Lisa Kahane/powerHouse Books
Several years ago, my evenings were shaped by a clandestine ritual. After dinner had been eaten and the dishes washed, I would load a backpack with cans of fluorescent Krylon and bike to the areas of New York City that hum with activity during the day and grow languid or deserted at night: the Manhattan Bridge, the Gowanus Canal, the Chelsea gallery district. I was making graffiti that recontextualized the slogans and statistics of popular advertising campaigns (iPod or the Atkins Diet were two notorious ones then) and shoved them back in the face of consumers. I was producing other, different work, too–objects that fell under more accepted definitions of “art”–but nothing that felt as alive as a public hit. Ceding control over one’s audience was thrilling. Having an audience was thrilling.
I often thought about whether it would be possible to show graffiti work in a conventional art space, and I never hit on a solution. Putting graffiti in a gallery robs it of an environmental scale and implies that its appeal is aesthetic instead of social. The point holds for all street art: not only dogmatic public works, like Raymond Hains and Jacques Villegle’s décollage posters in early ’60s Paris, but also the graffiti done mostly for an audience of peers, like the work of the New York City “bombers” documented in the early ’80s films Wild Style and Style Wars. Each film catalogs the thrill of bombing in an era when, as the city’s social fabric was dissolving, the art of the underclass became most visible. Big Apple rappers were breaking nationally, break dancing was their physical rejoinder and “wild style” graffiti–blasting with color, armored with arrows and flourishes that made it illegible to untrained eyes–their visual analogue.
The lineage of graffiti, break dancing and hip-hop is largely traceable to one section of one borough: the desperately poor, arson-razed South Bronx of the ’70s and early ’80s, a locale documented by Lisa Kahane in her new book of photographs Do Not Give Way to Evil (powerHouse Books, $35). If Jamel Shabazz is the humanist photographer of the people from this era of pre-Bloomberg New York, Kahane has the same sensitivity for landscape. The South Bronx became known as the place where the family and consumer values of the ’50s met a violent end, one conveyed by Kahane’s image of smashed television sets amid a rubble-strewn field engulfing a boarded-up tenement building. As Kahane writes in a brief essay, arson became the best liquidation strategy for landlords sitting on worthless property. She notes that the Bronx averaged 12,000 fires a year in the ’70s–more than thirty every day–a phenomenon grimly captured by a photograph of a forlorn lot filled only by the junked roof of a house.
Despite this environment, or maybe because of it, the art made in the South Bronx during this era radiated with confidence and verve, maybe more so than any other art movement since. One graffiti writer in Wild Style says that the essence of the movement is, “Us out there doing art on the subways, making things look all beautiful, man.” Grandmaster Caz’s lyrics from “South Bronx Subway Rap,” on the great Wild Style soundtrack, mine the same vein: