After Condemnation and Cooptation: New York Graffiti in Times of Pandemic

Curator's Note

“It‘s selfish, it’s vandalism!” this was former NYC Transit Authority President Andy Byford’s simple verdict with regard to a whole train that was painted shortly before the coronavirus hit New York City in March of last year.1 From the perspective of the MTA official this interpretation appears to be reasonable, and yet it somehow seems oddly anachronistic and reminiscent of former Mayor Giuliani’s Anti-Graffiti Task Force of the mid-90s.

The city has long taken up on the touristic appeal graffiti has to offer, which in its contemporary form emerged in Harlem and the Bronx, where it was first created by people of color youth in the 1970s.2 Due to the pandemic, however, fewer tourists came to do walking tours through artsy neighborhoods, to gaze at large-scale murals, or buy artwork in hip galleries of New York.

Yet, the boarded-up storefronts that came with the pandemic offered a city-wide canvas to writers. And the writers have taken up on that invitation willingly.3 This resurfacing of large-scale bombing around the city can thus be seen as a coming back to its roots. Roots that started to grow in the dark times of Reaganomics and the crack epidemic.

In this context, graffiti should be understood not as mere vandalism but as a way to inscribe oneself into the urban space one lives in or as a “practice[…] of resistance” (Hou 117).4 Graffiti thus fulfills the important function of creative expression. Especially in the last year, which was a very uncertain time with regard to health but also economically, the art form presented a creative means of take control over one’s environment. A practice which seems to be particularly necessary in times when control over other parts of our lives slips out of our hands.



The CBS report on the whole train including NYC Transit Authority President Andy Byford’s statement is available online at:

2 For a detailed history of Graffiti in NYC from a first-hand perspective see Eric Felisbret’s Graffiti New York (2009).

3 See David Gonzalez’ New York Times article “Graffiti is Back in Virus-Worn New York” from July 8, 2020.

4 Hou, Jeffrey. ““Guerilla Urbanism: Urban Design and the Practices of Resistance.” Urban Design International. Vol. 25. Springer Nature, 2020. 117-125. 

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