For the remainder of this internship, my group and I are focusing on one of the most modern pieces in the New York Historical Society’s collection: a “bathroom” door covered in graffiti. With the help of my fellow group members, I was able to decipher some of the tags on Jack Stewart’s graffiti door. Full time art teacher and part time photographer Jack Stewart captured what was known as “The Golden Age of Graffiti” (a time when entire trains were “bombed” and covered in graffiti) in ways no other photographer has. In fact, his dissertation culminated in the book, Graffiti Kings: New York City Mass Transit Art of the 1970s.
Graffiti artists generally meant no harm in their graffiti tags and usually “wrote” for either social expression or political protest”. One of New York City’s earliest known graffiti artists, Mico, supports this claim. “We didn’t call it graffiti in the early seventies. We would say “Let’s go writing tonight.” Graffiti is a term the New York Times coined, and it denigrates the art because it was invented by youth of color”. To that end, what graffiti artists saw as a form of social expression was instead blown to be defacement of property, with racist implications.
Jack Stewart believed that graffiti was the ancestor of all art. To that end, he became very passionate about the graffiti artists themselves, and their motives behind tagging. After Stewart was able to gain these graffiti artists’ trust, he invited “writers” to his studio where they would “discuss, critique, and embellish” their graffiti stories that Stewart recorded. Stewart’s wife notes that many of the graffiti artists were as “intense at the meetings as they were when they were actually tagging”, and soon “hit” everything in the Stewarts’ studio. They then came to an agreement: if the artists were to stop tagging every piece of furniture in Stewart’s studio, Stewart would donate his bathroom door to a museum collection.
This graffiti door reveals a lot about the pre-existing social and political conditions of the time. Though there are more than 190 tags on the door, many of them were illegible (Graffiti Kings has a list of all of the names in the back of the book). The different tools used to create these tags (from felt tip point pens to aerosol spray paint) reveal the progression of graffiti during this time period. The tags also progressed from mere line signature to faces. Tracy 168 (one of the more well-known graffiti artists–who has had pieces featured in our exhibit–real name Michael Tracy) and a tag by the name of “Jimmy Haha” are both featured multiple times on the door through multiple mediums and handwriting styles.
The absence of women on the door is a matter of concern. Though there are some androgynous names, the majority of the tags are of male origin. Graffiti Kings: New York City Mass Transit of the 1970s reveals that a fairly large number of the female names on the graffiti door were actually made by male writers. To that end, the absence of women and their struggle to find an identity and be accepted within this underworld reveals a lot of the pre-existing social conditions of the time. This is definitely something I intend on exploring more as I go along with my research.