Not Graffiti, but Style-Writing: The (Un)worlding of New York’s Street Networks and the (Re)worlding of the Three Train Yard


  • Abram Coetsee Cornell University, New York



Style Writing; Graffiti; New York City; Phase 2; Skeme.


How might a city know its people? And, how might people know their city, as their self or as their other? Each numerical edifice of course erases the knowability of some, to render the knowability of others. This essay examines the long-term effects of mid-century development strategies in New York City, specifically the ways in which urban planners used forced relocation practices, and the ways in which these practices led to urban decay. Here we will see that the city’s strategic, and often disingenuous, use of data led to the disappearance of city inhabitants from the city’s archives. With these strategies in mind, this essay outlines the ways in which city governance procedures functioned in aesthetic terms, rendering the city’s grid as an ethereal medium ready for remaking. These development practices led to a catastrophic decay of social networks. Most notably perhaps, we find the disappearance and reappearance of entire city streets from both the physical reality of urban space and also the archives of the city, here the metropolitan government lost control of that grid when urban decay encroached too strongly. We find that world and map-making succumb to their own discontents, as the source of that urban decay can be seen to be sourced from the urban development practices.

Yet, for all these de-worldings and decays, the life of New York emerges, this time from the subway tunnels neglected by the metropolitan government. The artist Phase II teaches us that the word “graffiti” is the wrong word for the aesthetics that animated the world of the street’s grid, and transformed the possible use of the subway, to now serve as a communication device, rather than only one of transportation. This aesthetics was not a deleterious scrawl, but self-identified by the artists as “Style-Writing”. We will see that the subway network in fact functioned as an opportunity for young people to grow robust cultural connections, connections which often crossed the segregating boundaries established by mid-century urban development. Quite different from the perception of subway art as a signal of the city’s vicissitudes, here we find that Style-Writing became a key tool for the social efforts of young people seeking to reconstruct an urban world. Specifically, we will turn to the work of Skeme and his artist crews, such as the Three Yard Boys, at Lenox subway station.

Author Biography

Abram Coetsee, Cornell University, New York

As a student of Style-Writing’s history, Abram Coetsee strives to foreground the insights of the writers themselves and maintain humility about the information that might be engaged within the process of learning about their Stylistic endeavors. While many schools of academic thought are valued in this research, no one paradigm proves to be dominantly useful. Instead, he suggests, detailed attention can lead to dynamic perspectives on the way that artistic strategies have already accomplished what politics often only hope for. In the background of the article published here, he sought to point to coinciding events in the long and short term where data, networks, and infrastructure are shown to be operations engaged with by artists, civic leaders, and technologists. His background spans user-experience design, project and product management, and the arts. The article in this issue is drawn from his doctoral thesis “New York Subway Style Writing: Aesthetics Infrastructure and Technology”, completed at Cornell University’s English department in 2022. He is an MSc candidate in Human Factors Engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Currently, he works as a senior project coordinator as part of the Guardians of Honor contract for NASA’s STEM engagement efforts serving underrepresented stakeholders.


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How to Cite

Coetsee, A. (2023). Not Graffiti, but Style-Writing: The (Un)worlding of New York’s Street Networks and the (Re)worlding of the Three Train Yard. AM Journal of Art and Media Studies, (30), 53–82.