Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City / Edition 1

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In the 1960s and early 1970s, young people in New York City radically altered the tradition of writing their initials on neighborhood walls. Influenced by the widespread use of famous names on billboards, in neon, in magazines, newspapers, and typographies from advertising and comics, city youth created a new form of expression built around elaborately designed names and initials displayed on public walls, vehicles, and subways. Critics called it "graffiti," but to the practitioners it was "writing."

Taking the Train traces the history of "writing" in New York City against the backdrop of the struggle that developed between the city and the writers. Austin tracks the ways in which "writing"-- a small, seemingly insignificant act of youthful rebellion--assumed crisis-level importance inside the bureaucracy and the public relations of New York City mayoral administrations and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for almost two decades. Taking the Train reveals why a global city short on funds made "wiping out graffiti" an expensive priority while other needs went unfunded. Although the city eventually took back the trains, Austin eloquently shows how and why the culture of "writing" survived to become an international art movement and a vital part of hip-hop culture.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review

Austin argues that the graffiti epidemic was really a smokescreen for poor civic management, and that graffiti itself was the inevitable result of a whole outpouring of structural social factors.


A meticulous history.

Village Voice

Lets the graf writers talk back to the haters, while offering a nuanced reassessment of New York City's graffiti scene.

Urban Studies

Austin does full justice simultaneously to New York as a symbolic, although never more than partially representable, city; to changes in the city's economy which create nationally unusual shifts in the relative distribution of wealth and in the ethnic make-up of poverty...ranges widely and with rich detail, yet always anchored in the central narrative focus.

Publishers Weekly
Denied the usual outlets for making a name for themselves, young men from urban communities turned in the 1960s and early '70s to large-scale graffiti projects on subway cars technically called "writing" to make their mark. "When you're poor, that's all you've got," claims Iz the Wiz, one of the graffiti artists presented by Austin, a Bowling Green University professor of popular culture. This provocative examination of urban graffiti culture's heyday suggests that "writing could have been promoted as a homegrown public art movement," but instead it was relegated, by authorities and much of the media, as vandalism. Arguing that "writing" functions as a "prestige economy," making the writer famous outside of his neighborhood, Austin examines in depth both its artistic and social meanings. From the function of networking between neighborhoods to the social difference between the Great Tradition style and the later invention of Throw Ups, Austin fills his broad canvas with such diverse issues as the history of juvenile delinquency in Manhattan; Robert Moses's legacy of urban development; how and why the New York Times changed its editorial position on graffiti; and the eventual relation of "writing" to zine and video culture. Austin's precise, witty and genial style perfectly meshes with his rigorous research and analysis. He makes the differences between emerging "bombers" and "piecers," or the social hierarchy that relegates "toy taggers" to the bottom rungs, seem vital and rife with cultural import. The Metropolitan Transit Authority's "retaking" of the trains in the mid-'80s is thus viewed as a mixed blessing at best. (Mar.) Forecast: This exemplary study makes important contributions to understanding contemporary art, urban sociology and the culture wars, yet reads like a trade book. Heightened New York interest should broaden its appeal; look for success from New York or art-based display tables. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this scholarly volume Austin, an assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University and coeditor of Generations of Youth, analyzes the social world of "writers" who spray-paint their names and other stylized markings on New York's public spaces. Austin adopts the perspective of those outside the power structure, using the graffiti artists' own writings, media accounts of the issue, and interviews to explore this topic. In this perspective, the graffiti writers' activities contribute not only to their own identity but also to the shared experience of city life. The writers collaborate to develop their art form and build their "fame" among other scribes. Their activities are in opposition to political and legal authorities who seek to protect private property and restrict freedom of expression. Although solidly academic, this book is enlivened by its fascinating topic. Recommended for academic collections emphasizing popular culture and urban anthropology. Paula R. Dempsey, DePaul Univ. Lib., Chicago Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231111430
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 1/2/2002
  • Series: Popular Cultures, Everyday Lives Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Joe Austin, assistant professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, is coeditor of Generations of Youth: Youth and Youth Cultures in the 20th Century.

