Translation and Shapes

“I came to language only late and only peculiarly. I grew up in a household where the only books were the telephone book and some coloring books. Magazines, though, were called books, but only one magazine ever came into the house, a now-long-gone photographic general-interest weekly commandingly named Look. Words in this household were not often brought into play.”

This is how “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” – a speech given by Gary Lutz at Columbia University in 2008, later published in The Believer – begins.

I believe this essay still offers an alternative level of reading text. What particularly strikes me is Luts´s concept of the “topography” of a sentence, and while never explicitly saying so, he refers to the shapes of sentences via the letters and words chosen.

For example, describing a short story by Christine Schutt, Lutz begins to enumerate the symmetry of the phrase  “acutely felt, clearly flat” right down to the letters in the words chosen:

“But what is perhaps most striking about the four-word phrase is the family resemblances between the two pairs of words. There is nothing in the letter-by-letter makeup of the phrase ´clearly flat´ that wasn’t already physically present in ‘acutely felt’; the second of the two phrases contains the alphabetic DNA of the first phrase.”

Later on again, he notes the physical form of the letters within this paragraph:

“I once saw a man hook a walking stick around a woman’s neck. This was at night, from my mother’s window. The man dropped the crooked end behind the woman’s neck and yanked just hard enough to get the woman walking to the car.”

While you might notice the repetition of certain letters in the excerpt, I would have never gone to the imaginative lengths that Lutz does:

“The w seems warily feminine; the k seems brashly masculine. In the fourth and final sentence of the paragraph, the two characters mate and marry in the unexpected but beautifully apposite participle winking, a union resulting in what is in many ways the most stylistically noteworthy word in the paragraph.”

While this may seem like a stretch – particularly their marriage – it seems nearly undeniable that once you begin reading with this kind of scrutiny of letters, it becomes difficult not to notice “verbal topography”.

Lutz, as he recognizes, is looking for a certain type of fiction, quite the opposite of a page turner. This would also be the antithesis of Karl Ove Knausgaard´s prose – at least in the English translation – as Ben Lerner so astutely observed.

Truth is, I like page-turning prose and don´t dwell enough on as many pages as I would like – especially after my experience with the Knausgaard books (if that is the author´s not the translator´s style, as Christopher Eva suggests in his response to Lerner´s review). Yet, I think giving the scrutiny poetry often demands of a text fits well with this idea of the topography of words, as well as what Lutz calls “lexical inevitability”.  

When I first began translated in the work of Spanish poet José Daniel García, I began to look for equivalency of effect in the “topography” of lines.

This is JDG’s version:

“El veneno florece en la burbuja.”

A word-for-word translation looks like this:

“The venom flourishes in the bubble.”

I think we can hear and see the “lexical inevitability” in this line from his poem “Cuerpo Tendido”. On the imagistic level JDG employs the “venom” and the “bubble” – linked with the resonance of “flower” in “flourish”. The paradox contrasts with the idiomatic level of this line: a dismal and ephemeral phrase.

If we begin to apply Lutz’s topographical approach the line becomes much richer. In this reading the flat, low-lying “venom” rolls into the stalky word “flourishes” which we imagine curling inside the round “bubble”. Where can we see this? Well the “fl” of flower, here present in “flourish” looks something like a flower growing from its stem. The round bottom of the three “b”’s in bubble resembles the round shape of a floating bubble. In this case, even the literal translation reflects the “lexical inevitability” that Lutz praises.

In other cases, however, the rudimentary word-for-word translation won’t suffice.

In one untitled poem from JDG´s collection Coma, we perceive a series of fast, clear images regarding a nameless figure; the poet limits our attention to an event described in minimal detail.

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The literal word-for-word might be:

He solved the parasite problem

with iodine and pliers

                                         squeezing

its morbid head

until it was removed.

Shiny black and red

                                        its minuscule

glossy cadaver.

