Joseph Rivera ‘Vandal Squad: Inside The NYC Transit Police Department 1984-2004’

I wasn’t initially convinced that buying a copy of this book would be in graffiti’s best interests: putting money into the pockets of someone who did his best to eradicate New York of graf was probably the opposite of what I wanted to do. Once I’d obtained a gratis copy and read through it, I thought I’d give it a quick review so you can make your own mind up on whether it’s for you.

Half of the appeal of writing for me was the accompanying folklore and events that surrounded the act of painting. Hearing that so-and-so got chased out of a particular train yard or another guy escaped police capture by hiding in a rubbish bin was all part of the reason I wanted ‘in’. But hearing these stories from the other side of the law does make for interesting reading, regardless of whether you’re an advocate of graffiti or dead-against it.

Rivera was one of the early members of the NYC Police Department’s Vandal Squad in the 1980s: any criminal activity that took place within the NY Transit system would be investigated by these guys, leading to the arrests of many of graf’s most infamous writers. He worked with the Squad through the ’80s and early ’90s, racking up a tally chart of large proportions. So, instead of a boring account of police procedures, you get a fairly unique insight with stories including plenty of names you’ll recognise: Seen, Revs, Deck, O’Clock, Crack (AKA Fat Joe), Skuf… Endorse it or not, it’s interesting reading.

One of the most interesting aspects of the accounts is that Rivera doesn’t take a disrespectful tone about the writers. Instead of mocking them and making them sound stupid, he often shows an appreciation for their artwork and also lays the story straight on the infamous ratting-out rumours that spread around when high profile writers got busted. In particular, the Cope and Revs sections are pretty revealing – and the fact that Rivera openly admits that some of the most-wanted writers were never apprehended gives you a feeling that most of this isn’t glorified storytelling.

In all, if you ever had an interest in the NYC Subway scene, fancy something a little different to read and want to see some decent photos (including examples from Jamel Shabazz and Peter Sutherland) that you may not have seen before, this is worth picking up.

Data time: it’s published by powerHouse Books, it costs about $30, there are 168 pages and it’s all rounded off with an interesting message from Cope on the back cover.

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