Columbia University Press

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


At no time in the last century have resident New Yorkers or outside observers been unanimous in their opinion about the present state or the future of New York City. Predictions of impending civic collapse have a long history in this metropolis, fueled by scare stories with an ever-changing cast of urban villains—the "dangerous classes," "the immigrant threat," "welfare queens," "wilding youths." In the shared public drama of urban life, New York City is sometimes portrayed on the newspapers' front pages and in editorials as a chaotic human hive, an unstable structure whose frantic inhabitants are at risk of fracturing the moral and legal pillars that have held it upright in the past. At the same time, we may hear and read proud and fervent assertions that New Yorkers are living in the Rome of our time, the contemporary center of human civilization. Cast in these equally familiar terms, New York City is the Big Apple, "the City That Never Sleeps," and the Capital of the Twentieth Century—the global ground zero for fame, fortune, culture, and the cosmopolitan good life. Somewhere between these opposites is an undetermined, heterogeneous human collective of seven million people with coexisting presents and fluctuating futures, held together within the shared public imagination by the single name "New York City." These seven million live within thousands of differing cultural, social, and economic networks, networks that overlap in one location, intertwine and integrate in another, or remainrigidly segregated in others.

The city, as a whole, is inaccessible to the imagination unless it can be reduced and simplified.

While [the city] may be stable in general outlines for some time, it is ever-changing in detail.... There is no final result, only a continuous succession of phases.... The image of the Manhattan skyline may stand for vitality, power, decadence, mystery, congestion, greatness, or what you will, but in each case that sharp picture crystallizes and reinforces the meaning.

    We seem unable to envision the whole of New York City without significantly reducing its all-too-human complexities. Within the commercial marketplace, the communications and entertainment industries filter these complexities of urban social life through familiar framing stories about the city's present and future. Mass-mediated public framing stories do the cultural work of simplifying the complex city by selectively guiding our attention to particular individuals, groups, events, or trends via representations of their most easily recognized and distinguishing qualities. In commercial broadcasts, framing stories sort things out on a citywide scale, and thereby reinforce and subtly revise the mental maps that coordinate and focus our shared public expectations. Framing stories transform the complex whole of New York City into a place that is transparent, legible, and relatively predictable for the newspaper reader and television viewer, as well as the commuter, the taxi driver, and the neighborhood stroller. Framing stories encompass and orient the myriad local stories—from a horrific murder on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to a new shopping area in Flatbush—by placing them into an understandable relationship to common visions of the city's present and future. They allow us to confront a constantly changing social environment with an always undetermined future, and yet still "put things in order" for ourselves: set daily expectations and make plans, initiate and adapt to change, interpret the past, and maintain the stability of everyday life. A framing story is a more or less unconscious and unexamined but nonetheless socially produced public narrative of "how things are" and "how things are likely to be" in the city. Powerful framing stories easily become "common sense."

    As might be expected among seven million people, there are always several conflicting framing stories in widespread circulation at any given time. But these competing stories tend not to be equally influential. It is by way of the commercial public sphere—the mass media business—that most New Yorkers grasp the city as a whole place. It is by way of commercially produced stories that most New Yorkers know what their governments have done and are doing, which individuals or groups are in the public spotlight, what important events are taking place, what trends to expect, what the stakes are in interpreting "the way things are" in this way or that, and so forth. In a competitive information marketplace, the "important" events and "real" meanings of our shared public lives are sold as commodities to consumers, even if payment for this commodity is only an endless barrage of advertising. As a result, some of the most important documents of public life are contained within the dominant commercial framing stories: news reports, editorials, headlines and photos, radio talk shows, and so on. The commercial public sphere signals to its audiences their respective places in the several ongoing dramas of New York City. It informs them which of the several framing stories they were, are, should be, or will soon be living. Since New York City is a national center for the commercial media, these stories are not just local; they are frequently broadcast to the entire nation and to the world.

    Even though we usually think of stories as fictional and immaterial, the mass-mediated framing stories I have in mind here both alter and reflect concrete reality in important ways. The assertion that we are guided by stories that narrate our collective lives does not deny that there are more or fewer crimes committed in some areas, more or less economic prosperity now, more or less desirable housing in this neighborhood or that. Any observant New Yorker can easily produce a substantial body of undeniable material evidence in support of any one or several of the prevailing framing stories of the moment. Framing stories are intangible, difficult to recognize, and often unconscious—they are, after all, "common sense"—but they are nonetheless created and sustained through concrete human history, through real life. But a framing story, like all other stories, selects a certain limited number of recognizable aspects of human experience for interpretation, and discards or diminishes the others. (Distortion and intentional fabrication are obviously a part of many framing stories as well.)

    On the basis of this selection and interpretation process, policies are created, public issues and problems are presented to voters, and solutions are formulated and justified. At the same time, the stories we tell ourselves are open to reflection and change. In collectively creating our present situation, we make our own story, and in interpreting our story, we create the possibility of new futures.

