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.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

6 replies on “MTA Rejects Advertising for Looking Too Much Like Graffiti”

  1. Having not read the Awl article, he’s not REALLY asking “[W]hat exactly is the rubric by which the MTA judges a letter’s graffiti-ness? ” Because he can’t claim his advertisement isn’t graffiti-like, or be shocked by the MTA’s response to painted trains. Which isn’t to say that the policy isn’t ridiculous especially in terms of the recent hate speech MTA ran etc.

    1. But he is, in fact, asking what the rubric is, as a way of pointing out the ridiculousness of the whole thing. Of course his ad is graffiti-like, but he’s calling out the complete arbitrariness of the rules, especially when someone is offering to pay for the advertising that looks graffiti-like. I recommend you read the whole Awl article—his point is that the city’s response to graffiti has been and continues to be absurd.

      1. The amount of money that major cities spend on cleaning up graffiti / street art is absurd. With that in mind, I can see why it was turned down. Remember when Yosi Sergant’s power-positioning propelled Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster into becoming ‘iconic’? It also fueled more works on the streets — by artists hoping to become just as known. That same concern may have spurred this rejection.

        I don’t have a problem with graffiti / street art… but I do have a problem with major cities spending $100,000+ annually to clean it up. It may be art… but that does not mean it is all ‘good’ art — and having lived in Chicago and Manhattan I know firsthand that most of it represents a total lack of skill. Thus, you end up with mediocre images that cost several hundred dollars to remove.

        The fact remains that most of these works are placed illegally. I know everyone today wants to be a rebel… and claim that is OK. BUT something tells me if your car, assuming you have one, ended up being used as a ‘canvas’ you would likely turn it in to your insurance (which raises rates) — you would be pissed (unless a big name artist did it).

        The irony of graffiti / street art is that it traditionally champions the poor… while at the same time making things harder on the poor. I say that because the money spent on cleaning it up could be used to help improve poor communities. Argue with that all you want — but it is true. In most cases I would suggest it boils down to a selfish act… and thirst for fame, rather than facilitating real change. Look at that clown SABER… who described himself as ‘Hollywood’s Graffiti Artist’ up until Occupy… and is now suddenly anti-money.

        1. In other words, at the core it has become more about making money than on distributing authentic social messages.

          1. I don’t think that’s true for all artist/writers—to generalize like that is the same as generalizing and saying that anyone who, say, makes any art is just looking for fortune and fame. Some people are, no doubt, but I think to write off everyone and not give anyone the benefit of the doubt is overly cynical.

            I agree that cities spend WAY too much money on cleaning up or fighting graffiti and street art—that’s the most frustrating part. That money could definitely be used otherwise. But are we so sure that the city would really spend that money on the poor communities otherwise—or would it just funnel it somewhere else absurd? I think you’re letting city governments and officials off the hook too easily and blaming graffiti writers and street artists too much.

  2. good job MTA, our culture is already used and abused..Now if only the MTA would stop using graffiti’s repetitive tactics in their placement of adds we’d be set.

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