Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Gregory Snyder: Graffiti Lives

Wow. I hit the jackpot when I found this book. I seriously feel like the stars were aligned when I found it in the "Recent Arrivals" in a used section. I had never heard of Gregory Snyder's ethnographic study of New York graff in the post-subway world, but it's like he knew I was coming. Snyder is the academic answer to the fight I've been fighting for years: graffiti is not just a menace to society. By page 5, Synder is discrediting the "broken window" theory:
[The "broken windows theory"] argues that petty crime increases the propensity for more serious criminal activity- and quickly enacted "zero tolerance" policies for many petty crime such as graffiti writing, subway jumping, and vagrancy... it has been critiqued by criminologists for the way in which it provides rhetorical justification for the harsh treatment of the homeless, poor people, petty lawbreakers, and, often enough, people of color... So-called "quality of life" policing quickly becomes a justification for police occupation of poor communities and harsh treatment of the people living in these neighborhoods.
The problem is, Snyder shows, is that graffiti doesn't just exist in poor neighborhoods. One of the main goals of writers is to "get up" where people can see their work: to achieve fame. Their main demographic is not just poor neighborhoods, and needs to be where the buffing (or painting over) isn't rapidly targetted by QofL police. Synder compared high graff concentration neighborhoods to high violent crime neighborhoods and found that there was no correlation. Basically, graffiti does not lead to violent crime:
the "broken windows" theory would predict that the highest concentrations of graffiti would occur in those areas with the highest crime rates, and that areas with low rates of violent crime, like downtown Manhattan, should be relatively graffiti free. However, nearly the opposite is true.

So Synder is academic, and thorough on the big issues. He's also got a great thesis: he really thinks that graff can be a starting point to a "real" career. Rather than leading kids to a life of crime, he thinks that graffiti artists should be recognized as future contributers to society. He developed a black book to help get to know artists (I just found it on flickr). He wrote a bunch of words on pages of a blank black book, and as he got to know writers, asked them to pick pages to fill in- Vandal, Respect, Family, etc. This was his way into the subculture- he was a grad student, not a writer- and by getting to know enough writers, he spent enough time with these guys to believe that they can/are/will be other things besides criminals- whether "petty" criminals- graffiti artists- or violent criminals like the theory predicts.

This isn't just another graff book (I've got lots of those). The pictures aren't very exciting, and it's not a history that makes you nostalgic. It's the study those of us who think too much and love street art have always wanted to write. And to read. You want to find this book. And read it thoroughly and carefully.