Being paid to eat graffiti...
Being paid to eat graffiti... Charles Mudede

While sitting in the cavernous McCann's Pub in Astoria, New York (a bar I found while walking around that part of town), I saw a news story that seemed to rattle the bartender, who was a nice enough guy. The local station reported that a jury had ruled that a real estate developer was wrong to destroy a building in Queens vividly covered in graffiti—the "5Pointz" factory. The building had featured "graffiti artists from around the world." What right did he, even as an owner, have to tear down this significant "canvas for 'aerosol art'"? "Can you fucking believe that?" said my bartender. He was of the old school train of thought—property is property, and as such it must be respected. I, on the other hand, saw in this news story proof that his city was big enough not to always be imprisoned by the blandest of middle-class values.

Almost half of the 400 people polled in a recent Seattle-area survey conducted by Atlantic Media/Allstate Regional Renewal think our city is not world-class. I agree with them, but probably not for the same reasons. To me, a world-class city makes every effort to break with mundane values. And the most mundane values in the world are those of a class of people (the middle class) who aren't rich enough not to worry about how they are perceived. Graffiti to them looks bad because they themselves want to look presentable. And they have to look good because they aren't confident enough not to care about how they look. Anyone who is condemned to live among this sorry class of people knows how they lose sleep over and are driven to distraction by things like unkempt lawns and peeling paint. Graffiti for them is nothing but the sign of Satan.

William Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties includes this description of graffiti-eating technology:

The store on Sunset had a finish that ate graffiti. The gang kids would come and tag it; twenty minutes later these flat, dark, vaguely crab-like patches of dark blue would come gliding out around the corner… They seemed to be embedded, a few millimeters down into the surface, which was a sort of non-glossy gel-coat affair, but able to move around under there. Smart material, he'd heard that called. And they'd glide up to the tag, whatever artfully abstract scrawl had been sprayed there to declare fealty or mark territory or swear revenge… and start eating it.

The novel also features technology that replaces graffiti on areas where it has been eaten; and so, on walls around the novel's city (San Francisco), there is a meaningless competition between these technologies: graffiti appearing and being removed, appearing and being removed.

I thought of this passage in All Tomorrow's Parties, the final installment of the great Idoru trilogy, when this morning I passed a construction worker near East Pine Street who wasn't building anything but instead, spraying something on a green fence cover. For a moment, I thought he was writing some graffiti. Was this an art project? Were construction companies getting a little creative? On closer inspection, I saw he was only spraying over white graffiti with paint that matched the color of the fence cover. He was the graffiti eater.