Published: August 3, 2010

New Yorkers are food crazed. But this passion for food– recipes, hotspots, the next trend– isn’t limited to cookbooks, blogs, or even the plate. Amble down any East Village street. Walk over the three bridges downtown. Visit SoHo, Williamsburg, Harlem, any neighborhood, and examine the graffiti. Street artists are just as obsessed with food as everyone else. graffEATinyc.com is a food graffiti photography project that started documenting food tags in New York in March 2009.

Food tags are every­where, on walls, gates, and bridges. Katsu, Mayo, Ice, Candy, Ribs, Mint, Soup, Pork, Pasta, and Knish, just to name a few. They’re painted, scrib­bled, and writ­ten on stick­ers. On lamp­posts, mail­boxes, and scaf­fold­ing. In alleys, subways, side­ streets and avenues. And not just tags. Graf­fiti images of food too. Drum­sticks, hot dogs, cup­cakes, and cham­pagne flutes. Sub­jects aren’t lim­ited to the plate (e.g., Chef­pants and Fork), and often depict food-related acts, and descrip­tions (e.g., Chomp and Dieter). Links between food and graff go way back.

Subway Outlaws, a site that documents the history of New York’s graffiti through 1990, lists more than 50 famed food tags from a time when canvases were New York’s trains. Food has long been part of graffiti’s language. Conflict between taggers? Beef. A common word for plagiarism? Bite. Words, like “Burn” (outdo competition), “Rack” (a store for shoplifting), “Ding Dong” (a subway car, for the bell alerting people to closing doors) aren’t necessarily food-inspired. But they’re open to interpretation. Unconvinced? The name of a graff store in the Bronx? Da Bakery.

One day, a friend noted the tag, 'Egg Yolk,' which she found on the cor­ner of Nas­sau and Hum­boldt.

Inspi­ra­tion to doc­u­ment New York’s food graf­fiti began in Green­point in August 2006, while I was attend­ing the French Culi­nary School’s ten-month Clas­sic Culi­nary Arts Pro­gram. One day, a friend noted the tag, “Egg Yolk,” (above) which she found on the cor­ner of Nas­sau and Hum­boldt. So is this an exam­ple of finding what you’re seeking?

As a pro­fes­sional food-writer, food pho­tog­ra­pher, and trained cook, food is my 24-hour obses­sion. Sure, there’s an ele­ment of that. But I’ve seen food tags every­where ever since, from ‘Banana Split’ in Madrid to ‘Beef’ in Copen­hagen to drum­stick images in Brus­sels.

— Arthur Bovino

This urge, this need to talk about food, com­mu­ni­cate the best sources for it, the search and con­quest of it, is pri­mal. The depic­tions painted on dark cave walls– the tale of the hunt– aren’t dif­fer­ent in spirit from the “Best Of Lists” that go viral on websites like Grub Street or are scrawled, sprayed, and painted in sub­ways and on storefronts (rats feast at Thé Adoré).

For many, this mod­ern tell of the hunt, the fore­front of the most mod­ern incar­na­tion of graff– the begin­ning of mod­ern graf­fiti– dates to the early six­ties in Philadel­phia. As Dim­itri and Gre­gor Ehrlich noted in their New York Mag­a­zine arti­cle of 2006, “Graffiti in Its Own Words” it was a time “when Corn­bread and Cool Earl scrawled their names all over the city.” That’s right– Corn­bread– a food tagger.

Enough about the Sixth Bor­ough. In New York it’s impos­si­ble to walk down the street with­out see­ing tags leap­ing off road­blocks, con­struc­tion sites, and street cor­ners. I set out to col­lect food-related graf­fiti (graffeati) for one year in accor­dance with these stipulations:

• Document a year of food-related graffiti in as much of the City as possible.
• Document graffiti in a way that gives it context in the City.
• Document the graffiti in an aesthetically pleasing way.

• Everything here is depicted as it was found.
• ‘Almosts’ don’t count. Cake47 works, but Giro doesn’t make the cut.
• Words are repurposed. An arepa is an arepa. But here, Skate is a ray, not a board.

The quest to doc­u­ment Gotham’s food graf­fiti for a year started in Queens, by car, hew­ing to the Long Island Rail­road. Then it hit the streets by foot, fol­low­ing syn­chronic­ity and pur­pose. It doc­u­mented graf­feati found on the path of a walk­ing life through the City—one that fol­lowed lunch hours, din­ners, and drinks with friends. But it also included can­vass­ing neighborhoods—weekends ded­i­cated to check­ing off areas block by block, on foot, both sides of the street. A very con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mate of time spent and dis­tance cov­ered is no less than 240 hours of walk­ing and shoot­ing over a dis­tance of 288 miles.

Homepage images go to by-month graffeati galleries. Additional galleries (by neighborhood, tag, etc.) are coming soon. For details read: HOW TO VIEW THE GRAFF.

Food graff, as I’ve said, is every­where. Signs, lamp­posts, mail­boxes, shop win­dows, air con­di­tion­ers, you name it. There were days, stretches of blocks, and certain neigh­bor­hoods where they seemed to be jump­ing off the walls like pop­corn every few feet. It was often obvi­ous which neigh­bor­hoods would be the rich­est sources. The East Vil­lage, Alpha­bet City, Williams­burg, SoHo, the West Vil­lage, these were the domains of Katsu, Brisk, Fork, Mint, Porky, Grape, Soup, Dickchicken, and of course Cupcake.

'Syrup' and the DickChicken logo on the corner of South 1st Street and Berry in Williamsburg, a food graff-rich neighborhood in Brooklyn.

There were also stretches of culi­nary van­dal­ism waste­land, neigh­bor­hoods that you’d expect to be bereft, say, the Upper West Side. Like­wise, the Finan­cial Dis­trict, the Upper East Side—these areas meant a lot of walk­ing with lit­tle to show for it.

But no search was a com­plete bust. Someone is always late, and if you’re stuck in a place long enough you see things you may have missed. For as many areas that were expect­edly rich or poor with mate­r­ial, there were other neigh­bor­hoods whose con­tent sur­prised.

— Arthur Bovino

Harlem and the cen­tral Bronx, for instance, were vast dead zones that wore holes in my Aso­los. But the stretch above Union Square across the island, up to Mid­town proved suc­cess­ful for the occa­sional inter­est­ing tag. Even Mid­town pro­vided eureka moments.

Bridges were just as rich as any East Vil­lage street. The Williams­burg Bridge was one of the best go-to spots. Whether because the beams are within rel­a­tively easy reach, the lure of the view, the walk­ways’ inter­con­nec­tions, or as prime real estate to be viewed by pedes­trian, cyclist, and other tag­gers, this link between two of the City’s most tagged neigh­bor­hoods did not dis­ap­point– days after a visit the graf­fiti land­scape would shift.

While the Man­hat­tan Bridge and Brook­lyn Bridge offered mate­r­ial, other bridges were almost com­pletely bereft. For exam­ple, the Queens­boro was a graf­fiti waste­land, and the best photo from the area in between, Roo­sevelt Island, was leav­ing via tram.

As much ground as I tried to cover, and as method­i­cally as I tried to cover it, there are many areas I would still like to scout. For starters, the streets and walls along the ele­vated train uptown and the exposed tracks in Brook­lyn and Queens.

'7-UP' and a view of Manhattan from Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn, in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge.

Of course, tak­ing a snap­shot of a City’s graf­fiti scene is a Sisyphean project– you are never, ever done with a neigh­bor­hood. A sub­way plat­form. A mail­box. A side­walk. You may have walked down a street twenty times before paying painstaking attention to every doorway and canopy and sud­denly it’s brand new. New tags respond­ing to old tags. Stick­ers thrown up in a quick sec­ond. A fresh coat of paint means a new can­vas. New cement. Con­struc­tion walls because a build­ing is going up or sur­round­ing a vacant lot where you swear to God, there used to be one. This is the con­stant rein­ven­tion of self that is New York City.

This change, the fresh coat of paint and the need to mar it, paint it again, is the city breath­ing, sleep­ing, wak­ing, and—if you will—eating. No sooner have you can­vassed one area and moved on to another, the first one starts to change. For this pur­pose, the Flickr gal­leries of artists and tag­gers, are good for a glimpse at the over­whelm­ing amount of graf­fiti out there. But Flickr isn’t as good about giv­ing a snap­shot of the City as the liv­ing can­vas that it is. Nor is it help­ful in explain­ing what is going on beyond the imme­di­acy of the imagery. On Flickr it’s part gallery, part “look at me,” part Polaroids in a shoe­box in the basement.

There’s no horse in this race. None of these pho­tos have been sub­mit­ted by tag­gers. This mis­sion has been to give the City and the graf­fiti their proper due—both their beauty, and their grit. The tags. Some are food– with unmis­tak­able cer­tainty, they’re food. Oth­ers here may stretch the tags’ orig­i­nal pur­poses and mean­ings.

Graffeatinyc.com invokes artis­tic license–as with authors, direc­tors, actors and painters—so too with the tag­ger, it’s the artist’s place to throw his or her work into the pub­lic sphere, ours to play with it.

— Arthur Bovino

Some of the most famous names in the his­tory of graff, at least the ones noted by Subway Outlaws, include more than 50 dis­tinct food tags. Cham­pagne, Clams, Cookie, Eel, OJ, Fat­back, and Egg Nog, just to name a few. Heck, there was even a Jelly Bean and a Lolly Pop. (A list of these hall of fame food taggers can be viewed here.) Sim­i­larly, other sites, graffiti.org and at149st.com, note tag­gers, Dill, Salsa and Hash. Some old tags have con­tin­ued or resur­faced: Candy, Cod, Colt 45, Grape, Ham, Hog, Ice, Juice, Mace, Mint, and Oil. They can be found in the City today. But there are new artists and tag­gers who should be added to the ranks too: Katsu, Brisk, DickChicken, Pork to name a few.

'Some tags required inter­pre­ta­tion: ‘Meat’ fol­lowed by inter­lock­ing rings (Meat­balls?). Oth­ers appro­pri­ated words for humor­ous pur­poses (“Wok it Off”). Some were truly sur­pris­ing: Tuna, Dirty Dishes, The Angry Potato. Oth­ers were sur­pris­ing until they appeared every­where: Tofu, Katsu, Egg Yolk, Fork. Then there were the purely flab­ber­gast­ing, such as “Oven” on a Jer­sey highway.

Some tags required inter­pre­ta­tion: ‘Meat’ fol­lowed by inter­lock­ing rings (Meat­balls?). Oth­ers appro­pri­ated words for humor­ous pur­poses (“Wok it Off”). Some were truly sur­pris­ing: Tuna, Dirty Dishes, The Angry Potato. Oth­ers were sur­pris­ing until they appeared every­where: Tofu, Katsu, Egg Yolk, Fork. Then there were the purely flab­ber­gast­ing, such as “Oven” on a Jer­sey highway (above).

There were holy grail words— epic ones that were hoped for at the start of the project. The unat­tain­able words, the big bank account words, the ‘Masa words’ if you will, named for the $450 per per­son omakase-only meal at Masa, Chef Masa’s sushi restau­rant in the Time Warner Cen­ter on Colum­bus Circle, where I’ve dreamed of eating for years.

— Arthur Bovino

Some ‘Masa words,’ like Sushi, and T-Bone, actu­ally sur­faced. Some that seemed dif­fi­cult but pos­si­ble, like Kobe, went undis­cov­ered. Oth­ers, like “Imi­ta­tion Crab Meat,” you’d never have expected.

Graffeatinyc.com does not sup­port van­dal­ism. Least favorite finds were scratches in glass, words carved out of phys­i­cal space. As much as I’d get excited about finds, I pre­fer tags, images, and murals that break the social con­tract with an effort toward some redeem­ing chuckle or call­ing atten­tion to look­ing at the City or life in a new way. But the real­ity is that graf­fiti is a part of life in the City and it can be con­struc­tive and beautiful.

Before any­one gets all worked up, it should be noted: many tags weren’t tags at all, but graf­fiti by ten­ants, or building-owners and care­tak­ers them­selves. Take, ‘Basura’ for exam­ple: instruc­tions for garbage in front of an apart­ment build­ing. Or ‘Gas,’ ‘Oil,’ ‘Steam + Drain,’ spray-painted on the asphalt by con­struc­tion work­ers. Cor­po­ra­tions have also got­ten into the act, spon­sor­ing murals, painted ads, and even using stickers.

Speak­ing of cor­po­ra­tions and the com­pli­cated inter­re­la­tion­ship with pop­u cul­ture and street art, not much has changed in fifty years. See­ing a Star­bucks logo repur­posed today with Star­buck hold­ing up two spray cans demon­strates the same com­pli­cated rela­tion­ship of the main­stream and the lim­i­nal echoed in well-known tags like Dr Pep­per, Jello, Eggo, Kool Aid, Pepsi, Coke, and Hi-C.

It’s inter­est­ing to observe restau­rant involve­ment with graf­feati. Often it’s their pris­tine sur­face that serves as can­vas. The bat­tlescars of the street are sagas that mimic the tra­jec­tory of suc­cess or fail­ure. Think Kurve or restaurant-sanctioned walls like Kampuchea’s, Chipotle’s in Chelsea, or the mural out­side David Chang’s Momo­fuku Ssäm Bar.

A trea­tise could be writ­ten using what has been learned dur­ing the past year; and, there’s still much that isn’t clear. Fur­ther doc­u­men­ta­tion to come. But enough talk. To the pho­tos. I tried to take them artfully, with an eye for the City, and when pos­si­ble, to show how mean­ing was reflected in the area around it.

Two last notes.

You don’t walk around pho­tograph­ing New York for a year blind to the beauty, ugli­ness, crazi­ness, and awe that is the City. In addi­tion to the food graff, there are also gal­leries of some char­ac­ters encoun­tered, inhab­i­tants, and land­scape alike. That includes the other inter­est­ing graf­fiti out there too.

Dur­ing the last year I took more than 3,000 pho­tographs of graf­fiti. There are more than 1,400 images of New York City food graf­fiti dis­played in this project. And while the idea and moti­va­tion to doc­u­ment it all was mine, I did not do it all alone.

My heart­felt thanks to Maryse Chevrière and Gavin Skeen, two inde­fati­ga­ble com­pan­ions and con­tribut­ing col­lab­o­ra­tors on this adven­ture who spot­ted tags when I missed them, and urged me to pull out my cam­era when­ever I wanted to call it a day. Their pho­tographs, some sixty-odd included images, are cred­ited. A spe­cial thanks to Maryse, whose title, Ulti­mate Epic Tag Spot­ter, is with­out hyperbole.

This project isn’t over. Stay tuned for new gal­leries that will allow more focused view­ing. I hope to do a few inter­views, relay current food graff news, and con­tin­ue with monthly and occasional daily photo post­ings.

So the next time you’re walk­ing down the street with a hun­gry belly, look up, and down. You’re going to see­ food tags every­where too.

— Arthur Bovino