To camouflage oneself on the streets of New York City would mean to get dirty; a certain amount of graffiti would be required. And not necessarily the type involving photogenic bubble letters and inventive scenes, so much as the kind that jumbles layers of tags, plastered stickers and profanity.
“A lot of people kind of went crazy with the graffiti” during the quiet that ensued in COVID-19’s era, Council Member Erik Bottcher said on Thursday, “because there were no eyes on the street.” Standing beside a dingy traffic light pole in Hell’s Kitchen, on the corner of West 51st Street and Ninth Avenue, he announced that the backdrop of his district, which also includes Chelsea and the West Village, would promptly change.
With an allocation of $30,000 in City Council discretionary funds, a new graffiti removal effort will be carried out by Wildcat Service Corporation, a nonprofit founded five decades ago to create job opportunities for people with prior criminal convictions. Graffiti has only multiplied in recent years, according to Bottcher and local residents. So continuing through the end of the fiscal year in June, workers will restore the surfaces of street lights and utility boxes to their intended condition.
Street art, graffiti’s fancier and more socially-acceptable cousin, will emerge unscathed. “There’s a difference between street art and vandalism, scribbles with spray paint,” Bottcher said. “We need to put our best foot forward as a city to visitors, to workers and to residents.”
Scraping Away The Mess
An increase in litter during the pandemic was accompanied by an influx of graffiti, according to Catie Savage, who founded a nonprofit called the Litter Legion in 2020. Since that initial summer, she and other volunteers have pitched in to keep trash off the streets, amid Department of Sanitation budget cuts. “It’s easy for people in the community to just go out and pick up litter,” she told Chelsea News, but it’s “not so easy for us to deal with graffiti.”
Wildcat workers are prepared to tackle the job, by conducting sweeps both “randomly” and “systematically” along Ninth Avenue and in other areas flagged as needing extra TLC, according to Mario La Rosa, the organization’s operations manager. “When we identify a targeted area ... we’re going to take care of the graffiti, but then we’re also going to be coming back periodically to touch it up,” he said.
On Thursday, Wildcat workers used hand-held metal scrapers to obliterate an unsightly collage of markings that had amassed on a traffic control box. Then, they painted it with a fresh coat of green.
Graffiti removal will be offered also to local businesses and property owners, which Bottcher said will need to present waivers to qualify. He’s also requesting input from constituents regarding locations that require attention.
Art Gets A Pass
The new initiative may change the makeup of the streets — but not their artistic flair, according to Bottcher. “I love street art; it’s one of my favorite art forms,” he said. “We don’t want street art removed.”
Instead, the council member intends to increase opportunities for murals in his district, starting with an informational gathering early next year for property owners and street art nonprofits. “We’ve got a lot of blank walls in Council District 3,” Bottcher said.
Deciphering the differences between street art and graffiti that leans more on the side of vandalism comes down, in many cases, to an instant gut feeling — you know it when you see it. “The random tags, like no,” Savage said. “That just looks messy.”
“We need to put our best foot forward as a city to visitors, to workers and to residents.” Council Member Erik Bottcher