    Take, for example, the common and recurring framing story of New York City as the Big Apple, the New Rome, the Capital of the Twentieth Century. These fantasies are not without some basis in material reality. New York has long been the largest city in the United States and is among the five largest in the world. It overtook Paris at mid-century as the art capital of the Western world. It is a city of the world spectacle, an important center of global tourism and entertainment. New York City's place near the top of the global capitalist economy is also long-standing and unquestioned. The physical structures of the city—its streets, parks, bridges, and skyline—are among the prime examples of twentieth-century modernism's monumental urban vision.

    In this very real but stagelike setting, the story of the New Rome presents the social reality of the city according to a progressive vision that values economic growth, cultural prestige, social stability, and opportunity for individual advancement, emphasizing "the good life" and the city's exalted place in the global hierarchy. This is the joyous, utopian New York City of Broadway musicals, reflected everywhere in clear-sky picture postcards and tourist photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center, skaters in Central Park, and the crowds on Wall Street. This vision of New York is alive in every issue of the New Yorker, in the Times's real estate and arts sections, in any brochure from the New York City Tourist Bureau, in Woody Allen's movies, in popular television programs like The Odd Couple and Friends, and in hundreds of other mass-media texts. Even Disney's attempt to make its mark on Manhattan has an understandable, if cruel and calculating, logic since the city has long been a national and global site for some of our most cherished myths and fantasies of life in the United States. Indeed, for an overrepresented few, New York City has been a real-life Disneyland.

    But this mythic New York City is always stalked by its Other, the Naked City, the Asphalt Jungle, the Rotten Apple, where the story is one of living in the shadowy crevices of the modern metropolis. Poverty, crime, moral decay in infinite variety, claustrophobic surroundings, alienation, uncaring bureaucracies, inequality, struggle, restricted life chances, loneliness, ruin, and loss have equally long histories in New York City, but these stories are less frequently recited. The story of the Naked City is one of a fearful and inhumane present and a lack of hope for the future. It is recognizable in the small details of a century's worth of charity agency case files, in public health campaigns against illnesses ranging from tuberculosis to AIDS, in reformers' documentary photos, and in the background or foreground of thousands of popular movies, from the film noir classic Naked City (1948) to Planet of the Apes (1968), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Superfly (1972), Death Wish (1974), Escape from New York (1981), Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981), and Godzilla (1998). The Naked City marks the city limits of the New Rome. The Naked City makes the New Rome possible. The New Rome is built across the Naked City's back.

    Conflicts and contradictions between widely circulating commercial framing stories, like the conflict I have just described between the New Rome and the Naked City, often underlie our everyday conversations as well as public debates about the city and the meanings of the events and lives shared there. At certain historical moments it seems that most New Yorkers live in the New Rome; at another time, the shadows of the Naked City seem to cover the entire metropolis.

    For almost two decades after 1965, the conflicting narrative frames that sorted out the city's events and "made sense" of the trends in the metropolis progressively narrowed and then became fixed into a single, repeating, formulaic storyline: New York City is falling apart, the New Rome is moving elsewhere, the Naked City is upon us. Heated local discussions in newspapers, in congressional meeting rooms, and on park benches often dealt with whatever particular aspect of the city that seemed to be falling apart at that moment: its moral order, its streets, its status in the national and global hierarchy of cities, its government, its commitment to its children, the safety of residents, its economy, the crime rate. And there were sometimes furious debates about assigning responsibility for these failures, and about the proper public actions to be taken in response. But the narrative framework of "urban decline" predominated and encompassed almost all these localized stories and debates. Understanding the fluctuating connections between the various framing stories of New York City in the past and the dominance of the Naked City framework after the mid-1960s is fundamental, I believe, to coming to terms with why writers' celebrations of the nation's 1976 bicentennial were so brutally received. Writing was called to play a particularly important role in the public melodrama of the fall of New York City in the mid-1960s and its resurrection in the 1980s.


New York City was not the only U.S. city perceived to be in decline during the 1960s. But New York City was taken as an important index for all other central cities; thus, the decline of New York City was itself iconic. The narrative framework of "urban decline" made sense of a wide range of important yet conflicting public events and trends, and remained the dominant narrative for understanding life in the city for almost two decades. Among the most important events that this story could sort out were the various failures to renew New York successfully and completely for all citizens after the Great Depression and World War II.

