The past and present are often the same in the desert. Everything changes—but nothing really goes away. On rocks west of the city, thousand-year-old faces of gods and warriors look down from lava cliffs onto subdivisions. On a rock to the northwest, conquistador Don Juan de Oñate left a message, and it's still there. On a rock to the east, ranchers carved their brands and names a century ago, and there they are. On a rock to the south, Billy the Kid and three others painted their names in white pigment, as if they wanted you to know them today.
The Southwest's dry climate has left the rock art and inscriptions of the past for us to see today, and that's amazing—to be able to feel a bit of an unknown world, to experience the collapse of time, to connect with other people through something they left behind. But without even leaving Albuquerque, you can connect more fully with your own world—through the names and images being left on city walls—through graffiti. With a little awareness, you can steal a glimpse of a secret map—a psychogeographic map of a city of the unseen—of people you may never actually encounter, but who are out there, in the dark, looking over their shoulders, risking arrest to proclaim their identities.
Not everyone loves graffiti, of course, and that's understandable. There are reasons not to. I don't love it all myself. But don't ask, “Is it art ... or vandalism?” It can be art and vandalism. And however you feel about it, graffiti is undeniably a sign of life. Look at it as a historian, an anthropologist, a philosopher, a detective or an art connoisseur, and you will find riches. Keep your eyes open in Albuquerque, and you will see wet-cement sidewalk carvings dating back at least to World War II—there's one from 1941 I've walked past around Buena Vista and Gold. Or the men's bathroom in the basement of UNM's Logan Hall once blew my mind when I saw “Kill Pig Nixon and All Other Pigs” cut deep into a stall door, with the x in “Nixon” a swastika.
Not everyone loves graffiti, of course, and that's understandable. There are reasons not to. I don't love it all myself. But don't ask, “Is it art ... or vandalism?” It can be art and vandalism. And however you feel about it, graffiti is undeniably a sign of life.
On bridges and signposts and curbs across the city, watch the complex intersection of lives in the New West play out in real time through the tags of gangs and their members. See a central tag featuring the gang's name and then the names of individuals surrounding the collective's name. Sometimes, where territory is disputed, those names are crossed out, and other names are written in their place. Learn a bit about them, and you'll find stories about racial and geographic conflicts; poverty, crime and prison (where many of these gangs recruit their members); class and inequality; determinism and the illusion of free will. StopABQGangs.org has a helpful introductory list of local gangs and their tags and has added much to my own observations.
Not all tags are gang tags, however. In the corporate oligarchy of our daily lives, anyone with enough money can pay to force their presence into your eyes all day—I once read somewhere where one soda company executive said he wanted to advertise so heavily you'd think of his product anytime you saw the color red—but many people can't afford much more than a permanent marker or grease pencil or can of spray paint, and they want to assert their existence, too. That's where I find value in tags, aka names written in public. I have favorite taggers—Feloh, Omen, Cyro, Monsh, Griffo, Amok, SOL and others—and as I find them around the city, that secret map unfolds itself in my mind.
Some graffiti comes in the form of pre-made stickers—there seem to be a lot of “Breaking Bad”-themed ones on signs in Albuquerque right now. Some appears in the form of stencils—spray paint applied through pre-cut posterboard. Some is wheatpasted—prepared beforehand on paper and then glued to poles and signs using a mix of flour and water. Often stencils and wheatpasting are combined, as in the stylized face of an unknown Hispanic male seen all over the city for the last two years. Some graffiti is painted freehand, like the locally famous dark-skinned version of the Simpsons in an alleyway near Ash and Gold. Some graffiti is political—such as the symbolic blood recently drenched over five APD substations. Some is just about expression.
And some graffiti is unquestionably art, even high art. Including some tags, which can take up entire walls and rise up three-dimensionally in arrays of color. Others cover entire train cars and roll off to speak of the city to other towns. I see the murals in our city, official and unofficial, and I like this city more because of them.
And some graffiti is unquestionably art, even high art. Including some tags, which can take up entire walls and rise up three-dimensionally in arrays of color. Others cover entire train cars and roll off to speak of the city to other towns. I see the murals in our city, official and unofficial, and I like this city more because of them. (I still think painting over the rainbow dripping down the side of the Anasazi Building was an obtuse move by obtuse developers who had no idea what an asset they had on their otherwise useless tombstone of a building. People used to get out of their cars just to photograph it. It had become a landmark.)
Graffiti is a part of life here—part of the history, culture, mystery and aesthetic of who we are and what is. And it always has been: when Tewa and Tano people used one rock as a chisel and another as a hammer and left behind the artistic images of corn mothers and thunderbirds; when Oñate politically carved his name not on a blank expanse of rock, but directly on top of native imagery; when ranchers cut their brands into rock and cut their own names beside them; when Billy the Kid and his gang painted their names on an overhang. The past has a lot to say to us. But so does the present. Graffiti is one way it speaks.