Like so much of Coma the sterile tone of medical language mixes with the treacherous and grim. In this case, the “parasite problem”- a euphemism – is the removal of hard black and red bugs. In the original there´s also a great deal of ambiguity, creating that dream-like sensation that being can simultaneously be more than one thing.  Also, we don´t know who exactly is removing what. Did this person “remove” their own head?


Sometimes, as David Bellos posits in his wonderful book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, that equivalency in translation is a lost cause. In cases like these it’s important to remember that a translation is in the end something new, as the poems original key convention (being written in the Spanish language) is lost. Therefore in a sense I pilot this new version of the original.

For me, in JDG’s compact poem, the image that most stands out to me is that of a tick – as ticks heads must be removed in order to kill them. So in thinking about this image of the tiny ticks head, I wanted to reflect this in my translation and I thought about the “topographical” level of the text. In the end I vied for this:

“Took care of the parasite problem

with iodine and pliers

                         squeezing

their macabre heads

until they burst.

Shiny black and red

                  its tiny

varnished cadaver.”

I aimed for the ambiguity of the original in not including a subject in the first sentence. This way, the reader isn’t sure who it is with the “parasite problem”.

In the second stanza, I thought that “miniscule” looked long compare to the bug itself and used “tiny” – a word that in itself is small. I also thought “tiny” might also sound like “tick”, a word that with its “k”, conjures up the spiny limbs of the parasite.

I opted for the lengthier “macabre heads” rather than “morbid” because I liked the contrast of the longer line, the the next line cut short by the “burst”. I also like “burst” because it too looks and sounds like what it is. While it’s not an onomatopoeia, its indirect resemblance creates a more subtle version of a BLAM! The b is roundish in look and sound but it ends in the hiss of an s with the finality of a t.

While perhaps cumbersome when translating some as long as a novel – as I am now – “topography” adds a new element to the translation of more condensed texts like poems but short stories as well.

My concern is that unless we are all reading on the topographic level, it will go unnoticed perhaps by many. And while I think in reading original literary texts we are perceiving that “topography” if even subconsciously, if someone were comparing an original to the translation, comparing decisions (often word-for-word) comparisons – a favorite game for those judging the “quality” of a translation – these differences or attempts at a similar lexical topography would go unnoticed.

On the experimental end of the spectrum, Publishing Genius put out, Old Gus Eats, a visual translation of a few stanzas from The Odyssey. The translator Polly Duff Bresnick has no knowledge of Greek. The result is something often funny and incomprehensible. Yet, the visual symmetry between the two texts offers a different way of understanding the original.

gus

Letter from La Paz

My senior year of high school I used to frequent an all-ages jazz club in New York called Small´s. My friends and I would spend the night there, usually sleeping right through the early morning set. The musicians never bothered us and the other patrons tolerated us. Most nights there was a line and we´d have to wait until two or three in the morning just to get in.  The doorman, who I also think was the owner – or so he said – used to tell us how he imagined a different kind of mass transit, hot air balloons landing on the top of the Twin Towers, which at the time, still loomed over Christopher Street.
The romantic notion of airborne mass transit has stayed with me. This might be because I still do not know how to drive, or because there’s something inherently futuristic about moving in the sky. Nevertheless, I finally found that mass transit system in the sky, quite literally, at over 12,000 feet above sea level, in La Paz Bolivia.

 

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The cable cars system, still in expansion, travels across a series of extremely steep mountain slopes. If you were to go from El Alto (1,000 feet higher than downtown La Paz) to more recently constructed Zona Sur on Mi Teleférico, you’d have traversed a few thousand feet in a hour. Your ears actually pop between a few stops along the way.

 

The name of each station is written in both Spanish and Aymara. Until 1976, Spanish trailed Aymara and Quechua as the majority language. While much has changed, as global languages increasingly gain grown on minority counterparts, one still hears Aymara and Quechua being spoken in the street. Advertisements aimed at professional for learning Aymara and Quechua have been plastered on walls.

 

Slowly floating through the air, a motion we normally associate with amusement parks, between cragged mountain peaks, over cookouts, military school drills, a shirtless man looking peering out of his porch with a pair of binoculars, not only invites the sensation of pause, as a subway might, in its underground abyss but absolute lucidity, while the wind gently rocks the cable car.

