Gentrification VS. Graffiti13 May 2015
First semester is drawing to a close and tutorial discussions are tending more towards holiday plans than [insert subject name]. It seems half the student population will be migrating north in search of warmer climes and New York will, as always, be a disproportionately popular destination. People the world over flock to the nerve centre of the economic and cultural empire which is the US. The Big Apple obliges its visitors, offering plenty of highlights for stampeding tourists. Lady Liberty welcomes thousands of visitors a day with her torch, Times Square shouts neon slogans at locals and tourists alike, and the ‘Met’ overwhelms even the most ardent museumgoer with close to two million artworks in its permanent collection. Manhattan itself is like an open air monument to the successes or excesses (depending on your point of view) of capitalism and the culture of consumption. What visitors in 2015 won’t see though, is 5 Pointz, the former Guggenheim of Graffiti and one of the latest victims of what some see as the widespread gentrification of New York.
Founded in Queens during the early ’90s, 5 Pointz was a site for artistic dissent writ large in spray paint. Its establishment was a response to a police crackdown on street art throughout the Big Apple. Increased security, penalties and clean-up crews meant ‘burners’ (large, intricate murals) had become increasingly scarce and many graffiti hotspots had been returned to austerity. Most notable was the disappearance of the (in)famous end-to-ends – graffiti covered subway carriages. They were the perfect vehicles for street artists, shuttling under, above and through the city like rolling billboards. Not everyone appreciated the splashes of colour rumbling through the concrete jungle though, and the cars were systematically cleaned up and phased out. This was symptomatic of a more general ‘massacre’ of graffiti in New York under the watch of several conservative mayors.
Enter 5 Pointz, a legitimate saviour for a subculture in decline. The dilapidated building was a temptation too great for Pat DiLillo, who recognised the potential of the vast wall space and central Long Island location, establishing the Phun Phactory in 1993. Ironically, the building lay below the number 7 subway line, the bright throw-ups on the exterior walls visible from carriages washed of their own. DiLillo simultaneously discouraged and encouraged graffiti, wishing to lure talented ‘writers’ away from the public domain to a legal space. The plan worked and by the early 2000s, 5 Pointz was the foremost graffiti site in the world, attracting both homegrown and internationally acclaimed artists.
There was an inherent contradiction in the desire to save 5 Pointz, and even in its very existence. The temporal, anti-mainstream, illegal elements of graffiti are also the essence of the artform, yet the reclaimed space was as close to a museum as graffiti has ever had. The site was a symbol of permanence that went some way to legitimising the art form and placing it within the public consciousness. By graffiti’s very nature, if it is accepted and legitimised in the public sphere, then it risks becoming unacceptable and illegitimate within the subculture itself. The paradox was softened somewhat by the legitimacy held within the subculture by those ‘writers’ who worked the spray cans at 5 Pointz: generally they were established artists and all work had to be approved by curator Jonathan Cohen. It could be argued that this sort of regulation, limiting the artists exhibited to a sort of graffiti elite, is also at odds with the spontaneous, anarchic nature of graffiti, but 5 Pointz was concerned with quality of art rather than quantity of artists represented.
In any case, ideological musings about such contradictions were rendered academic late last year as the bricks, mortar and murals came crashing down – soon to be replaced by two apartment blocks. Local residents have since bemoaned both the loss of an important community space and the spread of gentrification to Queens. They are concerned that this development, and others similar to it, are raising the rental prices in the area and leading to the displacement of some of the area’s poorer citizens (as has been the case elsewhere in New York, particularly in neighbouring Brooklyn).
Graffiti artists and enthusiasts are instead mourning a cultural and creative loss. New York was the birthplace of street art but the subculture remains on the margins of society; its devotees were never likely to wield sufficient political and legal influence to stop the demolition. Like the police and mayors of previous decades, the developers are attacking street art. But if anti-graffiti forces expected this development and gentrification to be another ‘nail in the coffin’ for graffiti, they may very well find themselves mistaken. The urban renewal in progress at the site may have more dollar signs written on it than 5 Pointz had murals, but profiting from the destruction of 5 Pointz will bring undesired consequences for those who want to see an end to street art. The artists are hardly likely to lay down their aerosols and the loss will only encourage the nocturnal spraying of grassroots graffiti. Now that 5 Pointz has fallen, may the subway above run bright once more.