With graffiti, breaking the monotonous grayness of urban life is also, most times, breaking the law. Some languages even have two distinct terms for street art. In Portuguese, for example, “graffiti” is used for legal, artistic, and what tends to be seen as more valid pieces; the second term “pixação,” derived from the Latin pissare, to piss, is used for the widely illegible, signature-like tags. Basically, art and “pissings” compete for space on the streets of São Paulo.
The English language instead groups these distinct modalities of expression into one umbrella term---graffiti. Perhaps for the best, though---graffiti is graffiti, and it is a valid form of art, whether it is Banksy,“Os Gêmeos,” or a typical street tag.
Luckily, you don't have to head over to a museum to see some awesome graffiti---you can find it right outside your door. We've gathered some of the most notable pieces of graffiti on the Upper West Side, including murals, tags, and a surprising amount of stickers that you can see yourself on a walk through the neighborhood.
A smiling newspaper dispenser seen on 86th Street and Amsterdam.
A mural based on the poem “Revolutionary Petunia” by Alice Walker on 92nd Street and Broadway.
The famous Banksy "Hammer Boy," now protected by a glass case, on 79th street between Broadway and Amsterdam.
The prevalence of stickers can be explained by the difficulty of using a spray can in a heavily monitored neighborhood, as well as the ease of mass-producing and distributing pieces. It takes just a few seconds for budding artists or desperate advertisers to slap a sticker onto the nearest surface.
The artist uses post office stickers as a medium, as seen on Amsterdam and 91st Street.
Three BNE stickers, widely spread across the Upper West Side, share space on a mailbox on Riverside Drive. It's a different kind of tagging that shows how the artist’s name becomes the art form itself.
Found on Amsterdam and 84th Street.
Possibly made by BNE as well? Seen on 85th Street and Amsterdam.
We all engage with graffiti in some way or another---it is completely incorporated into our daily lives, and it certainly has a polarizing effect. Graffiti has the power to re-claim public spaces or trample over private property. Graffiti can make ignored and unused urban spaces beautiful and personalized, but it can also piss all over a well-kept building. It all depends on how you look at it.
An example of graffiti tagging on the Chinese Palace Restaurant on La Salle and Amsterdam.
The mural “Freedom” in front of a community center on Amsterdam and 94th Street.
Historically, the art form has always adapted to new environments and societies---the pieces themselves are not meant to last indefinitely but to fade or be erased as the city changes around them. We'll just have to wait and see how graffiti evolves in the decades to come.