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There are however rules on this ride: paying your fare of course, and a new far for each transfer to another cable car line; not standing; only ten people in a car, and like the wonder wheel, no waiting for the next car to see if you can have it to yourself.

 

Like so much of Latin America, “modernization” has taken place here unevenly. While the multi-colored cable cars quietly zoom across the air, junk buses slam down pot-holed streets. The “cholas”, as they are popularly called here, seem to belong to another more formal epoch, after at some point their family left behind their traditional dress for a new sort of traditional dress, with a pollera, or long skirt, and a black fedora. They too ride the teleférico, or cable car.

 

Likewise, while cigarette packs have also adopted the nefariously nauseating shock photos, you can still smoke in bars. Unless you smoke, the noxious fog inside bars is a reminder of a world you are glad most other places have left behind. How did I ever do this for hours and hours on end, I wondered? Plus, walking uphill is hard enough at 12,000 feet, do we really need to add the challenge of overcoming inhibited lung capacity?

 

Honestly, I wish I had more time to visit bars in La Paz. I have this myth of the paceño bohemian alcoholic from some of their literature floating around in my head. Jamie Saenz is probably Bolivia´s best known poet (see he his many translated anthologies) and believed in the revelatory power of alcohol. Another write, Victor Hugo Viscarra has often been compared to Charles Bukowksi for his drunken memoirs of city streets and prostitutes – although I think this is an unfair comparison because Bukowski, in my opinion, wouldn’t have lasted as long in the cold, unpredictable streets of La Paz, drinking grain alcohol at extremely high altitudes.

 

Something many people don’t know about high altitudes is that they leave you with horrible hangovers. And unlike some of the other symptoms of being above sea level – stamina, for example – the high altitude hangover never goes away. At 9,000 feet a few strong beers can leave you hurting the next day. Coca leaves, some say, relieve the symptoms of hangover, but I haven’t found this to be true.

 

In La Paz above the tourist-travelled Calle de las Brujas, a place that evidences the power of travel tourist discourse turning a pretty ordinary street of people selling crafts into something “magical”, coca leaves are sold in large garbage bags. A coca-chewing friend had asked me to get some llipta or gipta, a sweet residue, made from quinoa or sweet potato or stevia of which add a bit of to your leaves while you chew. This sweetens the leaves and also helps breakdown the coca leaves while in your mouth.

 

If I were going back to the United States I wouldn’t be able to carry even coca candy with me, but you can travel freely between Peru and Colombia with it. I know people who trade leaves, as they are not marketed internationally in any formal way. Getting high in La Paz would seem to be a waste. The cable cars in the sky for me suffice. One wonders if what Jaime Saenz calls the ¨dark city¨ has transformed into something else. something more still more intangible.

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Escritores reacionan al voto de NO en Colombia

Anoche viendo mi cuenta de Twitter estallar, pensé en pegar los comentarios de todos los escritores que comentaron sobre el NO en una sola página.

Edmundo Paz Soldán

No me lo puedo creer, Colombia.

Daniel Alarcón

Speechless.

Martin Caparrós

La Paz no parece muy paisa: en el Atanasio Girardot el Sí pierde 2 a 1

Alberto Salcedo Ramos

El NO ganó porque el acuerdo fue sometido a consulta,y ese gesto patriótico, aunque hoy nos sintamos derrotados,muestra seriedad del proceso

Juan Álvarez

Es menos grave d lo q parece. Y lo es pq demostró altura democrática. Ahora los irresponsables tendrán q entrar en el proceso

 

 

 

Letter from Mezcal City

¨Para mal, mezcal. Y para bien, también¨ – popular Mexican adage

 

 

Roberto Bolaño´s Savage Detectives, a great deal of which takes place in Mexico City, begins with this dialogue:

 

“Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king?”

“No.”

