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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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 fracturing the moral and legal pillars that have held it upright in the past. At the same time, we may hear and read proud and fervent assertions that New Yorkers are living in the Rome of our time, the contemporary center of human civilization. Cast in these equally familiar terms, New York City is the Big Apple, “the City That Never Sleeps,” and the Capital of the Twentieth Century—the global ground zero for fame, fortune, culture, and the cosmopolitan good life. Somewhere between these . . .

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