1. On the Media had a segment last month about the phenomenon of protestors who spit on troops. The piece was inspired by an incident at the January antiwar protest in DC, where angry protestors spat on wounded Iraq war veteran Josh Sparling, a repeat (it transpired) victim of antiwar hatred, a Hannity & Colmes talking head, a Cheney family guest at the State of the Union, and an all around burgeoning media celebrity.
Jerry Lembcke, sociologist, studied accounts of spitting on soldiers and discovered it was something of an unverifiable urban legend. No firsthand accounts exist from the time of the conflict. Not until around 1980, the period of the Reagan morning, did this story start to take hold in the culture, when the betrayal of our troops was portrayed as given in films like 1982’s First Blood, with its betrayed, forgotten Vietnam Veteran, Rambo.
What more, this denunciation of the soldier is a universal constant among the defeated in modern warfare, occurring prominently in Germany after World War I. The Betrayal of the Troops is a narrative superpowers tell themselves when they cannot fathom why they’ve lost the war. It exonerates the nations’s leaders from blame, and explains away that inadmissable idea, that the enemy was stronger. According to Lembcke, “It helps construct an alibi, the alibi being that we beat ourselves, that we were defeated on the home front, and that we, the most powerful nation on earth, was not defeated by the small upstart nation of Asian others. It’s a dangerous myth because, coming out of Vietnam, it kept alive the idea that we could win wars like Vietnam if we just stuck together as a country, if we just stayed solid behind the war effort.”
2. In 1984, Orion Pictures released Beat Street. A tale of breakdancers and graffiti artists making it in the Bronx’s bombed-out and gutted cultural heyday, it features a character representative of pure, malicious, negative energy. His name is Spit. His character was borrowed from the figure Cap in the 1983 documentary Style Wars—he bombs, or defaces, or otherwise symbolically spits on, others’ graffiti art.
The graffiti artist Beat Street follows is named Ramo, and he represents an idealized good that contrasts with Spit in a duality as clear as that between returning veteran and spiteful protestor. This division is Manichean, and it’s so complete that it culminates in Spit and Ramo’s mutual matter/anti-matter immolation on a subway track’s third rail. (Sorry, that was a spoiler) Ramo’s bereaved friends then hold a hip-hop memorial for him at the Roxy, featuring Grand Master Melle Mel and the Furious Five.
That Style Wars and Beat Street treated the concept of bombing so seriously is a validation of the dedicated graffiti artists depicted. If these works can be vandalized, then they can’t be vandalism. They must have value as art. The artists who spray-painted them make the change from criminals to victims.
3. The Spit-Cap figure was reprised on the cover of the New York Times metro section yesterday, in an article about recent activity by a shadowy figure dubbed The Splasher. This be-manifestoed defacer of Street Art has received inexhaustible online coverage since the beginning of the year, around the same time that spitting on the troops started making a comeback. The Times is deeply enamored with the idea of Street Art, but the similarity between today’s Street Artists and the real-world counterparts to Beat Street’s idealized 1980s graffitists are as superficial and ephemeral as their work. By technicality today’s Street Art is still illegal; it is still displayed on others’ property in the public space. But the Street Artist’s work appears in the artist and nightlife neighborhoods of the world’s cultural hubs, and the work is only completed when a well-lit digital photograph is posted online. It is criminal activity only in the most defanged sense, as a value-added, a little frisson. The artists are recognizable brand name professionals. They issue press releases, and catalogues of their work appear in the display windows of Urban Outfitters. The Splasher, then, is just what they needed: exposure, demand, and a new, scrubbed clean image: against the Splasher’s malicious vandalist intent, these Street Artists are no longer commercial opportunists. They just want to be seen, to make the streets—whether of Soho, or Nolita, or Williamsburg–a little more beautiful.