 

The dialogue is taken from the end of Malcolm Lowry´s novel Under the Volcano, a novel that begins with mezcal. Not only does the protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin, have a serious problem with alcohol, he has a much more serious problem with mezcal. It´s one of the novel´s key conflicts.

 

Throughout the novel, he repeats to himself, in his stream-of-conscious that blurs lines between dialogue and thought and characters, “Anything but mezcal,” but succumbs anyway to that cool liquid lava. Patching it up with his wife, who has come back to México just to see if the can work things out, doesn´t happen. Instead mezcal wins. It is the volcano, or the liquid within it, that he is under.

 

For those who don´t know, mezcal is a distilled liquor from Central Mexico. Unlike its better known cousin, tequila—which is made from blue agave and often sugar—mezcal is made entirely from agave, the most common being espadin agave. The maguey cactus is roasted then distilled. Technically, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. That is to say, tequila is a kind of mezcal, but what is labeled as mezcal tends to come from smaller distilleries. Its taste is very different from tequila. In Under the Volcano, Geoffrey allows himself to drink tequila and points out to his companions that it isn´t mezcal after all.

 

Wood and fire are the first things that come to mind with mezcal for me. Lowry, a better writer of a more romantic epoch, has his protagonist compare it to “ten yards of barbed wire fence” before adding that ¨it nearly took the top of [his] head off.”

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Like the craft beer scene some years ago in the States, mezcal has experienced a recent boom. While Oaxaca is the capital of mezcal, Mexico City now offers dozens of mezcalerías, where often they offer a house mezcal in addition to other varieties. Like craft beer aficionados, people tend to nerd out over them. Part of the variety could be attributed to the fact that mezcal can be filtered through nearly anything – plantain, chicken breast – opening the possibility of even great variation. The simple drink is traditionally accompanied by oranges and sal de gusano, an ashy mix of dried peppers, maguey worms, and salt. While those provide a nice break for your tongue, which will certainly tingle, the alcohol itself doesn´t really need a chaser. It´s to be sipped anyway.

 

There´s a moment in Under the Volcano when Geoffery´s wife Yvonn and half-brother Hugh try to convince him to eat. Standing (and drinking) in front of a great spread he hardly eats a thing, as if the food hurts him. When he wants to feel strong, like his foil Hugh, he forces down half a canapé. Mezcal has none of this effect on me. In fact, more than any other liquor I can think of, mezcal´s volcanic flavor matches dishes from Central México well.

 

The last few days in Mexico City, I’ve felt like an inverse of Geoffrey, about to gorge myself to death, eating five times in day and topping of the night with a visit to the corner taquería where I again marvel at the menu and try a new taco filling, in an attempt to divine the best possible plate. The way people have one more drink for the road, I´ve been eating three or four tacos there.

 

Maybe it’s not the food or the mezcal. Maybe I am addicted to Mexico City, although I’ve only been here a few days. I live in Colombia and while it’s not close (four hours roughly in the air) it is a relatively cheap ticket lately.

 

On my first week-long visit a few months ago, looking to get out of a heavy afternoon thunderstorm, I found myself in a book fair held inside the immense Auditorio Nacional. At the Fondo de Cultura Económica publishing house tables I found a discounted copy of Desde la barranca, a Mexican biography of Lowry. Naturally, it focuses mostly on his time in the country.

 

I learned that Under the Volcano is based on Lowry’s first trip to Mexico with his first wife, Jan, who left him in Cuernavaca, about two hours from D.F. by bus; on the second trip he retraced his steps with his second wife, Margerie. While today this seems like a scumbag move, it seems as though back then this was widely accepted, not to mention all the help his second wife gave him completing Under the Volcano, another widely accepted activity then.

Lowry

Like Geoffrey, the author also struggled with alcohol, and like his protagonist with mezcal in particular. According to this biography, Lowry thought that mezcal had hallucinogenic properties, confusing it with mescaline – a common myth. Of course, if you drink enough and long enough, you´ll hallucinate regardless of what you’re drinking. I have only the most mundane experiences with mezcal. It usually arouses my appetite for something preferably in a corn tortilla, although I’m open to ideas. Yesterday I had a birria, a dish from the state of Jalisco featuring roasted goat and a soft tortilla, almost like a thin pancake, very different from the kind you normally find in Central Mexico. Alongside the dish of tortillas and goat I had a bowl of consommé so spicy I could no longer feign reading the newspaper; I had to kind of absorb it and contemplate it.

