The Museum of Modern Art may be one step closer to recognizing graffiti as a legitimate art form, but New York City is not. Writer Adam Mansbach, who took part in last week’s “Writers and Writers” event at MoMA, has a post on the Awl about being denied subway advertising space that he was prepared to pay for because the writing in his ad looked too much like graffiti.
The refusal is almost surprisingly straightforward: Mansbach sent a proposal to the company that controls advertising on the exterior of subway trains, CBS Outdoor. He wanted to advertise his new novel, Rage Is Back, about a graffiti writer and his son; the cover of the book features three subway cars stacked vertically, with the words of the title emblazoned on the sides of the cars in graffiti-style lettering (albeit much more legible). This is the response he received:
“The issue,” CBS Outdoor wrote in an email, explaining why my proposal had been rejected, “is the style of writing. The MTA wants nothing that looks like graffiti.”
Mansbach muses on the ridiculous implications of this rejection in a wonderful passage that follows:
[W]hat exactly is the rubric by which the MTA judges a letter’s graffiti-ness? At what stylistic tipping point does a word becomes impermissible to the same entity that has approved liquor adverts depicting naked women in dog collars, and bus placards featuring rhetoric widely condemned as hate speech against Palestinians? And if the NYPD defines graffiti as “etching, painting, covering or otherwise placing a mark upon public or private property, with the intent to damage,” isn’t a graffiti-style letter kind of like a robbery-style purchase?
His advertising ordeal is only a small nugget of the piece — he situates it within the larger context of New York City’s stupid, expensive, and perpetual war on graffiti. The whole thing is worth reading, but be warned: it will frustrate you to no end.