Selling vice... artistically: The world's first graffiti store

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Once a symbol of urban decay, graffiti has grown up a lot. Nowadays, it exists somewhere between art and vice, beauty and blight. In the Bronx, where I live, business owners regularly pay graffiti artists thousands of dollars to paint graffiti on the sides of their buildings, and it's common to see graffitied murals commemorating dead husbands and wives, lovers and children.

On the other hand, it is still officially illegal to create graffiti in many areas. In New York, for example, writing, painting, or drawing on a wall without the owner's consent is illegal, as is carrying graffiti supplies into a public facility, or selling graffiti supplies to minors. In fact, it's even illegal to display graffiti supplies in stores; retailers are permitted to display empty containers or pictures of supplies, but the real things have to stay off the shelves.

In this context, it's particularly interesting to look at the fight over Alphabeta. The Brooklyn-based retailer is one of the world's first stores to openly specialize in supplying the graffiti trade. In addition to carrying a full selection of paints, markers, etching acid, and other supplies, Alphabeta has an in-house gallery space, where the proprietor, Leif McIlwaine, allows graffiti artists to showcase their work.Predictably, Alphabeta has come under a great deal of attack from politicians, and the store has become a flashpoint for the culture war swirling around graffiti. While Peter Vallone Jr., a local city councilman, likens Alphabeta to a gun store or knife shop, other pundits have argued that the store is catering to a field that, ever since Jean-Michel Basquiat, has been gaining recognition as a legitimate form of art.

While Alphabeta does a flourishing business, politicians try to shut it down, and the debate rages over the boundary lines of art and commerce, one thing has become crystal clear: as long as graffiti remains an outlaw art, it will be big business. I wonder how long it will be before McIlwaine will start looking for some investors to help him expand...

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's hard-pressed to see the difference between a Matisse cut-out and a graffiti mural.

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