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For a hard liquor it pairs with food well. So June and July for many regions of Mexico is the insect harvest. The culinary institute and gastronomical-center-slash-restaurant Los danzantes offers several dishes featuring creepy crawlies. This is not some gross out Food Network stunt. Keep in mind that indigenous groups in Mexico had eaten insects, as in many other places, for a very long time. Los danzantes also distills its own mezcal, which I found to be the perfect side car to a plate of wild rice with bugs (or arroz salvaje con bichos). The thin slices of chilies, the different textures of snails, crickets, agave worms and chinche de mezquite, or mesquite tree bug, and the earthy rice, combined with the smooth heat of the drink, had my full attention

 

I have done more than just indulge. When I went to the Cineteca Nacional, I didn’t think of food at all (at least not after eating the cochinita pibil torta with chipotle, avocado and onions I brought into the theater). Seeing a Mexican film while there visiting some friends, it seemed like a smart way to give them a break from me (and my eating). According to Google maps it was a simple twenty minute walk, and it was for the most part. I walked past the street where Frida Kahlo had her studio, and then where her lover Leon Trotsky, lived.

 

In the back of complex there is a parking lot five stories high, topped with white letters that read Cineteca Nacional. After walking through the overpass a jumbo-sized upside-down park bench appears. Had I walked in the official entrance I would have seen the ten foot high panels of famous Mexican actors that line the fence as well as the a green lawn where young people were spread out reading or lying down and talking, or smoking, or snacking.

 

To be honest I was looking to see any production, and the show-time that worked out for me lead me to Güeros, for the matinee price of 25 pesos, about $1.50.

 

The first Cineteca I ever went to was actually a Filmoteca in Madrid. A friend brought me and showed me the joy of cheap, curated film cycles. After that I´ve seen maybe a dozen, the most famous one the Cineteca in Torino, and the more recently opened Cinemateca in Bogotá, none of which hold a candle to this complex that felt like a megaplex for arthouse films. There were cafes, a bookstore, a gaming shop, and restaurants. Despite the fact this was the middle of the week, in the middle of the day, young couples, a few older singletons like myself, were strolling into or out of a film.

 

And while the Cineteca impressed me, Güeros changed my whole day. Maybe it was the familiar neo-realist techniques (or was it French New Wave), the black and white, the hyper-stylized shots seem to beg for approval, or the fact that the film revolves around students in the Universidad Autónoma de México (UNAM) where I wished I had studied as an undergrad.

 

I hoped the smell of onions and chipotle on the torta I snuck in didn´t bother my neighbors; after the Cineteca showed its didactic don’t-do-this animated video, which featured someone eating a hot dog in the movie theater (a popular and condoned practice in Colombia) and others bothered by the smell of mustard.

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Güeros begins when a boy, Tomas is sent off by his mother Veracruz to visit his brother, a student in Mexico City. His brother, Federico, who people called Sombra or “the shadow,” and his friend Santos are in their own words protesting the UNAM protest, namely doing nothing. They pilfer electric power from a young girl with downs syndrome in the apartment below them, until her parents find out. Tomas spends his time listening to an old rock star, Epigenio Cruz, on a cassette his father gave him, who according to Sombra could have saved “rock nacional,” or Mexican rock. After being chased out of their own apartment for stealing electricity, they set off to find Epigenio, as his younger brother insists, but on the way, stop by the occupied UNAM campus and pick up Sombra´s love interest, Ana, essentially the head of the protest movement, until her actual boyfriend, an activist, moves against her and takes over. In the end the four of them find themselves more or less on a mission, the adults taking it much less seriously than Tomas.

