Because I participate in the continued gentrification of Brooklyn but am full of self-loathing about it, I take a peculiar satisfaction in the city refusing to heel to the behavioral standards of its newer, soft-skinned inhabitants. Put another way, when the city reminds us—in fucked-up ways big and small—that this is a complex urban metropolis and not a gilded playground, I’m kind of tickled by it. I ruffled some feathers last week when I wrote about quiet, so I’ll take it a step further and annoy people even more by saying this: Witnessing the occasional fight on the subway or hearing a stereo system blasting late a hot summer night, I find myself relaxing, knowing that no matter what, this city is gonna city. That this inherent messiness will creep up because it’s meant to. You don’t live in a city like New York for peace and quiet; you live here to be part of the frenetic energy that comes with too many people in too small a space, all chasing after something. This is what separates this magic place from, say, the equally magical Hudson, New York. Chaos is part of the equation.
So, it goes without saying that I appreciate a good graffiti tag. There’s something about a “defaced” construction wall or billboard or light post that fills me with a certain delight—not just because I appreciate the mess of it, but because each and every tag and un-commissioned piece of graffiti to me represents a part of New York that refuses to hide itself. That insists on making itself visible. Demands that you know who made it and notice them.
The first thing they did to “clean up” New York in the ’90s was to get rid of graffiti. Perhaps that’s why I appreciate and even root for it. New York graffiti culture has been about artistry, yes, but it’s also long been about rebellion—often against class and racial boundaries. When I think about subway graffiti of the ’70s and ’80s, I think about an era when Black and Latino populations were cast off to the under-resourced outskirts of a city with an almost “out of sight, out of mind” approach to urban planning. What better way to remind the world of your existence than to spray evidence of it all over the train cars that snaked into its center?
By the time I was a teenager, in the ’90s, graffiti tagging was not confined to any one racial group. Instead, it had become a giant middle finger to the “broken windows” policing of the Rudy Giuliani administration, which re-imagined the city not simply as “safe” but as appealing to a more monied class. More than ever, taggers were public enemies, slowing Giuliani’s progress. When artists like COST and REVs would team up to hit the side of a building or a bridge, it was about more than just growing their rep. It felt, when you spotted it, like a tiny victory. It was, in some ways, an active gesture of protest against a police-enforced gentrification push.
Which brings me to my current fascination, King Baby. I’m fascinated first, because that's just a great name, but second, because this artist seems to both defy and yet also reinforce every convention of tagging. King Baby is dominating Brooklyn right now. I’m not sure when exactly I first noticed that, but it coincided—like a lot of new graffiti—with the pandemic. A sticker here, spray paint on a construction partition there … A year later, and you simply cannot walk around the northern part of the borough without your eye resting, for even a moment, on a King Baby tag. Tags have always been alter egos or aliases for the graffiti artist. And while there is a long history of crews and gangs and artist alliances, the taggers themselves are often lone wolves. The risk and the glory, ultimately, falls to the individual. Writing is, after all, an isolating pastime. And so, while graffiti in this city has never died, it’s been a minute since a tagger has made themselves into a micro-celebrity in quite the way that King Baby has.
Except it’s unclear if King Baby is a single person at all. A simple Google search reveals that tag is equally ubiquitous in, and mysterious to, the residents of, Austin, Oakland, and Tucson, as well as Brooklyn. It doesn’t escape me that one thing these places share are complex experiences with gentrification. Someone on Twitter hypothesized that King Baby is an art-school type. Perhaps nothing takes the bite out of graffiti quite like imagining it as part of a large-scale student art project. But maybe, a national collective using a shared tag is exactly what graffiti needs at this moment. Issues of gentrification and displacement are hardly exclusive to New York. What I can tell you is this: The other day I rode the subway over the Manhattan Bridge onto the Bowery and saw a massive King Baby bubble tag on a billboard high over the streets of the city, and it put a smile on my face as I wondered, How the fuck did they get up there?
AN UPDATE: King Baby has made contact. Their work is being shown this Friday (Nov. 26th) at the 17 Frost Gallery in Williamsburg at 17 Frost Street. I shall have an audience with the King and report back.