Austin, Joe Alan 1957-
AUSTIN, Joe Alan 1957-
PERSONAL: Born 1957, in San Diego, CA. Education: University of Minnesota, Ph.D., 1996.
CAREER: Bowling Green State University, Department of Popular Culture, Bowling Green, OH, assistant professor.
Taking the Train: How Graffıti Art Became an UrbanCrisis in New York City, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 2001.
Contributor of numerous articles to academic publications.
SIDELIGHTS: As a professor of popular culture studies, Joe Alan Austin specializes in research dealing with the interconnections of urban history, youth culture, and popular culture in the United States. He is especially interested in the visual productions of youth cultures, such as posters, "zines," and graffiti. This particular interest led him to write Taking the Train: How Graffıti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City.
The book focuses on the history of graffiti—called "writing" by its practitioners—and how New York City leaders waged a war to wipe graffiti from the city's subway cars and buildings. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, New York City youth, particularly those from the poorer urban communities looking for a way to express themselves, had developed a new form of expression influenced partially by advertisements on billboards and in magazines and newspapers and partly by comic books. Considered art by some and vandalism by others, the "writings" created by youths covered the subways and buildings with elaborate depiction of names and initials.
In Taking the Train Austin contends that what could have been "promoted as a homegrown public art movement" was instead depicted as vandalism by authorities and the media. Austin also argues that those in city politics may also have focused on the graffiti issue to take attention away from their failures in civic management. He delves into how these rebellious youths and their art raised the ire of New York City mayoral administrations and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, ultimately leading to an all-out campaign to end graffiti. In the process, argues Austin, the city bureaucrats poured funds into the battle while ignoring many other urban issues. The author also delves into how the media portrayed "writing" and, as he sees it, its efforts to "dehumanize" its practitioners.
Austin counters that the act of writing graffiti helped youth form their own identities and served as a social outcry on their part. He also argues that graffiti could have been beneficial if the city's bureaucrats had only recognized its potential to increase tourism by people who might have appreciated graffiti as art. In addition to these topics, in Taking the Train Austin writes about a wide range of issues, including the history of juvenile delinquency in New York City and how "writing" nevertheless became an international art movement and an important aspect of the hip-hop culture.
Writing in the New York Times, Tom Vanderbilt disagreed with much of what Austin proposed in his book and pointed out that the author ignores the views and feelings of the "average citizen who had to live with the graffiti." Nevertheless, most critics found Austin's treatment of the topic insightful, including Donna Seaman, who called Taking the Train a "meticulous history" in her review in Booklist. As Paula R. Dempsey pointed out in Library Journal, Austin's approach was to adopt "the perspective of those outside the power structure." Dempsey also noted, "Although solidly academic, this book is enlivened by its fascinating topic." A reviewer writing in Publishers Weekly noted, "Austin's precise, witty and genial style perfectly meshes with his rigorous research and analysis." The reviewer also called Taking the Train an "exemplary study" that "makes important contributions to understanding contemporary art, urban sociology, and culture wars."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Taking the Train: How Graffıti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City, p. 1076.
Journal of American History, September, 1999, Miriam Formanek-Brunell, review of Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America, p. 856.
Library Journal, March 15, 2002, Paula R. Dempsy, review of Taking the Train: How Graffıti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City, p. 98.
New York Times, May 19, 2002, Tom Vanderbilt, "Poetry in Motion?" p. 40.
Publishers Weekly, February 11, 2002, review of Taking the Train: How Graffıti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City, p. 175.