Saturday, January 11, 2014

How to spot a vandal

When I was in college working at WSJU as the metal director, I received a CD from a metal band whose name on the cover was simply A.C.  The abbreviation referred not to Air Conditioning, but rather, "Anal Cunt." Nice, right? Sorry, probably should have warned you that was coming.

Naturally, one might wonder, 'Why would someone give their band a name that no one would EVER want to say out loud?' Why not call yourself "The Turds?" (Again, sorry)

I thought about this band last night when I saw on Instagram some of the reactions to the defacement of Swoon and Groundswell's magnificent mural on Houston and the Bowery. I spend a lot of time thinking about what differentiates street art and graffiti from simple vandalism, and while this is a very clear cut example of the latter, that's not what puzzles me in this particular instance.
The mural after it had been bombed
Rather, what intrigues me is the mindset of a vandal versus the mindset of an artist. I think the difference is that an artist does things for others, whereas a vandal does things only for themselves. The asshats who puked up sloppy looking throw-ups onto this mural aren't interested in engaging with anyone other than their own miniature clique, just as the fellas in A.C. weren't ever really interested in getting major air play on the radio.

Now to be fair, the A.C. guys weren't destroying someone elses' work (Ok, maybe someone's ears). [rimshot] But they were asserting by virtue of their name that they were perfectly happy to confine themselves to a subset of listeners whose sensibilities were unscathed by a most foul word pairing. They made music for themselves and those few folks, at least until 2011, when they apparently broke up.

Swoon's mural, which was a collaboration with Groundswell, was obviously targeted because it's a  high visibility location, and while the city was busy coping with a monster snow storm (which was then overshadowed by the Polar Vortex), the time was ripe to strike. Not only is it on a well-traveled street in Manhattan, it's illuminated by spotlights! So I get it. Who wouldn't want to stand in center stage?

There's no question the jerkoffs who did this did it to ruin it. There's nothing special or unique in their writing, and nothing about the placement of the throw ups suggests they cared a whit about what they were covering up. This was not an augmentation; they may as well have splashed buckets of acid onto it. So if the goal was simply to "get up," and appeal to their little clique, why not do it some other high visibility spot that wouldn't simultaneously wreck a piece of art for everyone? It's distressing to see that someone is so insecure in their own talents that they feel they have to destroy someone elses' work in order to get satisfaction.

On the flip side, as one commenter noted, "Illegal graff is how it started, lest we not forget. Swoon is a great talent, but the street has no heart and plays by no rule book." There is a nugget of truth here; part of what makes New Yorkers tough as nails is the fact that we're constantly trying to tear each other down, like something out of that Brad Pitt zombie movie:

When you put something out in the public, you take a huge risk that misanthropes will crawl out of the sewer and rip it to shreds, and street artists know this more than anyone. I suspect that's part of the reason why some of the best pieces I've ever seen have been in out of the way spots, safe from the likes of hacks.

Unfortunately, this also illustrates the one caveat to my thesis, which says that murals can be a deterrent to vandalism because there's a certain"honor among thieves," that writers adhere to when choosing where to do their graffiti. Where that seems to fall apart is when the writers don't care for the muralist (in this case Swoon is not strictly known as a graffiti artist, as she does a lot of paste-ups), when a location is just too good to pass up on, or when people just feel like being dicks. In this particular case, we got the whole trifecta.

Fortunately, there still are those out of the way spots where art can survive relatively unscathed. As chance would have it, I discovered another Swoon this past weekend during a run through a remote part of Red Hook.
A woman driving a mini van actually passed by me while I was taking this, stopped 20 or so feet away, and then backed up to see it. Not too surprising why. 

I also stumbled on this:

And this:

And finally, I feel what is most appropriate, considering the topic of vandalism:
I know, it's probably too much to ask the folks who went after the Bowery mural to devote more energies toward augmenting more ruins like this and less time destroying other's works. If only they could take a cue from the gentlemen in A.C. and simply stick to impressing their own little band of outsiders. Alas...