New Renaissance art critic, Sparrow, gives his view of window scratching graffiti on the New York Subways.

by Sparrow

{mosgoogle}Taking the subway in New York City, I see a "scratch-name" in my car. A "scratch-name" is a graffiti form that emerged when new subway cars were introduced in 1985. These cars were "graffiti-free"—pen and spray paint could easily be erased from their walls. So graffitists began to scratch the windows (with house keys?), usually writing four-letter names. Sometimes 2 inches high, sometimes 2 feet high, the letters can be seen in the dark, but are invisible when the train goes outside.

The scratchings themselves resemble bundles of hay, and suggest some medieval harvest. Each scratch is somewhat erratic—they are drawn fast—so that it bends like a real stick or straw. It appears that someone has picked up each straw, gathered it into their hands, laid it down with others, and formed them into a name. The letters are usually angular, composed of straight lengths placed together. These words draw attention to the constituent parts of letters—the truth that letters are not inevitable, but are shaped by women and men. In fact, the newer scratch-names invent new letters: TEAL and ENOT. Call the police! First they wrecked our subways, now they wreck the alphabet itself!

And what do these four-letter words mean? Are they coded threats – or even curses? Do they all combine into one Gertrude Stein-style text? Are they slang? Names? Nicknames? Words chosen at random from a thesaurus? Are we meant to be curious about the words—or just see them as shapes? Or just hear them as sounds? Is there a way to pronounce a backward E—or is that a foolish query?

But I have not revealed the word that began my essay. The name(?) I saw scratched in the window was NORS. My first thought was that this was the plural (never before seen) of "nor" (as in "I will drink neither Pepsi nor Diet Pepsi.") A collection of such "nor"s, all in one place would be NORS. What a curious notion—a pile of nors!

Or perhaps this was an anagram for "snore", missing the "e". Or for Ron. Could 2 men, or boys (or girls) named Ron make a pact to travel through subways writing NORS? Possibly.

Could they be Norse (or sympathetic to the Norse)?

There are a number of sentences whose acronyms are NORS:

No one reads Stendhal.

Nihilism only ruins students.

Nuns operate robot ships.

Nero owned royal slaves.


Is one of these the correct guess? Or do these artists (if they are artists) wish all these guesses to encircle NORS?

In your subway seat, you find yourself drawn to these scratch-names. A subway is a form of suspension—also a very visual place (possibly because it is so loud; the hearing shuts off). But there is little to see—only the impassive faces of the riders, the giddy ads, and NORS.

I dislike vandalism, as do most persons. Only the angry admire vandals. And yet, when my friend Nita, who owns Upstate Art (a gallery) showed me a scratch-art piece by Cynthia Coulter, on yellow plastic—an artwork I respected—I missed the element of threat in subway scratch-names—the sense, almost, of someone coming into my home and drawing lines on my walls.

Graffiti is an invasion—a literary invasion, by words. It expresses the threat inherent in all words. And words CAN do harm. Any word can be a threat. Two villains can walk up behind you and say "cupcake." (That is their signal to pull a gun.) The rest of your life, the word "cupcake" will pain you.

In graffiti, words have left captivity—left the page—and run wild, like dogs who have escaped domestic life and formed packs in the hills. (When I was in Turkey, a German woman told me, "Don’t sleep outside, because the wild dogs may find you and eat your eyeballs!" NORS threatens to eat the subway-riders’ eyeballs.)

According to an article in The New York Times, the written alphabet began as graffiti. Semitic laborers in Egypt needed an alternative to hieroglyphics, which required years of training to read, and was mostly used by priests. This new alphabetic language first appeared scratched into stone, much as TEAL is scratched on plastic windows of the F train. The urge to deface a wall is as old as walls themselves. As writers write on blank paper, graffitists write on blank walls. (And walls precede paper!) Graffiti is 4000 years older than painting.

NORS appears at first to be a modern urban threat, but in fact is an ancient urban threat. A city is a group of people large enough to scare you. And when an anonymous person—or perhaps a person named NORS—writes on your subway window, you feel that tingle of crisis, of curiosity and fear—could that be art?

Sparrow is a substitute teacher in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, USA. His wife, Violet Snow, is an herbalist and Goddess mystic. His daughter, Sylvia, is an actress. Together they listen to musical comedies of the early 1960s (most recently, Camelot). Sparrow is at work on a new book, How to Keep a Secret.