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Vandal (Squad) Vendetta
March 20, 2009, 9:54 am
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Vandal Squad

Last night powerHouse Arena in DUMBO hosted a debate between veteran graffiti artists and NYPD officers who booked them decades earlier. The officers are members of the Vandal Squad, a department specializing in vandalism. Joseph Rivera, one of the officers, recently published “Vandal Squad: Inside the New York City Transit Police Department, 1984-2004”, which as its title suggests depicts graffiti from the perspective of New York’s Finest.

Graffiti, a remnant of hip hop, has been its own subculture since the ’60s. The “illegal” aspects are alluring to a lot of artists – the riskier the graf the more “up’s” or fame an artist gets. It was this concept of “permission” (or lack thereof that fueled the dialogue between the officer and artists.

The officers argued that artists are responsible for their own arrests because it’s graffiti’s illegal – and therefore scintillating – nature (“Mona sucks cock”) that drives writers. Without that element, graffiti would be reduced to the less glamorous canvas-and-color topics of other artists, like painters. They further argued that graffiti makes the public feel unsafe and with graf tags covering subway cars, damages public property. They don’t make the law, they just follow it (“We’re not art critics, we’re cops.”).

The artists countered that the lack of safety is a fabrication by manipulative politicians who unnecessarily criminalize graffiti artists, while artists who wheat paste and stencil are given lenience and the “real crooks” remain on the streets. Also graffiti creates cleaning jobs – to which the officers replied is the same as condoning crime for creating police jobs.

Activist Alan Ket argued that graffiti doesn’t hurt anyone and subway cars run regardless of the graffiti on them.

“Don’t give me that broken windows crap,” he said.

Although many books have already been written about graffiti by writers and graffiti artists alike, it was only a matter of time before a cop wrote one. Despite the book’s illustrious photos and text, “Vandal Squad” fails to mention “tactic” or incidences of police aggression, without which leaves a spotlessness that is uncharacteristic of graffiti’s sometimes dirty history – like the police brutality case involving a twenties graffiti artist named Michael Stewart, whose controversial arrest and death in 1983 raised serious questions about enforcement tactics used by the NYPD.

Rivera admitted that the book did omit cases of police aggression, which are an inevitable part of the graffiti scene, and that such “tactics” are confidential.

Moderator Stern Rockwell described how he previously witnessed artists being forced by police to chew marker tips.

In response to police brutality, Vandal Squad Lieutenant Ken Chiuli responded that people should file a civil complaint if they feel they’re being mistreated – to which the audience of roughly 80 laughed and scoffed.

However, graffiti legend COPE2 said that in his experience, Rivera has been a “gentleman” despite stories of other officers brutalizing artists.

Rockwell then asked the officers if graffiti has been “fun” for them.

Rivera responded that endangering himself and others to catch vandals is “not fun”, especially inside subway tunnels, where one officer accidentally burnt his boot on a third rail.

Nevertheless, like the subways themselves, graffiti inevitably becomes an interwoven fabric of the city whether the writers are seen as “artists” or “vandals”.

“[Graffiti is] an important part of New York City history, ” Ket said.