Page Turners


'Tagger' Fan Draws Flack

Gregory Snyder at graffiti-covered wall he spotted in lower

Riding his bicycle across the Williamsburg Bridge one day in 1995, Gregory Snyder encountered something that nearly knocked him off his seat and into the East River. He stopped to admire a sprawl of graffiti — SENTO, the writer's "tag," in bold shades of green, blue, orange and yellow — on a concrete support at the crest of the bridge.

Snyder was a graduate student in sociology whose master's thesis explored the conversion of early slaves to Christianity. But the graffiti changed all that. "I was fascinated by the color, the size — and the fact that it could be done," recalls Snyder, who is now an assistant professor of sociology at Baruch College. "There was a bit of danger in hanging on the ledge to write it. I was just, 'Wow.' It unleashed this onslaught of curiosity that I couldn't stifle. I went straight to my advisor and said, 'I'm not going to study Christianity any more. I'm going to study graffiti writing."

Over the next 10 years, Snyder immersed himself in one of New York City's more disreputable subcultures. "It's as complex as any," Snyder says. "The idea of writing your name throughout the city, in as many ways as possible, in as many dangerous ways as possible, for the purpose of becoming famous.

"Who were these young men? Why did they do what they did? Was it art or vandalism — or both? To find the answers, Snyder interviewed and hung out with scores of graffiti writers—or "taggers" and "bombers," as they're known — and befriended many. He accompanied them into underground train tunnels and dark alleyways — sometimes serving as a lookout and, on a few occasions, partaking with a can of spray paint.

Snyder's book Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York's Urban Underground, (New York University Press, 2009) has stirred spirited reactions by reviewers. Said Publisher's Weekly: "Snyder's 'the kids are all right' assessment, buttressed by many examples of thrill-seeking taggers finding successful careers in art, design, publishing, and (commissioned) mural painting, is well- articulated, convincing, and quite possibly reassuring for the urbanites living among (or perhaps raising) today's writers and bombers."

A Wall Street Journal critic, meanwhile, expressed equal contempt for Snyder's book and a famous 1974 essay in which Norman Mailer celebrated graffiti as artistic expression. The Journal published Synder's response. His objective was to explore and understand a particular subculture in all its "complexity and confusion," he wrote, and in the process discovered "an empirical reality that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Graffiti writers for the most part are not immoral, crime-addled imps."

On the other hand, says Snyder, "to be mentioned in the same paragraph as Norman Mailer — that's pretty good company.

Near Black White-to-Black
Passing in American Culture

John Jay College assistant professor of English Baz Dreisinger University of Massachusetts Press

Dreisinger explores the often-ignored history of what she calls "reverse racial passing" by looking at a broad spectrum of short stories, novels, films, autobiographiess and pop-culture discourses that depict whites passing for black. The protagonists of these narratives span centuries and cross contexts, from slavery to civil rights, jazz to rock to hip-hop. Tracing their role from the 1830s to the present. Dreisinger argues that central to the enterprise of reverse passing are ideas about proximity.

Jonathan Demme: Interviews

Edited by Queens College professor of sociology and film studies Robert E. Kapsis University Press of Mississippi

With conversations from the 1970s to the present, the book focuses on Demme's artistry, on his filmmaking philosophy and especially on his progressive social and political concerns and how these have influenced his subject matter. Best known for the Oscar-winning dramas "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Philadelphia," Demme discusses his troubles with studios, his need to balance documentaries with fiction films, his early work as a critic and publicist and his apprenticeship with Roger Corman working on B movies.