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Running out of time: Documenting the life histories of Old School Graffiti Writers

Although graffiti, has existed for centuries, modern graffiti did not really start until the 1960s. Despite a nascent graffiti scene in Philadelphia, many argue that the NYC writers (1966-1985) were the originators of modern day graffiti (characterized by bubble lettering, wildstyle, bombing, and subway trains with full cars bearing graffiti lettering, images and motifs).

In the late 1960s, the Old School Graffiti Writers started tagging, piecing, and bombing above ground in the Bronx. Later they turned their efforts underground, throughout the NYC subway system. And when the Metropolitan Transit Authority cracked down on their activities, they innovated, chose new targets above ground throughout the five boroughs of NYC.

Their work and subculture was emulated and built upon by others in many big cities, not just in the United States, but elsewhere (e.g., Paris, London, Athens, etc.). Almost every large urban center throughout the world now has a group of young writers (and street artists), who engage in this mostly clandestine activity.

A few years ago, when my wife and I were living in New York City, I attended a couple of gallery openings in the Lower East Side that featured the work of “old school” New York City graffiti writers.

At the time I was completing my Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art, and was hoping to meet some of the writers at these events.

In general, these gallery openings were upbeat events. I witnessed writers, most of them in their sixties and seventies, reuniting, conversing, and generally having a good time. But for me, it was also a little sad.

Many of the artists I saw were struggling with the effects of aging. By speaking to a handful of them and eavesdropping on the conversations of others, I overheard not only stories about the good old days, but also how many of their friends and acquaintances were deceased, behind bars, or unable to attend. Some for work or family obligations, but others due to mobility issues and the wear and tear of getting old. This is an influential generation that is slowly disappearing.

The individuals and work of the Old School Writers has been documented in articles and books and through interviews and photographs. This information has appeared in both popular and academic venues. Some of this content has even been featured in documentaries, podcasts, and television news shows. In some cases, old school writers are very well-known –respected celebrities in the art world, or considered to be infamous subterranean urban outlaws.

Whereas some of the Old School Writers successfully made the transition to gallery artists, or into other careers where they used their creative talents, others melded away into public obscurity. In other words, not all of them had the same life trajectory. In general we know who they were and what they did. But we don’t know what they’ve done and where they are.

If we look at these individuals as a distinct urban subculture, we can recognize that selective information has been made publicly available about them. What we lack is an in-depth picture of the group as a whole.

Many of the writers have passed away. Others are now senior citizens. The next few years might be the last time to perform a rigorous and comprehensive oral or life history analysis of these individuals before it’s too late.

As the scholarly field that examines graffiti and street art evolves, it’s important to comprehensively understand its history. We see this in the field of archeology, where a subgroup of researchers are studying what has been dubbed ‘ancient graffiti.’ It is incumbent on researchers of contemporary graffiti (and street art) to do the same. Why? Because the origin of the Old School Writers is often shrouded in mythology and misconceptions, especially surrounding their growth and activities.

Unpacking and pulling back the veil is important, not only for the scholarly field of graffiti, but also to challenge and lay these misconceptions to rest, and have a better picture how their life circumstances affected their ability to do their creative work.

The available information about these individuals is scattered across different venues. Most celebrates or romanticizes their work (or demonizes them). Less of it digs deeper into the Old School Writer’s lives, and practically none seeks to understand their childhood, late teenage years, and how these writers adapted to the responsibilities of adulthood. And for these reasons alone it’s time to do a larger more comprehensive study.

Photo Credit Heavily tagged New York City Subway car in 1973
Erik Calonius

Sound Check? Music, Noise, and Street Culture

It’s Spring again. After a long hard year with COVID-19 bearing down on us, the roll out and adoption of vaccines to address this global health crisis, and the shadow of the wreckage left behind by former President Trump, an increasing number of city dwellers are emerging from their residences and on to the streets of our big cities.

Meanwhile, the whir of traffic is picking up, as more people are returning to their jobs, businesses once shuttered are opening or increasing their activity, and more individuals are working and playing outdoors. Very soon, all types of sounds and noise in urban public spaces and resident’s desire and need for peace and quiet will come into conflict.

Not all sounds in urban environments are noise and not all noise is equal in their effect on the surrounding neighborhood. Issues of volume, duration, and disturbance are considerations in the relationship between people and organizations who create noise and those who respond to it. More immediate, however, is whether noise and sound is relatively fixed or transitory and our reactions to this disturbance.

