Graffiti explodes across pandemic-era New York

NEW YORK (AFP) – Part of New York’s history for over 50 years – was flourishing during the coronavirus pandemic, a sign of decadence for some, but vitality for others.

As dusk became nightfall, graffiti artist Saynosleep took a quick look around and then got to work on a luxury store closed since it was looted in June during protests over George Floyd’s death.

“If you’re not painting right now, I don’t know what you’re doing,” said the 40-year-old, adding an expletive. “There has never been a time like this.”

The facades of hundreds of stores that were closed because of the pandemic were “an invitation” to artists, said curator at New York’s Museum of Street Art Marie Flageul.

Walls, bridges, sidewalks and subway cars – 34 of which had been painted since the beginning of the month – were canvases.

“It’s a big surge, a renaissance of graffiti,” said Saynosleep, who used a different pseudonym for his legal artwork.

A train passes by the 5 Pointz building in Queens, New York. PHOTOS: AFP
Sanitation workers clean up graffiti after the Occupy City Hall protesters were cleared overnight by police

Graffiti was first accepted by the art world in the 1980s when it moved into galleries.

Expressive street art then captured the imagination of the general public in the 2000s when it went from illegal to legal spaces.

But since March, it was the raw, illegal type of graffiti that has spread in a disorderly fashion.

“Everybody wants to express themselves,” said Saynosleep, who said he had seen a woman in her 60s drawing graffiti. “People are bored. They need something to do”.

The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement following Floyd’s killing at the hands of a Minnesota police officer in May had accelerated the trend, with protesters scribbling racial justice slogans and demands on buildings.

In a year when socialising has virtually stopped and streets no longer throng with activity, graffiti was artists’ way of saying, “’It feels like New York is dead and you don’t see us but we are still here,’” said Flageul.

The creative impulses were not to everyone’s taste, however. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo said the graffiti was “another sign of decay,” along with an increase in murders and shootings in New York City.

He indirectly blamed Mayor Bill de Blasio for supposedly taking a lax attitude towards it.

Critics were also angry that the city government, over budgetary constraints, axed its graffiti removal programme that had cleaned almost 15,000 sites in 2019.

“I think it’s horrible,” said Darcy Weber, who has recently settled in New York. “Some said it’s art, but did they get permission for that? No, so it’s vandalism.”

For some, graffiti reminded them of the dark days of the 1970s and ‘80s when New York was broke and crime was rife.

A spokesperson for the New York Police Department (NYPD) told AFP the force was “fully aware of the importance of addressing graffiti-related crime”, and said such incidents were down 17 per cent from last year.

Flageul, who was also a spokesperson for the 5Pointz graffiti collective, said it’s “a bit of a cliche” to say that more graffiti means New York is regressing.

Brooklyn President Eric Adams, who wanted to become New York’s mayor next year, said tags spray painted onto public and private property “is quickly destroying our borough’s landscape.

“It costs home and business owners hundreds of thousands of dollars and tremendous efforts to erase it,” he added, drawing a distinction between “vandalism” and “amazing street murals”.

Advisor to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chairman Ken Lovett, noted that cleaning graffiti from trains was draining resources when the MTA was facing “the worst financial crisis” in its history.

New Jersey resident Emile Fu said he’s not too bothered. “There’s other things to be concerned about,” she told AFP.

Bryce Graham, who lives in the Chelsea neighbourhood, said the graffiti would shock him in somewhere like Ottawa “where everything is super clean”.

“But here in New York, it’s a hell of a mix of what is clean and what is dirty,” he said.