Vandalizing Vandalism

splasher3

A.M. Gittlitz is a freelance writer, essayist, and delivery boy living in Bushwick Brooklyn. He is a frequent contributor to The New Inquiry and has contributed to Vice, Gothamist, Salon, and Truthout. His essays and journalism focus on counterculture, radical politics, and punk, and he recently released the 6th issue of his personal zine ⒶFOLK, a collection of travel essays about squatting and leftist nostalgia in Berlin, Rome, and ex-Yugoslavia.

The horrific erasure of Five Pointz’ walls last winter is a wordless sign written in Wite-Out that despite the alchemic success of street art and the reverance for graffiti and hip-hop culture held by the New York culture industry, the war on vandalism is still in full effect.

It was Ed Koch who first started treating graffiti writers like semiotic terrorists, pulling subway cars at the first sign of a tag. Then with the clearing of homeless from Tompkins Square Park under Dinkins, the implementation of Broken Windows Theory policing under Guiliani and Bratton, and the monstrous culmination of all this during the Bloomberg regime, the graffiti writer is today at their height of both danger and celebration.

The contradiction is resolved by civil society’s drawing of borders between art and graffiti, street art and vandalism, etc. As long as we remember that one is always “good” and the other “bad” then there’s nothing to worry about—that lengthy pun spraypainted in lowercase letters? Street art—good. That illegible tag written in magic marker? Graffiti—bad. Writers play into the same game, arguing that their tag is good and valuable no matter what anyone thinks.

Pushing the lines even farther are the recent spate of art vandals—possibly the most talked-about movement in contemporary art. A Rothko was tagged at the Tate, a Poussoin repainted in London, a Gauguin gouged in Washington D.C., a Clifford Still soaked with urine in Denver, the Piss Christice-picked in France, and a Picasso re-painted in Houston. Last month a vase of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei was smashed by a local artist in Miami in protest of the international art market’s colonization of Miami as a hub. He was charged with criminal mischief, and the police vase was valued at $1 Million. Photographs of Weiwei’s own smashing of a Han-dynasty vase were exhibited in the museum, but as Malcolm Harris pointed out in his essay “U.S.Ai,” “It’s only freedom of expression if you break something you own, otherwise it’s vandalism.”

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