On the one end of the spectrum there are situations where the noise is fixed. If, for example, you move to or live in a residence or area, near or beside the L, train tracks, or an airport then you should expect to hear noise. Subways, trains and airplanes, more specifically the paths they take are pretty much fixed. Yes, the entities that build and run these means of transportation can install noise dampening mechanisms, but sooner or later you are going to hear the noise that these mobility solutions produce. Similar arguments are present if you move to or live close to a music venue, record store, or garage.

On the other end of the spectrum, is what might be described as temporary or transitory sound. Here the noise comes and goes dependent on the time of day, season, and activity. This includes the amateur musician who busks on the street corner, the group of friends who meet in the park for a picnic and bring their boom box along, the work crew using jackhammers to break through the pavement, the landscapers who use leaf blowers at the end of the job, and the young man who drives his muscle car through the neighborhood, widows open, with his car stereo with subwoofers blaring music.

In the case of fixed noise, there is little that residents can do to improve the situation (i.e., minimize the noise). Yes they can convince local authorities to change flight paths, have the subways run less often at night, if they don’t do that already, etc. But in general what you see is what you get. With respect to the transitory noise, the saving grace is that very soon the individual/s who produce the sounds, will move to a different location, and hopefully you can go about your business with a minimum of disturbance.

That being said, there are anomalies in the fixed and transitory spectrum and they are difficult to specify an appropriate reaction to. For years now, in parts of Williamsburg (Brooklyn), groups mostly composed of young men of Dominican Republic and Puerto Rican origin, bring large speakers to the sidewalk and play music loudly. Beyond the neighborhood barber shops, crowded bodegas, and street fairs, these sidewalk scenes are important activities because they allow these individuals an opportunity to interact with similar people, share stories, and stave off the alienation of city life, dead end jobs, a society that often seems much too cruel, and build community.

Similarly in Washington, DC, dating back a handful of years, on the corner of 7th and Florida Ave. NW, in the Shaw district, Central Communications, a cell phone store has set up powerful speakers outside, that blasts Go-go music, starting early in the morning and lasting until late at night. The music can be heard for blocks away.

It was not until 2019, that some residents, mostly those who recently moved to the gentrifying neighborhood, complained to the parent company and local politicians, and this information made its way to the local news media. Soon thereafter activists, and others holding on to romantic notions of what Shaw used to be like, complained how the gentrifiers were destroying their neighborhood, how they were racist, and insensitive to local history, culture, and social class, because they were complaining not only about a black owned business, but an African-American cultural art form (Go-go) that had its origins in the streets of DC. Muriel Bowser, the mayor, and a handful of DC politicians sided with the activists. There is no question that gentrification is displacing local culture, and there are people who are hurt by these developments.

Both the Williamsburg and Shaw examples are cases where the noise is both fixed and transitory and they require more complex understandings of these kinds of situations and responses to them.

On the one hand, people considering moving to these neighborhoods should not be surprised, by the proximate noise. Thus, we can say too bad, you should have done your due diligence, and if you don’t like it, maybe you should find a different neighborhood to live in?

On the other hand, we also know that neighborhoods change, people get older, and just because newcomers may have difficulties with the noise, trash, street crime, graffiti, or all manner of urban incivilities, does not mean the residents who lived there before the influx of the gentrifiers, didn’t also have problems with the noise, etc., Their complaints may not have been taken seriously, or they may have felt powerless to complain. Therefore their relative silence cannot be interpreted as acceptance of the noise or music. We just don’t know.

It is in these situations, that we find the essence of street culture butting heads with norms, values, and orientations. They are also times when arguments, some evidenced-based and others spurious get made. Likewise some of statements and interpretations are quickly believed, while others are summarily dismissed. Regardless of those arguments that have the most salience, we must recognize that culture and space and the things like noise and music change. We need to be constantly on guard for simplistic arguments when this happens.

Photo Credit: Susan Sermoneta
Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Small colleges and universities need to embrace academic research, scholarship, and creative activities produced by their faculty

Over the past decade, many universities and colleges in the United States and elsewhere have had to confront drastic budget cuts. Declining enrollments, stiff competition among institutions of higher education, financial mismanagement, changes in the way instruction is delivered (i.e., online education), and now the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a decrease in revenue and funding. The resulting tight budgets are forcing most universities and colleges to rethink their priorities, reallocate spending, and reexamine their mission statements and strategic plans.

All this is happening in the context of rules and regulations advanced by accrediting organizations, like Middle States. Most university-accrediting organizations require institutions of higher education to include language about the importance of doing and supporting faculty research, scholarship, or creative activities (hereafter called “research”) for their college or university in their mission statements.

