The Age of Graffiti

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In Danbury, Connecticut, off Interstate 84, there is an overpass festooned with graffiti scribbles. They have been there for three decades. No one has thought to erase them and, as far as I can tell, no one has added to them.

The graffiti is of the basest kind. There is little attempt at artwork, design, or display. It is simply the names of yesterday’s rock-and-roll bands spray painted in black in adolescent calligraphy: the Who, Kiss, Commander Cody, Mountain.

I drive under this overpass at least once a week. This is the route to all the big-box stores, supermarkets, and a dozen places that sell cheap cell-phone plans. Exit 7 is not the autumn-leaf splashed Connecticut seen on calendars. It is where you go to load up on paper towels and laundry detergent.

Decades ago, when I first pondered these scrawled names, the graffiti made me mad: here was more ugliness defacing an already sad stretch of road.

As a self-appointed arbiter of taste, I was harsh in my judgment. I had learned this stance in the eight years I spent at various art schools, where students were required to know the difference between “good” art and “bad.” De Kooning was good, LeRoy Neiman was bad.

But my unquestioned certainty did not last long. In the blink of an eye, I went from a know-it-all to a know-nothing. Trends change quickly, but I had never expected to become so uncool so fast. It wasn’t so long ago that I knew every hit single, every dance step, the B side of every 45 record. Now, I draw a blank when someone mentions Ed Sheeran, the Chainsmokers, and Drake. I can’t tell you the name of a single song by Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus. Most weeks, I can’t identify the celebrity on the cover of People. And as for art, I don’t understand most gallery installations or why Jeff Koons’s gigantic balloon dogs are so great. It is that bad.

The first time I felt my edge slip was when graffiti was declared an art form by the critics. How was this possible? How could one look at the spew on the sides of New York subways and think it was anything but a crime?

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