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frontJoseph Rivera is a retired New York City cop and Vandal Squad: Inside The New York City Transit Police Department, 1984-2004 (Powerhouse/Miss Rosen Editions) is the story of his twenty years on the job. Of course, the Bronx-native couldn’t have done it without ya’ll, the “vandals,” most of whom are better known to this book’s audience as graffiti writers. (Never to be mistaken for all the “street art” frauds whose own form of vandalism amounts to wheatpasting ersatz “grit” in expensive neighborhoods: keep it Pratt or SVA, or don’t complain when ya’ll are ragged or bagged.) They might be toys, they might be Kings— most are probably in-between— but absent that obsessive drive to make a name for themselves by any means necessary (paint, markers, scratch, etc), chances are the world never would heard of Officer Joseph Rivera.

While Rivera’s return to anonymity would surely make some people happy, as far as Vandal Squad the book is concerned, it would be a significant loss. Whatever criticism Rivera may or may not have coming, Vandal Squad is a substantial contribution to the New York street culture of the 1980s and ‘90s. That this period was probably not the artistic peak of train graffiti (as documented in Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper’s Subway Art (1984)), makes Vandal Squad surprisingly compelling. In other words, fine, so what if much of this isn’t “art” as social protest or whatever? Now we can ask what is it— the full range of it— and why so many city kids love the game regardless? Partly it’s adventure, of course. and despite his hard-on for “vandals” it’s obvious Rivera digs the action too.

medina!As the years go by, however, the action changes.  On the cops’ end, Transit (and Housing) merged with NYPD. For the writers, subway yards become ever less accessible and whole cars— forget whole trains— are mostly out, street bombing is in and ever more inventive tactics are required by those who still want to make names for themselves. Sometimes the results are brilliant, sometimes they’re a fucking mess but, if you have an eye for such things, Vandal Squad’s cross-section of work (including photography by Jamel Shabazz, Lisa Kahane and one Mr. X, Rivera’s former VS partner) is pretty damn impressive; special shout to PGISM (page 162) and HOPE (page 142-143), who’s part of a sick legal wall with DIVA and DONA, especially.

There’s some question in the underground as to whether or not Joseph Rivera and this book should be supported. Not having met Rivera, I think the answer is yes. First of all, it’s a physically impressive book, for which Miss Rosen should be commended and, if nothing else, using a classic all-caps COPE rant for the back cover copy (below right) was a stroke of keeping-it-real comic genius. Second, although the text is imperfect in some ways and incomplete in others— Rivera knows the Bronx much better than the Brooklyn or the Queens, for example— it reads like an honest summary of one man’s ultimately inglorious career with the NYPD. Indeed, Rivera retires at the end of twenty not because he didn’t like the job but rather the soul-crushing department politics that, Rivera says, kept him from being promoted to Detective.

If you know anything about the dysfunctional bureaucracy that is the NYPD, it’s easy to believe and, on that account at least, easy to empathize. Whether or not all of Rivera’s stories are 100% true I can’t say, and whose truth are we talking about anyway? To his credit, Rivera doesn’t use writers’ government names, nor does he reveal the names of any writers who snitched, so Vandal Squad’s judgments are unlikely to effect anyone not already enmeshed in ever-roiling world of graffiti beef, old and new—hell, especially old. As for Rivera’s conflicted relationship with writers (some of whom he plainly admires) and his let’s-call-it-particular perspective, well, some conflicts  will remain unresolved.

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Chief among them is what was the point of the Vandal Squad? There’s much more to life and crime than nonsense like “staking out” Scrapyard (the graffiti shop in Manhattan, not the TA storage tracks in Sunset Park). While I have no inside information on Rivera’s book deal, I know enough about the publishing racket in general to say it’s extremely unlikely Rivera did this for financial reasons. Rather, Vandal Squad is Rivera’s bid for a little posthumous glory and insofar as he was just one more disposable working stiff, I don’t begrudge the guy his moment. On the other hand, there are points where he exaggerates the level of police work involved in  catching people from what is already an anarchical, conflict ridden scene. Let’s be honest, it’s recklessness, not any great Vandal Squad savvy that brings most writers down and— contrary to myth and rumor— this goes for the legendary REVS too. If nothing else, kids should get down to Powerhouse and peep Rivera’s version of bagging the man he amusingly calls “the kingfish” (pages 117-123). Even if they agree with the message “Vandal Squad Is Pussy” that ends that section, I doubt they’ll want to stop there. — Brian Berger

Joseph Anastasio is the author of Brooklyn Queens Freight (LTV Press), which is by frostbit!far the greatest graffiti and NYC street book of the year. The concept is simple: the recently laid off photographer is going to walk every inch of freight track in Queens and Brooklyn, taking pictures of all the graffiti along the rights of way. That Joe did so in rain, sleet, snow and the crazy-ass cold of Winter 2008-2009 adds to the drama, which is already abundant in the rise, decline and surprising survival of New York  City railroading and the industries it serves. Besides the mad persistence of the photography— most of which is by Joe but with some killer archival shots from Tommy Rebel, Lady Pink and Ralph Anastasio, among others— Joe’s capsule histories of the various Brooklyn and Queens freight lines are required reading for anybody with an interest in Kings and Queens County history. These are the stories the real estate bloggers never told you and that most in city government would just as soon people forget. Fuck them both. The next time ya’ll hear of some industrial “redevelopment” scheme, ask yourself what about the jobs that are there now?

At the moment, Brooklyn Queens Freight, with an introduction by SaneSmith, is only available mail order but the curious can get a good preview of it here. As some of you know, Joe also wrote a great essay for New York Calling and, thus inspired, next put together his brilliant ode to the tunnel rat lifestyle, Subway Solitude. A WWIB interview with Joe is forthcoming but the impatient should start their research now. — Caz Dolowicz

Caz Dolowicz, a retired New York City Transity Authority tower operator, was born on Sands Street in 1923; they called it Irishtown.

Photograph middle left, “The Crossroads of Brooklyn Graffiti,” by Brian Berger.

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