Graffiti explodes in New York during pandemic

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New York (AFP)

Graffiti – which has been part of New York City history for over 50 years – is booming during the coronavirus pandemic, a sign of decay for some, but vitality for others.

As night falls, graffiti artist Saynosleep takes a quick look around and then gets to work in a luxury store that has been closed since it was looted in June during the protests against the death of George Floyd.

“If you’re not painting right now, I don’t know what you are doing,” the 40-year-old said, adding a curse. “There has never been a moment like this. ”

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

The walls, bridges, sidewalks and metro cars – 34 of which have been painted since the start of the month – are canvases.

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

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

Expressive street art then captured the imagination of the general public in the 2000s when it moved from illegal to legal spaces.

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

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

The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement after Floyd was murdered at the hands of a Minnesota police officer in May accelerated the trend, with protesters scribbling racial justice slogans and building demands.

– ‘Vandalism’ –

In a year when socialization has all but ceased and the streets are bustling with activity, graffiti is how artists say, “It feels like New York is dead and you don’t see us but we are. always there, ”says Flageul.

Creative impulses are not to everyone’s liking, however. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo said graffiti was “another sign of degradation,” as well as an increase in murders and shootings in New York City.

He indirectly accused Mayor Bill de Blasio of allegedly taking a lax attitude towards him.

Critics were also angry that the city government, due to budget constraints, ended its graffiti removal program that cleared nearly 15,000 sites in 2019.

“I think it’s horrible,” said Darcy Weber, who recently moved to New York. “Some say it’s art, but did they get permission? No, so it’s vandalism.

For some, the graffiti reminds them of the dark days of the 70s and 80s, when New York was broke and crime was rampant.

“Since the start of the closure, I have been seen by the police and have continued, several times,” without being arrested, says Saynosleep.

A spokesperson for the New York Police Department told AFP the force was “fully aware of the importance of tackling graffiti-related crime,” and said those incidents were down 17% compared to last year.

Flageul, who is also a spokesperson for graffiti collective 5Pointz, says it’s “a bit of a cliché” to say that more graffiti means New York is on the decline.

Brooklyn President Eric Adams, who wants to become mayor of New York next year, says spray-painted labels on public and private property are “rapidly destroying the landscape of our borough.”

“It is costing home and business owners hundreds of thousands of dollars and enormous efforts to erase them,” he added, distinguishing between “vandalism” and “stunning street murals. “.

Ken Lovett, advisor to the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, noted that cleaning up graffiti from trains wastes resources when the MTA faces “the worst financial crisis” in its history.

New Jersey resident Emile Fu says he’s not too bothered. “There are other things to fear,” she told AFP.

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

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

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