 

The title however continues to perplex me. When I told a Mexican friend I liked this film, she told me she read that Güeros was too güero. As defined at the beginning of the film a güero is “someone with light hair or skin.” In one scene, Ana takes the boys to a classy get together at a high scale bar. Ana and Sombra begin to argue and she shoves him into a fountain. He falls and pulls her along with him, then Tomas and Santos jump in. Horseplay ensues until a security guard comes over and tells them, “Hey, güeros, you can’t be in there.” Santos flips out, pointing out that Sombra (so dark he’s called sombra or “shadow”) is not a güero and that he isn’t either. The scene got some laughs and Santos’s tangent is funny, but it really made me question why the film was called güeros.

 

It stayed in my head on the way home. Everywhere I go here people call me güero, which aside from the chicano grindcore Brujería song I used to listen to in high school (¨Matando güeros¨ or ¨Killing güeros¨) I don´t find it offensive. Come to think of it, I don’t really find that offensive either.

 

But why name them for something they, as a group, are not? But then maybe this güero doesn´t really get the concept of güero. What if the definition at the beginning at the film was intentionally limited to a denotational meaning? I suppose there could be connotations of class as well in the term. But Sombra and Tomás seem to come from a relatively poor family. I was lost.

 

Then the film gave me an idea: if they can protest a protest, why not take a vacation from vacation? So I decided a better way to enjoy my visit was to quit acting like it was the last time I would be here, trying to bring home some piece of concrete to memorialize my trip. Instead, I would not make an itinerary or make any effort to see new places, I decided to do what I´ve been doing: drinking mezcal, eating five times a day, and going to the Cineteca Nacional a lo güero. I should say, drinking mezcal moderately; too much mezcal and I would have to use my camera to reconstruct memories.

Review: The History of American Graffiti by Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon (Harper Design)

I wrote this review a few years ago when the book first came out. For one reason or another, the magazine I was working with never published it.

Graffiti seems to have hit some unofficial anniversary: a graffiti retrospective at Los Angeles’ Museum of Modern Art opened; a slew of glossy volumes of spray-can art hit the shelves; and the largest archive of subway aerosol art is about to be released on DVD. And yet this “anniversary” seems almost as perplexing as it’s beginning, when in 1971 the New York Times reported that a young Greek-American teenager had written his name and street number all over the city, TAKI 168.

But as The History of American Graffiti will teach you, the art form goes back even further than that, to chalk writing on rail cars during the depression, and WWII veterans´ collective comic figure Kilroy that appeared everyone from bus terminals to subway tunnels. In other words, this is not graffiti in the sense in which it is generally discussed today: illegal urban adornment courtesy of disenfranchised youth. Since its reception in downtown galleries in New York in the 1980s, graffiti has remained not far from where it began, a neat novelty, but nothing that would actually change the world that it would – if only, briefly – inhabit. However, its international ubiquity is inarguable. Something like jazz music, graffiti has left its prints nearly everywhere in the world, to the point it’s often hard to say exactly how it has come to be this way.

Robert Gastman and Caleb Neelon, editors of the long-running street art periodical Juxtapoz, have created a book that serves both as an introduction to the aerosol world and as a definitive resource for aficionados and researchers alike. Entries explain the most basic principles of graffiti in its evolution, while uncovering undocumented histories; for example, those who, like this writer, read the graffiti paperback classic Gettin’ Up, will be surprised that its author was teaching high school at Manhattan’s Art and Design High School, a long time breeding ground for graffiti writers.   Others will be surprised to find out that “tagging” actually began in Philadelphia, where African-Americans were writing their names on walls in increasingly unexpected ways. A few Phillie transplants kept up their hobby in New York and inspired copy cats. Of course, this is just one theory. Proving that this actually influenced New York would be difficult, as it could have sprouted in two places at once. (The book provides no bibliography.)