    The decade of the Great Depression had been followed by a decade of war and demobilization, a long stretch of time to spend in the shadows of the Naked City. After the war, elite groups returned to the grandiose plans made during the regional planning movement and the economic boom years of the 1920s as guides to reestablish and renew New York City. The older plans were modified to fit the changed material circumstances, economic trends, and shifts in personnel, power, and ideology that had occurred in the interim years. In making these adjustments, New York City's future-oriented renewers were confronted with immediate problems: long-neglected physical infrastructures (such as streets, mass transportation, and sewers) in need of repair, a severe housing shortage, and the slow but growing out-migration of factories, warehouses, and the white middle class. These problems called, on the one hand, for significant capital expenditures to rebuild infrastructures and expand housing, but the out-migrations pointed in another direction, toward a shrinking tax base and fewer revenue sources. The impending revenue crisis projected from these circumstances would not only hinder the city's renewal, but could prevent it altogether, as shrinking city funds had to be directed toward overwhelming demands already on the public agenda.

    The renewal regimes in New York City are uniquely complex and difficult to untangle due to the large number of autonomous public authorities (public corporations) that are partners in those regimes. Most of the public authorities whose territory extends over New York City were created during the urban renewal era as a way to transfer certain local revenue burdens to the state budget, to coordinate the construction and maintenance of large infrastructural services (such as bridges, roads, and ports) on a regional basis, to implement specific urban renewal and economic development objectives (e.g., the Battery Park Authority), and to provide many of the basic services of modern urban life, such as public housing, hospitals, and the mass transportation system.

    Public authorities are administered from within the New York State apparatus and derive their power directly from the state legislature. Most are administered by a chair and an appointed board of directors. Since their funding originates either in the state capital or from their own capacity to collect revenues and sell bonds, public authorities are able to bypass many of the local public approval processes and insulate themselves to a large degree from direct electoral oversight and control. As a result, the actions taken by pubic authorities are very difficult for local citizens to challenge effectively, thus allowing for a large measure of "expert" discretion in their operations. Public authorities are frequently called upon to manage infrastructure and state-sponsored capital projects that elites have deemed essential, particularly in those instances where the local electorates would have voted against them.

    Robert Moses headed several of the key public authorities and other governmental posts with significant jurisdiction over the planning and construction of the city before 1960. His position at the top of these governmental entities is of first importance in understanding the continuity between the New York Regional Planning Board of the 1920s and the urban renewal programs of the 1950s and 1960s. As Robert Fitch has shown, the forecasted business trends that guided, legitimated, and justified the urban renewal programs of the 1950s and 1960s had previously been the planning goals of the Regional Planning Board; financial prophesies made in the late 1920s became self-fulfilling public policies in the 1950s. Although Moses and his allies claimed a deep and abiding faith in the ghostly invisible hand of the capitalist marketplace, the boards of directors of most public authorities were stacked with representatives of real estate interests, business associations and corporations, and families of inherited wealth who made certain that the ghostly hand grabbed just the right properties and funded just the right redevelopment projects.

    By successfully influencing and shaping national urban renewal funding policies in the U.S. Congress during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the political/economic regimes of New York City, including the powerful public authorities, managed to anticipate and temporarily resolve many of the urban financial crises of the 1950s. The policies and programs they shaped also provided prime positions for them to direct the renewal and transformation of New York City. The necessity of repairing and rebuilding the decaying urban infrastructure of the Naked City became the opportunity to rebuild the New Rome. Because Moses and his allied urban renewers had ghost-written portions of the national legislation, they were able to anticipate federal funding with plans already in hand. As the site where many of the first major urban renewal grants were implemented, New York City held on to its iconic status and set the terms and guidelines that many other U.S. central cities would follow in their renewal projects.

    The broad historical pattern of geographic and economic change that resulted in the transfer of property taxes, revenues, and jobs outside U.S. central cities after 1950 is now retrospectively framed as "the postindustrial transformation," which is sometimes discussed in a more positive light as "the rise of the service sector." This process refers to movements and changes on at least three levels: international, national/regional, and local/ metropolitan. A substantial decline in the manufacturing and distribution ("goods-handling") sectors of the U.S. economy occurred at all three levels, beginning with the local/metropolitan. The goods-handling industries had previously served as important employment entry points for new unskilled workers in central cities. This part of the workforce was predominately made up of young people and recent migrants and immigrants, which included most of the African American, Caribbean, and Puerto Rican male workers in New York City immediately after World War II. These are also the groups that kept New York City's population at a relatively stable level while most other U.S. central cities lost a significant percentage of their population to the suburbs. At the same time, the financial, governmental, and service sectors experienced a dramatic growth almost equal to the fall of the goods-handling sectors. The federal urban renewal and the War on Poverty programs of the 1950s and 1960s were put forward as remedies for some of the crises and problems this structural transformation in employment had produced.

