Friday, March 25, 2011

New York Dick

One thing that isn't vanishing from the city is penis graffiti. It's been around for a long time, since the Paleolithic days, and is still going strong. A connoisseur and documentarian of the genre, Galen Smith, has published New York Dick, a collection of such defacements featured on subway advertisements. I asked Smith some questions about his quest.

Q: I'm impressed by the sheer abundance of graffitied penises you were able to gather with your camera. For how long have you been an observer of New York dicks, and what inspired you to put them together in a book?

A: I've been shooting subway poster defacements of all kinds for about four years. Among the most common and weirdly powerful of the defacements were the ad-violating penis drawings.

Whenever I mentioned seeing a notable example of a schlong attacking a superstar, whoever I was talking to would join in and recount their favorite examples of pricks on posters, the weird details of the drawing style, the pop personality involved, and where the thing was sticking, or growing. I started to realize that these dumb defacements really make an impression.

I began to get a feel for the crazy conflict/dialog that was occurring. A pushy statement is made by the voice in charge of the situation (the ad), but at the very moment that I'm supposed to be won over by the ad, these rude graphics bust in and make clear how strange, fake, and self-absorbed the whole situation is. This upsetting of the expected is what made the dirty doodles funny, and not just lewd or hateful. The statement of disrespect was a fair one, and one we all understood.

Q: Has anyone ever reacted negatively--or positively--when catching you in the act of snapping a dick photo?

A: I do most of my shooting early in the morning, I try to work when there aren't many people in the stations. When there are people around they seem curious why I'm so laboriously poring over a sloshy prick drawing, lovingly photographing it like it's an adorable puppy. This attention makes me nervous so I try not to attract it, but I have noticed that after I've tipped them off that there is something worth seeing on this penis-ized poster they seem to check it out more carefully.

Q: Why do you think people feel compelled to graffiti penises? And why don't we see as many graffiti vaginas?

A: The quick hard-on sketch is an easily understood folk graphic that has a lot of powerful meanings, some very nasty, some fairly benign. Tagging a poster image with a dorky penis is delivering a sexualized insult, an implication of idiocy, and an intense disrespect mixed with buffoonery. They totally reframe the dialog.

I've seen some terrific female genital defacements too, but they don't seem to be perceived as having the same multifaceted insulting power as the penises. Also, it's harder to use the vaggie doodles in the same kind of conceptually disruptive interloper role that the wee-wees are used in. I think most of the defacers feel it's easier to use the penises as rude invaders of the mind space. They're easy to draw, easy to read, and pack lots of disrespectful meanings.

Q: Have you noticed any trends in New York dicks? For example, do they fluctuate in number according to the economy? Are they different in different neighborhoods?

A: Its very difficult to pin down trends in dick drawing, and impossible to prove what's causing them. Certain train lines seem more fertile, probably because these lines have a lot of waiting time, have graphically gregarious riders, and more than a few of them might be intoxicated. Often the trends seem more conceptual, such as a certain poster enticing huge amounts of defacements of all kinds, and other posters getting the same dong drawn in the same spot all over town. The other common phenomena is that some personalities seem to motivate lots of people to get smart-alecky. Eddie Murphy seems to always attract intense graphic brutalization.

Q: One thing we've seen a lot of in the East Village, in wintertime, are penises drawn in the snow. My fellow blogger EV Grieve often chronicles the activities of what he calls The Penistrator. If you had to guess, how might you compare the psychology of a snow-penis maker to a Magic Marker- or spraypaint-penis maker?

A: Snow penises always seem to have more whimsy about them than Sharpie or paint penises, and I imagine that the maker is more witty and whimsical too, at least at that moment. I think this is caused by a combination of factors. First, snow penises have a sort of here today gone tomorrow wistfulness. Second, they seem less edgy and hard, less destructive, and less aggressive, probably because their physical qualities are unconnected to traditional urban graff and it's confrontational attitude. Sharpie artists working on ad posters are witty too sometimes, but the "vandalism light" aspect of their work makes them clearly more graffiti-like, and they do occasionally drift into bad nastiness, not fun nastiness.

Q: Tell the truth--have you ever drawn your own dick graffiti?

A: I haven't, I feel that if I did it would violate the spirit of what I'm trying to document, I'm not a public prick artist, I just have a sincere appreciation of those who are. But I do often see posters that seem to be begging for some penis upgrades, I often want to scrawl across the ad "WHY AREN'T YOU DRAWING DICKS ON THIS!" but I resist, and in time, people tend to wake up to reality and dick that which needs to be dicked. We are wise to do so.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Cells at Registers

People talk on their cell phones everywhere. We know this. We bear this unbearable fact daily. But one of the more egregious cell-phone uses occurs at the city's countless cash registers. You've seen them. Those people who approach the counter, plop down their purchases, and say nothing to the cashier, all the while yakking to some invisible someone else while the worker silently rings up their wares.

Money changes hands. No one speaks. The consumer behaves as if they are alone in the universe. It's one of the more dehumanizing everyday experiences we can witness.

Some businesses have begun expressing their weariness of such behavior with little signs displayed on their cash registers.

Think Coffee tries the polite approach, "kindly refrain from talking on your cell phone when ordering."

Soy Luck Cafe takes another tack, trying to flip the script, "If you are on the phone at the counter we will pretend that you don't exist." (As you pretend we don't exist.)

In small, parenthetical type, they add, "It's a beautiful world all around you. Be a part of it."

Awhile back, Ken Belson wrote about sidewalk cellphone use in the Times, "cellphone walkers are less likely to help a stranger in need, for instance, or to exchange pleasantries with passers-by. They are effectively cutting themselves off from the random encounters in public spaces that used to invigorate city living."

In Sherry Turkle's new book Alone Together, she complains "that the sight at a local cafe of people focused on their computers and smartphones as they drink their coffee bothers her: 'These people are not my friends,' she writes, 'yet somehow I miss their presence.'" In the Times review, Kakutani called this "primly sanctimonious...sentimental whining," but it's a profound statement. I know how Turkle feels. We have lost people to these devices.

As we lose humans to technology, we also lose a piece of our humanity.