Although there has been plenty of sociological studies of graffiti – like Gregory J. Snyder´s Graffiti Lives – this is the first comprehensive history of graffiti as a nationwide phenomenon – that is to say not just New York and Los Angeles. According to our editors, graffiti in other cities begins with the arrival of a New York or Los Angeles expat, who like a virus, infects peers with aerosol art fever. By the later half of graffiti – between 1980-1987 – media like Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant´s documentary Style Wars and their picture book Subway Art were igniting interest and inspiring copycats cities without subways to paint on. In many cases it took the arrival of actual practitioners like Revolt in Baltimore, or Seen in Providence, or one particularly zealous spirit, like Cool ¨Disco¨ Dan of Washington, D.C., to spark a trend.

Gastman and Neelon make the case that by the time the 1980s were rolling around, this art in its essence, was on the way out of the subway tunnels. Then few suspected that aerosol art on trains would ever end. Now entire collections of “flix” have been published recently by graffiti writers like Alain Maduera, suggesting that there is an expanding market for private collections of Polaroid pictures. From the Platform: Subway Graffiti 1983-1989 is basically Paul Cavalieri’s, – better known as CAVS – collection of pictures from his and his friends ceaseless documenting of the last the six years of subway graffiti. Translucent chinsy white font aside, the candid photos of teenager in 1980´s flashy studs, sideburns and moustaches, smiling in cars of dripping scrawl, or flashing their sneakers at the camera like fancy meals, not to mention the dozens of trains splattered in colorful letters, beneath gray and brown apartment buildings, are mesmerizing.

Jeffrey Deitch, curator of the exhibition at MOCA, might have canonized street art, but a re-birth of gallery graffiti is less than likely. What was once fresh and raw has gone the way of so many vanguards, absorbed into the putty of consumerism, and rendered another ornament in our hyper-baroque lives. If someone had actually ripped one of these trains´walls off, it would surely be selling for top prices; unfortunately, no one then would have guessed subway graffiti would cease to be painted on public transit. As a result, the closest thing to evidence of their ephemeral art, are these pictures. Their rarity has even been further pumped by graffiti task forces recent tendency to confiscate picture collections as evidence in criminal trials. Graffiti photographer legend, Henry Chalfant, has been compiling an online collection of early subway art, soon to be released on a DVD that contains photos of 800 painted trains.

This handsome volume will surely serve either as a reliable reference work – thanks to thorough investigation and photo gathering – or a streetwise coffee-table book; if not, it will could serve as a bible for the ever-growing base of graffiti fanatics.

Whatever graffiti is, or where it is, it illegally persists in some form or another in most parts of the world. Cities everywhere allot large sums of money to clean surfaces with even more layers of paint, an endless battle of a thousand micro-Pyrrhic victories. At the same time, this sign of urban decay casually decorates handbags. It still seems to be a symbol of something, but what exactly? Meanwhile, the act of graffiti – be it painting, etching, chemically burning – is very much illegal, and particularly frowned upon by police in the United States. The fact that it can be at once so appreciated and despised is perhaps a reason to say that this art form – if not, aesthetic – continues to be relevant in our society, decades after its start.

Graffiti seems to have hit some unofficial anniversary: a graffiti retrospective at Los Angeles’ Museum of Modern Art opened; a slew of glossy volumes of spray-can art hit the shelves; and the largest archive of subway aerosol art is about to be released on DVD. And yet this “anniversary” seems almost as perplexing as it’s beginning, when in 1971 the New York Times reported that a young Greek-American teenager had written his name and street number all over the city, TAKI 168.

But as The History of American Graffiti will teach you, the art form goes back even further than that, to chalk writing on rail cars during the depression, and WWII veterans´ collective comic figure Kilroy that appeared everyone from bus terminals to subway tunnels. In other words, this is not graffiti in the sense in which it is generally discussed today: illegal urban adornment courtesy of disenfranchised youth. Since its reception in downtown galleries in New York in the 1980s, graffiti has remained not far from where it began, a neat novelty, but nothing that would actually change the world that it would – if only, briefly – inhabit. However, its international ubiquity is inarguable. Something like jazz music, graffiti has left its prints nearly everywhere in the world, to the point it’s often hard to say exactly how it has come to be this way.

