Writing on the Wall

Sarah Nicole Prickett on art and graffiti

Inside Mint & Serf's studio. Photo: Oliver Correa.

IF CAVE PAINTING is the start not of art but of communication, graffiti is also not art. If art makes history, graffiti cannot be art.

I devised this solution—like all my solutions, one part each ill logic, viscera, and things I read for the purpose—to address the problem of why I so loathe gallery or museum shows of Citibank-able graffiti. It isn’t that I have a predilection for authenticity. Nor is it a category thing. Many of the artists I’ve loved longest are writers, too: Cy Twombly, Ana Mendieta, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Jenny Holzer used (respectively) ink and paper, blood and walls, markers and brick, and ink on skin to make work out of words. None of these works are to be confused with the long yawn that is “text art.” All have something in common with “real” graffiti, which once made history messy, which said to the winners, “You did not see me, but I was here.” Now you see graffiti next to the New Museum, and hear nothing.

Maybe my resistance to the art-ification of graffiti is because I don’t need graffiti to “speak to me.” For most of my life rap didn’t speak to me either, and my response was not to play like rap is poetry so that I could inflict my Comp Lit understanding on it. As per the excellent Earl Sweatshirt, “Rap music is rap music,” and graffiti is graffiti. It is writing in the purest or stupidest way, in such an (always illegal, and sometimes illegible) way as to render everything written unspeakable. Several summers ago a tattoo artist told me that graffiti writers don’t call each other artists or even graffiti writers but simply “writers,” and I almost understood something then. Graffiti says what it means.

To see it now I decided to spend some time with Mint & Serf, a pair of graffiti writers whose birth names are Mikhail and Jason. I went to them not because they are the greatest talents or most authentic voices of our time—or, if they are, I do not have the ears for it—but because they are white guys who hang out with white girls and go to the Whitney sometimes and show their new, huge canvasses on the white walls of the Bleecker Street Arts Club. In writing about their work, I don’t worry about colonizing, or like... cannibalizing, their way of life.

Made last year, these canvasses look rescued from the same stretch of 1990s anti-hero worship that produced Dan Colen’s “Trash” paintings. They are massive and cadaverous. Many were made in loose collaboration with a few of their writer-friends, and their tags pile up indiscriminately. Layers of paper and acrylic harden or peel scablike. Colors agglomerate and rot. Composition is a joke, each canvas a rotated corpse.

“We’re anti-pop,” says Mikhail, more than once. He has sunless skin and drinks 7/11 coffee; his sneakers have no discernible brand. “Anything too colorful or too flat, we go back in with black. Or I’ll fall asleep and when I wake up, somebody’s ripped half the painting off and started over.” Sometimes, he says, their friends get so fucked up while doing canvasses and coke that before they know it, FBI agents are showing up for work at the Federal Building across the street. He laughs. “You know, we never think about what it’s going to look like the next day. It can’t feel like we did it during studio hours or some shit.”

Mikhail is the one who shows up on time and talks me through the work—one day in the studio on south Broadway, another day at the gallery. Jason, who has long dark hair and a scampish grin, is the one who meets us an hour later at the Waverly Diner and brings me two hits of acid because I had complained of not knowing where to buy it. Mikhail (who grew up in Brighton Beach) is the one telling me how communism failed while Jason (from Bensonhurst) informs me that Canada is pretty much socialist and their roads are in perfect condition. As he says this, Jason is emptying the lead from bullets so that his sawed-off Walmart rifle can fire blanks.

Left: Inside Mint & Serf's studio. Photo: Oliver Correa. Right: Mint & Serf–painted Hermés Birkin. Photo: themirf.

I can’t think of who they remind me of until I realize it’s two guys I’ve never seen, one of whom is never photographed. In 1994, for this magazine, Glenn O’Brien interviewed two bigtime graffiti writers, Cost and Revs. From his introduction: “Cost and Revs are a couple of New York kids. White Kids. New York etched in their accents. Being in their mid 20s, they’re getting a little old to be kids, but they’re kids as long as they keep doing what they’re doing.”

At ages thirty-five and thirty-four, Mint and Serf are really pushing this theory. Like Cost and Revs, they believe they are “the most outlaw art in the city,” although their virulently anti-cop stance is estranged from any critique of America, capital, or state. Like Cost and Revs, they believe the art world is “too safe” and full of phonies. Like Cost and Revs, they are nonetheless talking to a writer from Artforum about it.

Another thing Mikhail says a lot is that graffiti is a lifestyle, not a form. To explain this old chestnut to a new generation, their hardcover monograph—Support, Therapy, and Instability—contains a long essay by “Peter Pan” (they and their friends call themselves the Peter Pan Posse) that is a seriously remarkable artifact of American masculinity. Peter Pan mocks creative directors and “corporate types” for giving writers money to do big commercial projects or product design but not knowing stuff about Warhol, and also for wearing $100 flannel shirts, presumably because $100 is a lot of money to not spend on drugs. Peter Pan says it’s lame to get a job, mandatory to get wasted, and easy to get “mediocre rich girls” to pick up the tab. (While I am no fan of mediocre rich girls myself, I can’t wait until one writes a memoir in which she casually mentions the “mediocre hoodlums” she used to fuck.) Peter Pan refers to “meaningless collaborations” with brands as “whoring,” implying that only the “feral, secretive” graffiti performed “in the streets, in the snow storms, in the shadows” is actual fucking.

Well, anyone who’s done sex work knows the feeling. The final analogy is all too apt: In New York, it is hard to find the contemporary artist—or perhaps “creative” of any kind—who is neither a wife nor a whore. If the graffiti writer chooses not to marry up, joining a system of institutional legitimacy and patronage, he will instead sell every shred of illicit magic to make more magic and pray it stays illicit or he’ll really have nothing left. His graffiti is a pornography, one that is more honest about the artist’s life for not being art itself. He does fills for Big Pharma billboards; he decorates a cologne bottle for the New York Yankees; he charges a few grand to tag an “edgy” Birkin for the younger-than-him wife of a suit.

When I ask Mint about these projects, the bravado seems to wear off. He says he does not want to seem ungrateful to brands who had paid his rent. But the frustration drips and seethes from every licentious work around us. On a couple of the canvasses, the word VENGENCE appears—repeatedly, always misspelled—in black unstyled letters. There are a thousand other words, but that is the one I recognize.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is the editor of Adult magazine and a writer based in New York.