Taking the Train

Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City

JOE AUSTIN
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 400
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/aust11142
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  • Book Info
    Taking the Train
    Book Description:

    In the 1960s and early 1970s, young people in New York City radically altered the tradition of writing their initials on neighborhood walls. Influenced by the widespread use of famous names on billboards, in neon, in magazines, newspapers, and typographies from advertising and comics, city youth created a new form of expression built around elaborately designed names and initials displayed on public walls, vehicles, and subways. Critics called it "graffiti," but to the practitioners it was "writing."

    Taking the Train traces the history of "writing" in New York City against the backdrop of the struggle that developed between the city and the writers. Austin tracks the ways in which "writing" -- a small, seemingly insignificant act of youthful rebellion -- assumed crisis-level importance inside the bureaucracy and the public relations of New York City mayoral administrations and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for almost two decades. Taking the Train reveals why a global city short on funds made "wiping out graffiti" an expensive priority while other needs went unfunded. Although the city eventually took back the trains, Austin eloquently shows how and why the culture of "writing" survived to become an international art movement and a vital part of hip-hop culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53388-1
    Subjects: Art & Art History, History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. PROLOGUE
    (pp. 1-8)

    On the evening of July 3, 1976, three writers,² CAINE, MAD 103, and FLAME ONE, entered the No. 7 Flushing to Manhattan subway line storage yard in Queens. Climbing through a hole in the fence, they brought along a huge quantity of (stolen) spray paint in precisely selected colors, as well as sketches for the “Freedom Train” that they intended to paint. They decided on a train and, during the next several hours, worked in the dark to paint all eleven cars, top to bottom, in a coordinated bicentennial theme, anticipating the city’s elaborate Fourth of July celebration. The final...

  4. 1 A TALE OF TWO CITIES
    (pp. 9-37)

    At no time in the last century have resident New Yorkers or outside observers been unanimous in their opinion about the present state or the future of New York City. Predictions of impending civic collapse have a long history in this metropolis, fueled by scare stories with an ever-changing cast of urban villains—the “dangerous classes,” “the immigrant threat,” “welfare queens,” “wilding youths.” In the shared public drama of urban life, New York City is sometimes portrayed on the newspapers’ front pages and in editorials as a chaotic human hive, an unstable structure whose frantic inhabitants are at risk of...

  5. 2 TAKING THE TRAINS: THE FORMATION AND STRUCTURE OF “WRITING CULTURE” IN THE EARLY 1970s
    (pp. 38-74)

    The history of writing and the history of the “graffiti problem” are related but separable stories. The latter is the story of how New York City officials reacted to the former, and will be taken up in the next chapter. Here, I want to sketch out the way writing developed in New York City.

    Writing is a complex cultural practice that continues to evolve, and as such, it bears the marks of several originating influences. These influences form a web of historical and cultural connections, a tangled, rhizome-like network that works against establishing a clear, singular “root.” Despite these difficulties...

  6. 3 WRITING “GRAFFITI” IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE: THE CONSTRUCTION OF WRITING AS AN URBAN PROBLEM
    (pp. 75-106)

    The sometimes violent conflicts surrounding the sources and solutions to “urban problems” that mark U.S. history in the second half of the 1960s materialized in New York City during the mayoralty of John Lindsay. Lindsay was elected in 1966, after having served as the congressional representative for the Upper East Side (the “silk stocking district”) of Manhattan. The Republican Herald Tribune was a major contributor to his campaign, but more significantly, the newspaper extended its support in a less overt way through an influential series of articles published during the spring before the election. “The City in Crisis” series appeared...

  7. 4 REPAINTING THE TRAINS: THE NEW YORK SCHOOL OF THE 1970s
    (pp. 107-133)

    During the fall of 1973, the MTA initiated a project to rapidly repaint the entire subway fleet, almost 7,000 cars, at a cost of ten million public dollars. There is no record that the repainting strategy was planned or executed with the knowledge or advice of Lindsay’s Anti-Graffiti Task Force. In fact, it appears that the MTA chose the repainting strategy in place of repairing the fencing around the storage yards, which the task force had recommended.¹ As a public authority accountable to the New York State Legislature, the MTA is under no compulsion to play fair with the New...

  8. 5 THE STATE OF THE SUBWAYS: THE TRANSIT CRISIS, THE AESTHETICS OF FEAR, AND THE SECOND “WAR ON GRAFFITI”
    (pp. 134-166)

    The MTA’s capital improvement projects are funded through the sale of bonds. Like New York City’s government, the MTA by the late 1970s had for some time been routinely dipping into capital improvement funds to cover deficits in its yearly operating budget.¹ This sort of “creative accounting” was part of a much longer history of underfunding both day-to-day subway operations and capital improvements. Without funding, the system had not been adequately maintained, rebuilt, or extended since the independent commercial systems were unified as a public authority two decades before.² Given this history, it remains an open question as to whether...

  9. 6 WRITING HISTORIES
    (pp. 167-206)

    There has been no historical moment of unqualified success for writers in New York City, but neither has there been any historical moment of writing’s decided defeat. As with rock and roll’s recurring themes of struggle and redemption (“long live rock and roll,” “rock and roll will never die,” etc.), writers see themselves as part of a meaningful alternative community and an enduring cultural tradition. This chapter attempts to present a multifaceted picture of that community as it existed from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s through four (partial) reflections. The first takes up the story of writing culture and...

  10. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  11. 7 RETAKING THE TRAINS
    (pp. 207-226)

    Two new significant (and costly) strategic efforts against writing on the subways were undertaken by the Transit Authority (TA) in the early 1980s, at about the same time as Koch’s “war”: a fleetwide repainting program and the construction of new security fences around every train storage yard. The fleetwide repainting began in July 1980. The outside of the trains would be coated with a paint-resistant polyurethane that would allow writing to be removed more easily. This was an expensive and long-term project, estimated to take five to six years to complete. The inside of the cars would be repainted with...

  12. 8 THE WALLS AND THE WORLD: WRITING CULTURE, 1982–1990
    (pp. 227-266)

    Four dramatic and interrelated developments restructured writing culture between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s. The first of these reflect two different strategies by which writers responded to the Transit Authority’s successful tactics in the “war” on the subways after 1984. Both involved a return to the city’s walls as a medium of mass circulation. By the late 1980s, writers were more or less split into two overlapping communities of practice: one based on the production of masterpieces in areas of the city that are not under tight surveillance, and a second based on bombing the most visible of shared...

  13. CONCLUSION: A SPOT ON THE WALL
    (pp. 267-272)

    In 1985 Michael Stewart, a teenage graffiti artist was beaten to death by the cops on a Manhattan subway platform. The cops said he was copping a tag and resisting arrest. . . . I was twelve years old when I saw this on TV. Back then I didn’t really think of it as an attack on Hip Hop. But at twenty four years of age, I now know this: loud music, sheepskins, eightball jackets, door-knocker earrings, and suede Pumas seem to be consistent police evidence, even when they arrest white kids jockeying our shit. Do you recall what music...

  14. APPENDIX: SOURCES FROM WRITERS ON THE HISTORY OF WRITING
    (pp. 273-274)
  15. NOTES
    (pp. 275-340)
  16. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 341-344)
  17. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 345-348)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 349-356)