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Graffiti Is Back in Virus-Worn New York

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The Seventies called. They want their walls back.

While most New Yorkers grudgingly accepted New York City’s lockdown in March, one community eagerly embraced it: graffiti writers. Deserted commercial streets with gated storefronts offered thousands of blank canvases for quick tags or two-tone throwies, while decorative murals in gentrifying neighborhoods were sprayed over as the streets rendered a definitive critique.

From the South Bronx to East New York, a new generation of graffiti writers has emerged, many of whom have never hit a trainyard or the inside of a subway car. But like early taggers who grew up in a city beset by crime, grime and empty coffers, today’s generation is dealing with its own intense fears over the devastating effects of the coronavirus on communities and the economy.

“It all begins and ends with angst,” said Mr. Matos, 58, the son of an evangelical preacher who grew up in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx. “Teenage angst is always going to be provoked. I always equate graffiti with music, like the way Stevie Wonder wrote political songs. What’s going on in the streets is a response to things.”

EASY, who started out on the trains in 1982, has gone out tagging about five times alone or with friends during the lockdown. He prefers to travel by train and foot, most recently having put up a number of quick tags along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn at night. While pedestrians were scarce, the police were not. At one point he threw down his spray can and rummaged through a nearby garbage can as a squad car approached.

Compared with previous decades, however, the streets felt safer, he said.

“During the ’80s it was very dangerous,” said EASY, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It wasn’t a big thing if you wrote graffiti on a train. But when you went to some neighborhoods, people might think what you wrote on the street was a code to put someone in bodily danger. You could be mistaken for someone sending a message and get shot.”

“Some of these names are hard to keep up with,” Mr. Felisbret said. “But there are also a few vets up in there, too. Face it, for a writer, seeing those gates down is sweet.”

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