Robert Gastman and Caleb Neelon, editors of the long-running street art periodical Juxtapoz, have created a book that serves both as an introduction to the aerosol world and as a definitive resource for aficionados and researchers alike. Entries explain the most basic principles of graffiti in its evolution, while uncovering undocumented histories; for example, those who, like this writer, read the graffiti paperback classic Gettin’ Up, will be surprised that its author was teaching high school at Manhattan’s Art and Design High School, a long time breeding ground for graffiti writers.   Others will be surprised to find out that “tagging” actually began in Philadelphia, where African-Americans were writing their names on walls in increasingly unexpected ways. A few Phillie transplants kept up their hobby in New York and inspired copy cats. Of course, this is just one theory. Proving that this actually influenced New York would be difficult, as it could have sprouted in two places at once. (The book provides no bibliography.)

Although there has been plenty of sociological studies of graffiti – like Gregory J. Snyder´s Graffiti Lives – this is the first comprehensive history of graffiti as a nationwide phenomenon – that is to say not just New York and Los Angeles. According to our editors, graffiti in other cities begins with the arrival of a New York or Los Angeles expat, who like a virus, infects peers with aerosol art fever. By the later half of graffiti – between 1980-1987 – media like Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant´s documentary Style Wars and their picture book Subway Art were igniting interest and inspiring copycats cities without subways to paint on. In many cases it took the arrival of actual practitioners like Revolt in Baltimore, or Seen in Providence, or one particularly zealous spirit, like Cool ¨Disco¨ Dan of Washington, D.C., to spark a trend.

Gastman and Neelon make the case that by the time the 1980s were rolling around, this art in its essence, was on the way out of the subway tunnels. Then few suspected that aerosol art on trains would ever end. Now entire collections of “flix” have been published recently by graffiti writers like Alain Maduera, suggesting that there is an expanding market for private collections of Polaroid pictures. From the Platform: Subway Graffiti 1983-1989 is basically Paul Cavalieri’s, – better known as CAVS – collection of pictures from his and his friends ceaseless documenting of the last the six years of subway graffiti. Translucent chinsy white font aside, the candid photos of teenager in 1980´s flashy studs, sideburns and moustaches, smiling in cars of dripping scrawl, or flashing their sneakers at the camera like fancy meals, not to mention the dozens of trains splattered in colorful letters, beneath gray and brown apartment buildings, are mesmerizing.

Jeffrey Deitch, curator of the exhibition at MOCA, might have canonized street art, but a re-birth of gallery graffiti is less than likely. What was once fresh and raw has gone the way of so many vanguards, absorbed into the putty of consumerism, and rendered another ornament in our hyper-baroque lives. If someone had actually ripped one of these trains´walls off, it would surely be selling for top prices; unfortunately, no one then would have guessed subway graffiti would cease to be painted on public transit. As a result, the closest thing to evidence of their ephemeral art, are these pictures. Their rarity has even been further pumped by graffiti task forces recent tendency to confiscate picture collections as evidence in criminal trials. Graffiti photographer legend, Henry Chalfant, has been compiling an online collection of early subway art, soon to be released on a DVD that contains photos of 800 painted trains.

This handsome volume will surely serve either as a reliable reference work – thanks to thorough investigation and photo gathering – or a streetwise coffee-table book; if not, it will could serve as a bible for the ever-growing base of graffiti fanatics.

Whatever graffiti is, or where it is, it illegally persists in some form or another in most parts of the world. Cities everywhere allot large sums of money to clean surfaces with even more layers of paint, an endless battle of a thousand micro-Pyrrhic victories. At the same time, this sign of urban decay casually decorates handbags. It still seems to be a symbol of something, but what exactly? Meanwhile, the act of graffiti – be it painting, etching, chemically burning – is very much illegal, and particularly frowned upon by police in the United States. The fact that it can be at once so appreciated and despised is perhaps a reason to say that this art form – if not, aesthetic – continues to be relevant in our society, decades after its start.