under this manner of thinking language becomes “an active, transitive force which shapes and positions the ‘subject’ (as speaker, writer, reader while always itself remaining ‘in process’ capable of infinite adaptation.” (1979:119) As he had explained earlier, the form and content of what is said (in graffiti’s case written in public space), is vital to how it is perceived by the public (1979:118).  The inextricably interwoven nature of graffiti’s form and content with its application on public space creates a subculture where the message matters less than the action itself.

Considering the many similarities of graffiti and billboards in both space (location) and content (message) emphasizes the powerful control money has over public space and community. Both graffiti and billboards are considered general visual pollution, although both can run the gamut from tawdry words and meanings to deep, moving artwork. They both appear in public space with the express purpose of promoting something particular. The main differences are the duration of the stay in the visual arena, how this length of time is determined, and what the product being promoted is. A billboard’s stay is determined solely on money.  Whether ephemeral or enduring, it is money, not people or a community who determines what, where or for how long the advertisement continues. Graffiti is undertaken with the knowledge that the work might only visible for a few hours. The possibility of their deep emotional, energetic, and monetary investment disappearing after only a few hours does not dampen the writer’s spirit; it is understood necessarily that the possibility of everything being wiped away simply comes with the territory. It speaks to the force and passion with which writers undertake their craft that they still desire to continue their work in the face of this hardship. Being acknowledged is so important that it is worth the uncertainty. Still, one writer, Apollo 5, describes the way graffiti is too easily assumed to be nothing of great artistic importance or merit. When a piece is gone over, its is “like someone going into a museum and ripping up all the art. [Its] a crime” (Castleman1982:46).

Contemporary Rochester Graffiti

i

When http://www.fua-krew.org first launched this past summer, it highlighted the ascent of graffiti as a subculture both within Rochester and extended throughout the country. They were not the first or most important graffiti artists to create their own website, but the site’s launch is an important watermark within Rochester politically, economically, and culturally.  To launch a website requires knowledge and commitment to both the website itself and the group it represents. The latter has been proven over the past three decades, but this expansion to the World Wide Web shows a commitment into the future as the original wave of FUA artists grows older in a subculture that is historically based on youth. They have embraced their commercial opportunities while continuing to step further and further into the public realm despite their controversial activities.

What FUA has done for Rochester graffiti cannot be understated. Their ascension to the pinnacle, both subculturally and in the mainstream, has created a subculture that borders on self-policing. While annoying tags are inevitable and occur with regularity, FUA’s rise to prominence in these dual spheres has, I believe, severely limited “toy” graffiti. Rochester does not feature many artists who are strictly bombers; writers work to be recognized by FUA and perhaps join them with their success. By being associated with FUA, writers can enjoy the best of all possible worlds. They join a crew with access to prime public space, have commercial opportunities if they so desire, are aligned with and shielded from retribution from police and government, and, most importantly, are recognized as having the skills to write with the kings of the town with the opportunity to be recognized as kings themselves. Even if they find FUA’s commercial success off-putting, as individual artists they are still allowed to act on their own, bomb the rails, and write where and what they wish.

ii

As the sun began to set at the B-Boy BBQ this summer the final artists put the finishing touches on their pieces. A younger writer from Buffalo approached Snoe and Crook, asking them to sign his piecebook. They eagerly agreed, and as Crook began intricately writing his tag Snoe asked about where he liked to hit and they chit-chatted. As Crook finished he switched places with Snoe and continued where they left off talking shop.  While the parking lot quieted down the street grew louder. The remaining artists were all FUA members, and they slowly sipped their drinks or smoked their cigarettes as they watched the police ready themselves to deal with the escalating crowds and energy of the Puerto Rican Pride Parade. There were a few murmurs about ducking away before any rowdiness began, but nothing being done by the writers was illegal, and everyone wanted to participate at least somewhat in the activities. FUA wanted to be there for their community that they had grown up in and that had supported them. More and more cars passed waving Puerto Rican flags and the sidewalks continued to fill with proud parade participants and viewers. It was an incisive role reversal; graffiti writers playing around in front of police who were not worried about their activities, but of the normal neighborhood they were operating in. Examining this scene, an outside observer could legitimately ask if the graffiti subculture of the 80’s still existed, is an authentic graffiti culture alive and well with the kings of Rochester graffiti?

The answer, I believe, is a resounding yes. Although FUA has stepped into the commercial sphere and developed a strong relationship with city government, they are still driven by a passion for their work and a desire to be recognized as kings of graffiti writing. They are still in the middle of traditional graffiti battles about who gets to control the public space we operate in and whether or not graffiti can be considered positive cultural expression. However, because FUA has evolved in Rochester in the particular way it has, from the traditional skirmishes amongst rival crews, taggers, bombers, and other writers to the constant cat-and-mouse game with the police, the graffiti battleground can seem somewhat skewed. Artistic writers still have to deal with toys and bombers, and writers still must get up to prove themselves, but FUA’s difficulties are minimal.

