Not all graffiti artists are hoodlums, declares Snyder (Sociology and Anthropology/Baruch Coll.).
Possibly the best thing about this ethnographic thesis on New York graffiti artists is that the author doesn’t pretend to be one of them. He exhaustively lays out his own background—Irish-Catholic kid in Green Bay, Wis.; ardent lover of punk rock and hip-hop in college; misfit graduate student at the New School in New York City—before getting much into those of the men he is writing about. (This is not, by and large, a woman’s world.) Snyder follows ethnographic discipline to a fault, explaining time and again what his methods of field research were and how he came into contact with the graffiti “writers” who spread their art over the walls, tunnels and store grates of New York. More suitable for a paper being presented to a degree review board than for a general-interest book, this approach doesn’t leave much room for his actual on-the-ground research, most of which was conducted in the late ’90s and is now out of date. There are some worthwhile passages amid the portentously deployed academese, however, particularly those on the writers’ actual working methods. Snyder may hammer home a few points with numbing repetitiveness, but the points are worth making. First, the connection between rap culture and graffiti is weaker than most people believe; many of the artists here identify more closely with punk than rap. Second, graffiti as an art form doesn’t necessarily have a direct link to criminality. The author points out that it’s frequently thicker in tourist areas like Soho than in poorer, less-trafficked locales, showing that for most writers having their work seen is more important than anything else. Snyder, who clearly became too close to his subjects to retain much objectivity, too breezily brushes aside citizens’ concerns about graffiti. Nonetheless, his book will prompt readers to look again at graffiti scrawls they may previously have ignored.
A few kernels of insight buried under layers of grad-student balderdash.