Published: November 8, 2007

Graffiti artists that fix their work onto signposts tend to bend the bolts backward so that it’s impossible to get it off without a blowtorch and an industrial saw. In Brooklyn, the pieces stay up so long that eventually it’s just corroded metal and a couple of rusty, twisted bolts sticking out the back. As if the stop sign has a tumor that’s growing more grotesque by the day. It’s the death of art—someone’s modest statement turning into no one’s weathered scrap.

There’s a tag 10 feet tall on the corner of my block. It’s dripping white, shivering and ghostly. Someone once told me it was made with a fire extinguisher filled with diluted Sherwin Williams and blasted up the face of the brick it now imbues. The word is unmistakable—“Echo,” as if conscious of itself, bouncing its reflection off the windowpanes across the street, ricocheting around the block and back to its home on the warehouse wall.

Someone in this neighborhood wants to let the city in on a secret. “I Dream,” “I Love to Dream,” simply “Dream,” everywhere in plain black paint, amateur and fuzzy-edged. It’s important to remember to dream, especially when New York seems hollow and soulless—because at times, solace comes like finding a $20 bill on the ground. You pick it up, look around to make sure it’s not a trick, and pocket it with a new optimism. We need reminders that, for ourselves, sanctuary is often rare, and rarely often. One street I know, littered with dog shit, trash, scrap metal, bits of crumbled asphalt, knows no beauty. Standing on a fire escape I notice the modest word written in thick felt marker beneath a windowsill.

I heard there’s a guy painting his autobiography in a subway tunnel beneath the East River. Huge, elaborate murals floating in cold darkness, lonely save for the periodic rush of a train. A story, but no audience. Ours is a city that won’t keep a promise to anyone. Hearing about this man, I think of a line by the poet Marc Awodey, describing his first trip to New York at the age of 64:

“Ten million inhales of ancient air / Ten million exhales onto the sea.”

Life is futile and beautiful at the same time. The mural is a dark secret in the most literal sense. It’s a life’s work that no one will ever see.


Crouched inside the concrete pipe, I’m reading Jack London. Water is trickling from the faults in the walls of the conduit, and there is a beer bottle over there, and a New York Post with a headline about a rapist. Dropped inside the beer bottle is a flower with a long stem, cold and atrophied, its radish-colored petals seem bruised. I scoot over toward the flower-bottle and the newspaper, and I pick up the paper, and I read about the rapist. Drove an unlicensed cab and tied girls up under some BQE overpass in Queens. Next to the rapist article, two dollars off mini-golf at Chelsea Piers, and below it, Al Sharpton incensed, making a face.

Some artists prefer to work during the witching hour, the dead of night when stillness settles like a pall over the streets and cops simply aren’t around. I like the challenge of working while the streets are still rustling with life. My friend Benny and I once hit an open brick wall with a fire extinguisher, just for the hell of it. We wound up running from two security guards, then from two cops, climbing up a ladder and hiding on a rooftop that Benny showed me when we were in high school. From above, we could see Brooklyn—the river, the city, bridges, smokestacks—and the police car driving slowly down the street below, all quivering mirage-like in the afternoon haze.

I pull a few of my tools from the rucksack between my ankles—a dead-weight hammer, pliers, some long thick bolts. It’s dusk and I’m hitting the street soon. Just a couple of quick runs through the murmuring nocturne of Williamsburg on a balmy August night. A few minutes later, as I stroll down South Seventh toward the river, I spot a stop sign with my own work on it, but it’s barely recognizable, it’s so rusty and it’s been tagged over, and there’s a sticker for some party on it now. The bolts are bent back at right angles, my signature. I look closer at the partially obscured tag clinging to the rust—small yellow letters, “Live Your Dream.”

I heard there’s a guy painting his autobiography in a subway tunnel beneath the East River. A giant picturesque mural of landscapes, phantasmagoric scenes of the real and the absurd clashing like titans in silent battle. This is shouting into an abyss. This is sending letters to Antarctica. I think of London’s embattled prose—

“The erasure of summer was at hand. Yet summer lingered, fading and fainting among her hills, deepening the purple of her valleys, spinning a shroud of haze from waning powers and sated raptures, dying with the calm content of having lived and lived well.”

Having lived and lived well, I’m standing on that rooftop again, where Benny and I hid from the cops. I take a deep inhale of August air; feel its distinct thickness, its city grit. Exhaling, I look out over Wallabout Bay, past the bridges, and see the Statue of Liberty shimmering before the barely visible horizon where sky and ocean blur. From somewhere, I hear the aerosol hiss of
spray paint.