The New York Times “Spawned Pen Pals”
The New York Times “Spawned Pen Pals”
By Edward Birzin Ph.D.
Fifty years ago, The New York Times published a guest essay (before they had guest essays) that became a cornerstone of the graffiti movement. “Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals” was the title of the anonymous essay, and at 750 words, it contained everything. Later used as an origin story by graffiti enthusiasts looking for an origin story, the essay also worked as a strawman for arguments against graffiti, arguments for the undeniable impact of graffiti, and arguments for and against the reporting at The New York Times. “Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals” made bold claims without evidence, allowed for young people to voice their fantasies about writing on walls and objects, and turned the 17-year-old high school senior from Washington Heights “Taki 183” into a household name and trope throughout the 70s and 80s in New York City.
For those who did not write graffiti, the tag-name Taki 183 was synonymous with all of the graffiti found around the city at that time. A myth grew around Taki 183 and to outside observers Taki 183 was the “first” or at least the most well-known graffiti writer; in 1973 New York Magazine had a mock award for what they called the best graffiti named the “Taki Awards”, the same year Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine had an interview with Taki 183. In 1985 the film Turk 182 was released and was noticeably a fictionalized version of what Taki 183’s imagined graffiti exploits could have stood for. However, for graffiti writers, each of those media representations of what graffiti was was blasphemy and out of touch with their understanding of reality. Young people knew that Taki 183 was not writing graffiti after the essay was published. Even before the essay, he wasn’t the originator. He quickly exited the game after his initial recognition. Thus graffiti writers would then ask why should he get all the glory? Why must these newspapers keep bringing him up? Even today, when I discuss the name Taki 183 with older graffiti writers they get incensed because they hold onto that anger about Taki 183 being recognized when pioneers like “Stay High 149”, “Phase II”, and “Tracy 168” are all but forgotten to the outside world. It wasn’t only graffiti writers who were angry that the Gray Lady chose Taki 183 to highlight. Other media outlets and soon the Times itself began a massive campaign to discredit and even stop what they framed as an “epidemic” by publishing many negative pieces about graffiti. Graffiti had gotten out of control in the city. Even though it had already been on the walls for years before the essay, for many in the media and for those who wrote letters to the editor, the blame fell on “Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals”.
What fascinates me today about this initial piece in the Times is how it serves as a rupture for the graffiti phenomenon and how it became a mythologized and yet very real starting point for the subculture that I participated in most of my life. In the 1990s when I began writing my tag on walls and objects, I had heard the myth of Taki 183 and the “news article” about him from many different people, yet I had never seen the “article”. Back then one would have to really work the knobs on the microfiche machine to find some old article, and I didn’t spend that much time in the library. I believed the myth as it grew and I watched it grow without challenging it: Taki 183 was writing so much that the Times had to send out its best reporters to interview and explain the amazing feat he had accomplished. “Graffiti” has always been so cool and even the Times couldn’t deny it in 1971. The story of Taki 183 was so compelling that they turned it into a movie. All of that was hearsay and factually incorrect, but I loved the myth. It kept up the “us vs. them” game and we were young and they were old.
After a close reading of the essay I found that it wasn’t facts that made the writing powerful enough to be remembered as one starting point for the graffiti phenomenon. It was the play found in the stories describing graffiti in the piece which made graffiti more interesting to readers. In play one can change rules and imagine fantasies about their play. If you ask a small child to explain their artwork, they will often tell you a fantastic story about what they created, and yet it is not visible to the adult. As adults we nod and smile. Taki 183nodded to the rules passed down to him for how one should create their tag-name: you have to put your street number after your name. In the essay Taki 183 discusses the meaning of his graffiti in a few ways but the most powerful part of his explanation is he believed he could get out of having to be drafted to fight in Vietnam if he told a psychiatrist that he was “Taki 183” since he recognized that adults believed that anyone who would write their name all over the city must be insane. Taki 183 fantasized about his graffiti and imagined that he was able to trick the U.S. military with his “magic” marker. Fifty years ago when the draft to Vietnam was on all high school seniors’ minds, that fantastic idea must have had some traction.
Beyond graffiti lore, the myth of Taki 183 is a study of the influence that the media has on how readers interpret their shared surroundings and the past. Media translates the world around us and readers can accept what is written or else reject it. The Times did not invent graffiti, but they allowed for an anonymous essay to be published which explained graffiti as an exciting and powerful force for young people. Since then, this particular graffiti phenomenon has gone around the world spawning pen pals from South America to Europe to Australia and beyond.
The essay isn’t only words, it is accompanied by two photographs taken by staff photographer Don Hogan Charles (Mr. Charles is more famous for the iconic photo he took of Malcolm X holding a rifle by his window protecting his family). The photos of the graffiti, not just the words, makes the essay that more thrilling and important. After those photos were published, graffiti writers would look for their tags, or their peers’ tags in all media. It wasn’t enough to only be seen on walls and objects, graffiti writers desired that their graffiti be captured in the media.
In the book Taking the Train (2001) Joe Austin gave many examples of how media in the 1970s framed graffiti art as an urban crisis by reading the 120 letters and editorials published in The New York Times from 1972 to 1974 that demeaned and diminished graffiti. I believe it was both the initial positive essay about Taki 183 and the 120 largely negative letters and editorials found in the Times in the two years after that made graffiti seem like an important happening for young people and adult onlookers.
Was the NY Times spreading fake news about graffiti or was the Times reflecting a mainstream view of the new graffiti phenomenon? When we look closer at the role of media in our lives, we can understand that the dichotomy of fake and real news does not exist as strongly as confirmation bias and the desire to see what one wants to see in print, or on-line. Graffiti enthusiasts may have fooled themselves and the graffiti community by choosing this essay as a starting point for the birth of the phenomenon, but at the time it seemed fitting because the trope of Taki 183 had become lingua franca in the media and in New York City. Those who loathed graffiti did not want to read anything remotely positive about it, they sought refuge in reassuring words that described it as a scourge that must be quashed. Depending on which camp one was in, the essay and the photos served the cause they believed in.
Ideas shared in the public sphere, whether in media or on walls and objects, can sometimes take root and grow. The NY Times did not anticipate that an anonymous essay buried on page 37 of a Wednesday paper in the middle of the summer would become a foundational text for a subculture that was despised by most adults and beloved by many youth. The person Taki 183 did not know that writing on public property would make him a household name. The original essay makes me pause and think more about how the pen is mightier than the sword. Taki 183 did not have to fight in Vietnam. Pen pals grew exponentially city- and world-wide. Today graffiti is still looked at as a signifier of crime and decay and it is hailed as an original art that was forged in the fire that was 1970s New York City.
Dr. Edward Birzin earned his Ph.D. in Cultural and Literary Studies from Freie Universität Berlin focusing on the growth of graffiti from child’s play to an original art in 1970s New York City. Portions of this essay come from his original thesis titled “Subway Art(efact)”. He is also the author of “What Do One Million Ja Tags Signify?” using the pen-name Dr. Dumar Novy.