One pleasant aspect of being a fan of the late great novelist Donald Westlake is that he was so prolific—both under his own name and the hardboiled pseudonym Richard Stark—is that it feels like I’ll never run out of his books. Yesterday I grabbed a random paperback off the shelf: 1972’s Cops and Robbers, about two New York City policemen who decide to go crooked. It’s minor Westlake (it began life as a screenplay), but 44 pages in, it’s got a journalistic description of graffiti in New York City rich in detail and nuanced in aesthetic judgment. It’s all the more remarkable because it was so early in the history of NYC graffiti that people don’t seem to have been calling it “graffiti” yet (Westlake, at least, doesn’t use the word). The following passage is from the POV of one of the cops:
A recent fad among the kids has been to write nicknames on walls and subways and all over the damn place in either spray paint or felt-tip pen, both of which are very tough to get rid of, particularly from a porous surface like stone. The fad is for a kid to write his name or nickname or some magic name he’s worked out for himself, and then under it write the number of the street he lives on. “JUAN 135,” for instance, or “BOSS ZOOM 92,” that kind of thing.
The fad had hit the school building. As high as a child’s arm could reach, the names and numbers were scrawled everywhere on the walls, in black and red and blue and green and yellow. Some of the signatures were like little paintings, carefully and lovingly done, and some of them were just splashed and scrawled on, with runlets of paint dripping down from the bottoms of the letters, but most of them were simply reports of name and number, without flair or imagination: “Andy 87,” “Beth 81,” “Moro 103.”
At first, all that paintwork looked like vandalism and nothing more. But as I got used to it, to seeing it around, I realized it gave a brightly colored hem to the gray stone skirt of a building like this, that it had a very sunny Latin American flavor to it, and that once you got past the prejudice against working up public property it wasn’t that bad at all. Of course, I never said this to anybody.