Streets of San Francisco: In praise of the old, the new, and the terribly offensive
Editor's note: An earlier edition of this manifesto was scrawled onto the walls of an abandoned underground Muni tunnel somewhere in the Sunset District.
STREETS ISSUE The magic of the word — VANDALISM — is terribly offensive. Vandalism offends all the right people and launches an offensive against all the wrong people. Wait, vandalism converts our doublemoralspeak to honesty. Vandalism affirms a number of precarious values: freedom, justice, the art of unmediated living, etc.
Vandalism is not just a word. It's a gaseous engine powering subversion, all saturated in viscous honey. A lifestyle set on boundless hope. A toy monkey you can buy on Haight Street. A self-imagined adventure ride in your Disneyland theme city of choice. A movement determined to strategically undermine deceptive imagery in favor of immediate experience — the sort of primitive amoebic goo that inspires the gorgeous muck of truthfulness. Vandalism lives in dirt and filth — the only organic material left unadulterated.
Vandalism has a healthy diet: iIt devours the monopoly on spectacle and excretes into the vast wastelands of intergalactic oil spills. Vandalism likes thrills: It's a hyperdérive on the brink of the familiar, gathering as much intensity as possible before fluxing the rules of the game into a vortex of momentous vision. Vandalism wants to hold your hand. Vandalism is so charged that you might already feel an electric rage surging forth while reading this. If you don't, you will. Does it burn and singe and bend and twist into the antennae of your fingertips? Channel that rage into acts of vandalism.
Vandalism is an awfully new phenomenon. It takes up arms all over the world: in big cities like New York and London, and in not-so-famous towns like Bakersfield and Danville. Well, maybe not Danville. Just wait, Danville.
Vandalism is an awfully old phenomenon. You can see nature desecrated, I mean subliminally mysticized, in the caves of Lascaux. Since we no longer live in pure nature but in concrete labyrinths built on top of iron cage islands, we must bring the caves of Lascaux and beaches of Eden and tornados of Jupiter to bear on today's jungle city. We must subliminally mysticize the streets. Cue air horn.
Vandalism is so important that there are white wall guardians who repress it with nervous glances and waving arms. Byzantine policies regulate it. Laws have been established to punish transgressors. Yet vandalism doesn't go away. Too many dreams fuel it. Too many imaginations keep it vital. Word on the street is that Werner Herzog is making a movie about it.
Vandalism doesn't insist on art. It doesn't get involved in arguments about whether something is or isn't art. That conversation is terribly boring. Have you been to a modern museum lately? Didn't you get the joke? OK, I admit, that conversation is irresistible. Here's a clarification: Vandalism is an art form even if the graffiti itself is not artistic — a shrouded word meaning ultimately, technically savvy, or educated and properly executed. To this, I summon the ghost of a severe-faced vandal, Norman Mailer: Art is not peace but war! And war ain't always pretty, or concerned with legality, soljah.
Vandalism would prefer to mark its ephemeral existence on the city skin, gushing down the fermented joys of unsanctioned life, mummifying itself in the cold caverns of a culture mausoleum. It would prefer to make you smile and laugh and wonder mercilessly to what happens in galleries: first confusion, then self-consciousness, and finally, the lingering pain of feeling slightly cheated. (Confession: I kinda stole that from Banksy. VANDALIZED!) No, vandalism doesn't demand legitimacy in order to die in a sea of sterilized artifacts — all rotten fish skins and busted gall bladders in excessive frames. Museums sanctify the past. Vandalism prophesies the present.
History lesson: Street kids baptized vandalism in the slums, reconfiguring our country's criminal policies of benign neglect into an acrobatic dance. They spun windmills into the future and set their gaze on the heavens. Among buildings reduced to rubble — a bombed out third world — they flipped the script and defined vandalism as bombing. The kids crucified monotony and sacrificed the crushing industrial rhythm of authority. They called themselves writers and painted their neon-tinted altar egos onto the shining armor of the behemoth subway trains and all over the walls. The names projected a faith in identity among the noise of polluted prayers.
Writers became pseudonymous in an abysmal well of city hustlers trying to make a legacy for themselves — billboard important and newsworthy. Writers preferred this life, fleeting and necessary and beautiful in the quixotic eternity of the now. The indifferent had no choice but to reckon with the writers.
Over 40 years strong, the writers still scour the marrow of their bones to re-enchant the lifeblood of the city. They craft enigmas out of the geometric lines and curves of the alphabet, making ferocious animals out of huge letters, feral and gunning in the jungle. The animals promulgate like bacteria, spawning writers-turned-shamans who cast spells of cryptic iconography wherever they go. Mummies, giraffes, and spaceships populate the jungle. An aura of prophecy emerges in the streets.
Writers wage war against the ubiquitous icons of worship mounted across the empire: those branded images manufacturing a spectacle of insurmountable desire and Sisyphean frustration. The marketers might have the money to buy permission to assault your eyes and make you feel bad about yourself; writers have the courage to forgo bureaucratic approval, stake claim on what rightfully belongs to all of us and conjure up a moveable feast. We believe in innocent pleasures, impulsive and vibrant, in order to dismantle the tyranny of monotony! More air horn, please.
Vandalism is degenerate. It's not here to promote cleanliness and genteel manners of etiquette. Vandalism will replace honorifics with its own stamp of affirmation: Vandal Basquiat, Vandal Futura 2000, Vandal Taki 183, Vandal Debord, Haring, Burrows and Proudhon. But more than any of that, all the lower-case vandals on Muni set to burn their names on your retina.
Vandalism doesn't care about rights to property. Vandalism stands by this ancient principle: property is theft. Vandalism doesn't care about copyright. Copyright smacks of self-indulgence and greed. Quote me on that. Vandalism is universal and limitless, unwieldy and unbalanced, completely unhinged and frighteningly beautiful. It's dangerous but welcoming. Come on. Give vandalism a try. Vandalism is the new gentrification; everyone's doing it. It's pushing emptiness and dullness out of the city and raising the quality of life to unpredictable heights of magnanimity. Your neutral walls do violence to our integrity. Whatcha got against color?
How does one live well and good? By doing vandalism. How does one become anonymously famous? By doing vandalism. With a flick of the wrists and a swagger of the step. Til' one can't stop and certainly won't stop. It's a terrible habit, an awfully time-consuming obsession. How can one get rid of everything grotesque and in bad taste? Vandalism. How do we reassert ourselves in the midst of corporate homogeny and increasing pressure to normalize? Vandalism. By what means do we establish our will to communicate freely and openly in the public sphere? Vandalism.
Vandalism cannot be bought or sold in your local Walgreens (maybe in Giant Robot, though). No no, vandalism is a nebulous thing, an utterly cosmic thing, dirty and scurrilous and always operating in the shadows, always slipping away from sterilization and appropriation like a rat with rabies on the run. What a charming nuisance. What a credible way to live! Street credible. The streets is a mother, and good ol' vanguard vandalism — the first lesson.
Vandalism once brought down the Roman empire. We have yet to rebuild the world in its depths. (Wooley Van Dahl)