    Under the federal urban renewal programs, a city used its power of eminent domain to condemn and consolidate blocks of commercially attractive properties for economic redevelopment in order to bring the central cities physically in line with the new economy. Federal funds paid for the properties and for the destruction of existing buildings, thereby allowing the cleared properties to be sold by the city government to developers at prices and in conditions comparable to those available in suburban areas, where infrastructure was newer and land was much cheaper. Developers would then, ideally, construct new buildings that would raise the municipal tax base, create jobs, and spur further economic growth. In this plan, the invisible hand of private capital would reshape the public city in economically appropriate ways that would ultimately benefit everyone. The "productive destruction" (or "slum clearance" in its earlier stages) undertaken during this period spent public funds in an attempt to support capitalist profitability in the older, tightly packed core cities of the United States.

    The urban renewal projects that physically and socially reshaped New York City most dramatically were initiated between the early 1950s and the mid-1960s. They typically replaced lower-rent apartment buildings occupied by the working classes and populations of color with publicly financed middle-class and elite housing or office buildings. The renewal projects were intended to improve the city's "business climate" and its declining municipal tax base. As a result, renewal sites were selected for their potential profitability after redevelopment, not because of the condition of the housing or the profitability of the existing business areas that were destroyed. Much of the worst housing in the city was left untouched, especially in neighborhoods outside the lower half of Manhattan. Other renewal sites were selected to "socially anchor" elite cultural institutions, so that new enclaves of middle- and upper-middle-income housing would give the appearance of safety and stability. This had the effect of establishing an increasing number of middle- and upper-class homes near the major economic and elite cultural institutions while dispersing poor and nonwhite populations away from these and other parts of Manhattan.

    Robert Fitch argues that the profitable midtown manufacturing district was put to death in order to renew the New Rome. The mid-Manhattan manufacturers of the 1950s were well ahead of the curve in adopting the "flexible" methods that proved successful in sustaining the manufacturing sectors of other central cities during the postindustrial era. The manufacturing district in midtown relied upon the specific interconnections and locations of industries that allowed them to sustain and share local producers, skilled professions, and specialized machinery. This configuration had developed through a long period of adaptation to this particular geographic area; a relatively stable "business ecology" had evolved over time. The system of established interdependencies, based on location, could not simply "move elsewhere" in New York City, unless all could have agreed to move together to a similarly situated place. Such a move would have required unparalleled cooperation and coordination between individual firms and could not have occurred without substantial help and regulation from governmental authorities, which were not forthcoming. Most of the firms simply left the city. In displacing midtown manufacturing, city officials and real estate developers actively destroyed many of the existing and future living-wage jobs of central-city residents. The manufacturing and goods-handling sectors were driven out not by the ghostly hand of the marketplace, but by the influence of large real estate developers seeking super-profits from speculation in new midtown office construction that could house the planned growth in the so-called FIRE sectors (finance, insurance, and real estate) and their related support services.


Excerpted from TAKING THE TRAIN by Joe Austin. Copyright © 2001 by Joe Austin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

1. A Tale of Two Cities2. Taking the Trains: The Formation and Structure of "Writing Culture'' in the Early 1970s3. Writing "Graffiti'' in the Public Sphere: The Construction of Writing as an Urban Problem4. Repainting the Trains: The New York School of the 1970s5. The State of the Subways: The Transit Crisis, the Aesthetics of Fear, and the Second "War on Graffiti''6. Writing Histories7. Retaking the Trains8. The Walls and the World: Writing Culture, 1982--1990

Columbia University Press

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2002

    'Talking the Train Truth.'

    In my opinion, Joe Austin's book 'Taking the Train' picks up where 'Craig Castleman's book 'Getting Up' left off. 'Taking the Train' documents the many phases of 'graffitti writing' developed by the writers themselves. Evidently this time around, this art of the late 60's 'Iron Horse Era comes to an abrupt end by 1989. Though at times, Joe Austin seems a bit 'longwinded' in his discussions on the 'New Rome's' (New York) economic and political state. It is definately accurate and informative on a historical level including it's depiction of NYC's campaign against 'the uncontrollable plague.' Although subway graffitti life expectency was cut short, it did endure the test of time from the subway yards of the past to the city walls of today. Finally, I would like to thank Mr. Austin or coincidentally putting one of my works shown on page 170 a 'LOKA-PRIZ' done at the 238th street 'Bronx Hall of Fame' 1989. The

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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