Graffiti explode in pandemic New York

Graffiti – part of New York history for over 50 years – flourishes during the coronavirus pandemic, a sign of decadence for some but vitality for others.

When it gets dark, graffiti artist Saynosleep takes a quick look around and then goes to work on a luxury store that closed after it was ransacked during protests against George Floyd’s death in June.

“When you’re not painting, I don’t know what you’re doing,” says the 40-year-old, adding an explanation. “There has never been a time like this.”

The facades of hundreds of stores that have closed because of the pandemic are “an invitation” to artists, says Marie Flageul, curator at New York’s Museum of Street Art (MoSA).

Walls, bridges, sidewalks, and subways, 34 of which have been painted since the beginning of the month, are canvases.

“It’s a big wave, a renaissance of graffiti,” enthuses Saynosleep, who uses a different pseudonym for his legal works of art.

Graffiti was first accepted by the art world in the 1980s when it moved to galleries.

Expressive street art then caught the public’s imagination in the 2000s as it shifted from illegal to legal spaces.

But since March, it’s the raw, illegal kind of graffiti that has spread in disorder.

“Everyone wants to express themselves,” says Saynosleep, who says he saw a woman in her sixties who drew graffiti. “People are bored. You need to do something. “

The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement following Floyd’s murder by a Minnesota police officer in May has accelerated the trend as protesters scribbled slogans and demands on buildings for racial justice.

Graffiti artist Saynosleep paints a door in New York City on December 15th. With the pandemic, graffiti is blooming like never before in New York. AFP

In a year when the socializing has practically stopped and the streets are no longer full of activity, graffiti artists say, “It feels like New York is dead and you don’t see us, but we’re still here,” says Flageul.

However, the creative impulses are not for everyone. Andrew Cuomo, New York State Governor, said the graffiti was “another sign of decline,” along with an increase in murders and shootings in New York City.

He indirectly accused Mayor Bill de Blasio of allegedly taking a negligent attitude towards it.

Critics were also upset that due to budget constraints, the city government suspended its graffiti removal program, which cleaned nearly 15,000 locations in 2019.

“I think it’s terrible,” said Darcy Weber, who recently settled in New York. “Some say it’s art, but did you get permission for it? No, so it’s vandalism. “

For some, graffiti is a reminder of the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, when New York was broke and crime was rampant.

“Right from the start of the shutdown, I was seen by the police and walked on several times,” says Saynosleep, without being arrested.

A New York Police Department spokesman told AFP that police are “fully aware of the importance of combating graffiti-related crimes” and said incidents were down 17 percent from the previous year.

Flageul, who is also the spokesperson for the 5Pointz graffiti collective, says it is “a bit clichéd” to say that more graffiti means New York is in decline.

Brooklyn President Eric Adams, who plans to become New York City Mayor next year, says tags sprayed on public and private property are “rapidly destroying our borough’s landscape.”

“It costs home and business owners hundreds of thousands of dollars and a tremendous effort to get rid of it,” he added, distinguishing between “vandalism” and “amazing street paintings”.

Ken Lovett, advisor to the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, noted that cleaning graffiti from trains is a waste of resources when the MTA is faced with “the worst financial crisis” in history.

Emile Fu from New Jersey says he isn’t too worried. “There are other things to worry about,” she told AFP.

Bryce Graham, who lives in the Chelsea neighborhood, said the graffiti would shock him anywhere like Ottawa, “where everything is super clean”.

“But here in New York it’s a damn good mix of clean and dirty,” he said.

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