Although Research 1 (R1) universities embrace this aspect of their mission, so-called teaching universities and colleges often struggle to accomplish this component of their organization. These institutions of higher education often find it difficult to make good on the promise of encouraging (including funding, promoting, etc.) faculty research. Just because a university is struggling to fulfill its other goals does not mean that faculty research should be ignored, jettisoned, or merely paid lip service to.

This situation begs a handful of important questions. Most important are: Why should faculty at small colleges and universities conduct research? Why is it so difficult to conduct research at these institutions of higher education? And how can we remedy this state of affairs?

Why should small colleges and universities care about research?

There are six major reasons for this.

First, the more we require professors to simply teach and engage in service the greater the likelihood that four year colleges and universities will resemble community colleges. Not just from a branding perspective, but from a moral perspective this is a bad approach to take.

Second, research keeps instructors and professors engaged and current with their subject matter. Thus, all things being equal, research will enable them to bring their knowledge and the enthusiasm they have experienced to the classroom. This engagement should produce excitement, which will hold students’ attention and help them to engage with their studies.

Third, faculty research forces some instructors to make connections with people in the local or wider community. If done properly, research can also enable internships and job opportunities for their students.

Fourth, many professors genuinely want to do research. If they are frustrated in doing so by organizational policies, practices and norms, they may become disgruntled and less enthused about teaching, and some will eventually leave the colleges and universities where they are employed. In turn, this may lower overall morale, disrupt stability in academic offerings/programs, and demand more from administrators, staff and faculty who will have to fill in to teach (with little subject knowledge) preexisting curricular commitments. It may also frustrate students, because an institution might not be able to find appropriate faculty or adjuncts who can teach the classes (or teach them well), and faculty and administrators will once again have to return to the thankless task of vetting new hires.

Fifth, as it grows more difficult for professors to get jobs because these positions are drying up, smaller colleges and universities will have a more difficult time competing with larger academic institutions for talent. Many individuals who are looking for professor positions are skilled, and they will want to work at a place that allows them to do research. Also, because of the overall reduction in available professor positions, small universities will inevitably end up hiring faculty that want research university jobs and have more training in research than in teaching. Most likely, these professors will try to leave these positions as soon as they can, if they are not given appropriate opportunities to engage in research. Thus it will be more costly for universities to keep having to hire people who will only stay for short periods of time.

Finally, faculty research is important to the branding of a university. If professors are pushing their discipline forward, especially if it is relevant to today’s important conversations, they or their research may be mentioned in local, state, regional, and national news media. This almost invariably draws positive attention to the university.

Why is it so difficult to conduct research at small colleges and universities?

There are some pretty obvious reasons why it is hard for faculty at small colleges and universities to conduct research. In general, limited opportunities, organizational cultures, teaching and service demands, and a failure to appropriately award professors for pursuing research, and occasionally penalizing them for such projects are frequent hurdles.

To begin with, frequently there is a perception that if the research does not generate revenue, then it is not important for faculty to do unfunded research. Although overhead derived from research grant revenues is nice, not all universities have professors in their ranks who can prevail in these highly competitive situations. Nor are all educational institutions organized in such a way to manage this kind of revenue stream and burden of accountability. In particular, if a college does not have a Ph.D. program, it is often more difficult to secure grants from funding targets, but a professor can still work with local agencies, foundations, non-profits, fellowship programs, etc. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the universities should throw in the towel on encouraging unfunded research.

Additionally, senior administrators above the rank of department chair and deans, often do not really appreciate either the different types of research or the role of these projects in the development of faculty, programs, and the university at large. They often fail to recognize the pecking order among different types of scholarly inquiry and the benefits thereof.

Moreover, the administration, and sometimes faculty too, often see scholarship conducted by faculty as a necessary evil until they reach tenured status. Many professors never move past associate professor status to full professor because after they secure associate professorship, they rarely do much scholarly research. The reasons for this are varied, but include the facts that moving up in rank is hard, competing obligations (e.g., growing families), and that faculty members are rarely rewarded beyond personal satisfaction for this contribution. Even worse, research is frequently perceived by some administrators as an eclectic hobby or a zero-sum game that professors engage in as a distraction from their “real” duties as teachers.

And why would some administrators believe that faculty research at small colleges and universities is questionable? They may not be sufficiently familiar with the policies and procedures (and criteria) for university faculty appointments, tenure and promotion decisions, which outline research requirements. More importantly they may not see the importance of research for the overall mission of the university and the morale of the faculty.

One of the biggest reasons why faculty research has been undermined is the publication of the book Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (Boyer et al., 1990) and its follow-up treatise Scholarship Assessed: Evaluation of the Professoriate (Glassick et al., 1997). These books gave senior administrators and many faculty members the intellectual cover to consider almost anything they did in pursuit of their job, like revising their courses or serving on a community panel, as “scholarship.” The message was clear. Have you been struggling to get your poorly thought-out treatise focusing on a narrow interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet published? Don’t sweat it anymore. Remember that interview you did with that obscure student-run newsletter earlier in the year? That’s sufficient. Although useful in its own right (perhaps improving the relationship between town and gown), writing a paper and presenting it at a local conference is technically not scholarship. Getting a paper that has been subjected to a blind peer-review process published in a respected scholarly journal functions at a totally different level. It exposes one’s work to external assessment based on rigor and merit, but in so doing, one’s effort may be found wanting.

How can we remedy this state of affairs?

Unfortunately, when faced with addressing this issue of encouraging faculty research, many administrators at small colleges and universities typically take half measures.

For example, they may form a committee (or two) to examine or provide input and recommendations on research-related matters at the college or university. They sometimes put a senior faculty member or administrator in charge, although neither the faculty member nor the senior administrator may be doing any research or know much about this activity. This committee is often perceived as yet one more thankless task by those involved. A professor may not compensated beyond what they typically earn. The members of the committee do not see the work as serious, and predictably, they put little effort into it. Maybe a survey is conducted and a report is written. It may even be distributed widely to the university community for comment, or as a fait accompli. And then what happens? Nothing. There is no implementation of what the institution of higher education needs in terms of improving the amount and quality of research, the research climate of the institution, or what the faculty would find satisfying in terms of an appropriate stance towards research.

Professors who are skilled and respected researchers should be placed in positions of authority to manage and lead the research agenda of universities. Some institutions of higher learning have a strategic plan concerning faculty research. Thoughtfully conceived, these documents are discussed in a variety of forums and then shelved. No explanation or follow-up ensues.

Faculty who do research should be recognized on a regular basis for the research that they conduct. This awarding of research should not proceed in a haphazard fashion. It must be well thought out. Otherwise, it will be perceived as insincere and another example of the university simply going through the motions. Awards can also be in the form of research grants to faculty. Just like they do with external granting agencies, faculty need to submit proposals, and they should be evaluated after their completion.

Professors should also be strongly encouraged (and probably rewarded at some level) for maintaining academia.edu, researchgate.com and Google Scholar accounts. In the case of the latter, the account should be public. And if faculty members do not know how to set up these accounts, then a skilled person should assist them in doing so.

There should be ways to make faculty lives easier. This can be achieved by carefully scrutinizing their workloads and looking for ways to avoid duplication.

Sabbaticals should not be granted to candidates based on time in grade, but only to those who proposes to do research, scholarship, or creative activities that will result in a publicly accessible work product. Furthermore, time in grade should not be involved in the granting of sabbaticals.

Distinguished research professorships should also be encouraged. Faculty with strong research agendas should be granted this title and proved with sufficient financial resources to conduct research. Again, the responsibility for tracking down the funding for these career related vehicles should not be the professor’s sole responsibility, but the burden should be placed on the university administration.

Finally, hiring a provost of research who is a change agent and cheerleader, and not someone who simply manages or processes paperwork, is needed in these critical times. Appoint a faculty member as an administrator for research (perhaps under that provost for research) to help faculty with applications, etc. This person should coordinate faculty from different colleges to work on grant proposals and to go out into the community to actively look for research funding.

Research should be properly acknowledged as part of a faculty member’s workload. It should not be an afterthought, added on top of all of the other duties. Service and teaching duties can be reduced. Tenure-track faculty in particular could get a course release to help start a program of research.

You have to reward what you want faculty to do or it will not happen. Celebrate the accomplishments of faculty who conduct research, and then hopefully others will want to do research to get noticed as well. If you just make research another burden on top of teaching and service, you will cause faculty burnout, and universities with unions will correctly resist.

Encourage applications for fellowships and foundations, in addition to other smaller external outlets, local agencies and businesses, etc. Again, this should not just be lip service, but should involve financial incentives or release time. In addition to the incentives, the university should advertise all faculty research projects and highlight the work that faculty do.

Conclusion

Colleges and universities need to do strategic planning, not just in general, but in terms of research. This rarely exists, not even on paper. Now is the time to take this matter seriously, so that small colleges and universities will stop going through the same old motions and repeating the same mistakes.

Photo Credit Thomas Haynie
Research