Hebdige saw subcultural lifespans as cyclical. After proclaiming themselves to be independent and unique, the inevitable capitalist consumption and commodification will make the subculture comprehendible to the masses. “Each subculture moves through a cycle of resistance and defusion” (1979:130), and FUA has been through that roundabout. Hebdige also believes that subcultures became “fit for public consumption” only after the subculture was “stripped of its unwholesome connotations.” (1979:130) In the case of FUA and graffiti in Rochester, this is inaccurate. Having embraced public consumption and having led the way into the commercial sphere, FUA has increased their domination of the subculture while still allowing themselves opportunities to pursue the “unwholesome” aspects to the degree that they, as individuals, wish to.  Two separate interviews with Reas, an 80’s graffiti writer encapsulates FUA’s current position, “Graffiti when I was doing it, wasn’t in magazines. It wasn’t on the internet. It was on a train…it was free. Now everything costs money. Graf is marketed. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. I just know it’s different.”[xxiii] In a later interview, Reas further considered his position about the convoluted situation that had evolved from the urban streets of America. Graffiti, he mused, “ [graffiti] It’s its own thing. It doesn’t need to be told what it is.”[xxiv]


[i] The New York Times, “Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals” July 21, 1971. Pg. 37 Accessed through Proquest Historical Newspapers 9/16/09

[ii] Beard, Matthew, Aguilera invests £25,000 in Banksy  HYPERLINK http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/aguilera-invests-16325000-in-banksy-472976.html http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/aguilera-invests-16325000-in-banksy-472976.html, Retrieved 5/21/09

[iii] http://www.scion.com/installation2/press.html Retrieved 8/04/09

[iv] Graffiti Task Force Report, Rochester, NY January 2008

[v] Ferrell 1993: 57-85

[vi] Crook, Brooks, 6/24/09

[vii] “Bomb the System”, 2002, Director: Adam Bhala Lough, Palm Pictures

[viii]  Ferrell 1993:66

[ix] http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/SAFFPopulation?_event=ChangeGeoContext&geo_id=16000US3663000&_geoContext=&_street=&_county=rochester&_cityTown=rochester&_state=04000US36&_zip=&_lang=en&_sse=on&ActiveGeoDiv=&_useEV=&pctxt=fph&pgsl=010&_submenuId=population_0&ds_name=null&_ci_nbr=null&qr_name=null&reg=null%3Anull&_keyword=&_industry Retrieved 8/16/09

[x]  HYPERLINK http://rochesterhomepage.net/content/fulltext/ http://rochesterhomepage.net/content/fulltext/?cid=81362

[xi] Railroad.Net “The Orphan Rochester Subway” http://www.railroad.net/articles/railfanning/rochestersubway/index.php Retrieved 9/14/09

[xii] Majewicz, Brooks, 6/29/09

[xiii] Congo, Brooks, 8/22/09

[xiv] Ferrell 1993 86-87

[xv] “YGM”, Strictly Leakage, Atmosphere. Rhymesayers, 2007

[xvi] Ice-T, “Squeeze the Trigger”: “What is crime and what is not? What is justice? I Think I forgot”. Phaze3: “What is crime and what is not? What is art? I think I forgot”

[xvii] Emilio Rojas “585”, Available at http://videos.onsmash.com/v/yH8p8hSKjc7yWIX5. Retrieved 3/25/10

[xviii] “Bomb It” 2007, Director: Jon Reiss, Docurama Films

[xix] http://www.stylewars.com/

[xx] Graffiti Task Force Report, Rochester, NY January 2008

[xxi] Castleman 1982:21

[xxii] The art and aesthetics of what of just what how, how, and where graffiti writers practice their craft cannot be understated. In general writers are acutely aware of how their work will look. They will change their tags based on how the letters form and flow together or how they look independently, and how the letters might look if they tag a different permutation of their name. See Castleman 25, 60,70, 74, Ferrell 74

[xxiii] http://www.graffiti.org/faq/tucker.html

[xxiv] http://www.graffiti.org/reas/reas4.html

Bibliography

Ferrell, hebdige,castleman,peteet, GTF, crook, majic, congo,Dickinson, beard, ny times, bomb it, atmosphere,  artcrimes tucker, artcrimes reas, scion, bomb the system

Ferrel, Jeff

1993. Crimes of Style. New York. Garland Publishing, Inc.

Hebdige, Dick

1979. Subculure: The Meaning of Style. London. Routledge

Castleman, Craig

1982. Getting Up. Cambridge, Massachusetts. The MIT Press\

Dickinson, Maggie

2008. “The Making of Space, Place, and Race: New York City’s War on Graffiti 1970 to Present”. Critique of Anthropology (28). Accessed via Sage Publications 4/19/2009.  HYPERLINK “http://coa.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/28/1/27″ http://coa.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/28/1/27

Peteet, Julie

1994. “The Writing on the Walls: Graffiti of the Intifada”. Muslim World (84). Accessed via Sage Publications 4/19/2009

Tucker, Daniel Oliver

1999. “Graffiti: Art and Crime”.  Art Crimes. http://www.graffiti.org/faq/tucker.html. Retrieved 3/30/30

Bomb The System

2002. Adam Bhala Lough Director. Palm Pictures. New York

New York Times

1971. “’Taki 183’ Spawns Pen Pals”. July 21. Accessed through Proquest Historical Newspapers 9/16/09

Beard, Matthew

2006. “Aguilera invests £ 25000 in Banksy”. April 6. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/aguilera-invests-16325000-in-banksy-472976.html, Retrieved 5/21/09

Atmosphere

2007. “YGM”.  Strictly Leakage. Rhymesayers

Bomb It

2007.Jon Reiss Director. 93 mins. Docurama Films. New York

Reas

1996. Interview by Brett Webb.  Art Crimes. February 1996. http://www.graffiti.org/reas/reas.html

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