Dear Readers: Despite being NDP, I had a certain amount of respect and admiration for Thomas Mulcair……., until yesterday! Even though i don’t agree with his far left leanings, (i.e. NDP) he impressed me as a politician and a leader of a political party. And then he had to go and destroy it!!!!! Mulcair came […]
Well, folks, we finally have it! A complete and utter rebuttal of the logic, research, common sense and just plain good old skepticism that explained what God and Religion was all about in my book “The Plain Truth About God!” (Or should I say what God and Religion was NOT about!) Yup, they never stop […]
Dear Readers: My friend Wayne sent this to me yesterday, and I liked it enough that we are going to pass it on to you as a sort of spiritual break from the normal hustle and bustle of the everyday world. You will recognize it immediately, but it is none-the-less an unusual take on a […]
Dear Readers: At first glance I thought all the stuff about Jian Ghomeshi was a fabrication and “get even” by his former girlfriend. (After all, this wouldn’t be the first time a jilted lover made up a bunch of shit to get back at someone.) BUT! Jian Ghomeshi came out and proclaimed that it was […]
Dear Readers: Since your ever faithful reporter comments on matters great and small in the world of religion, we also get a lot of letters trying to set us straight on some issues, and clarifying others! One of the most disturbing pieces of mail we have received in quite some time came from a far […]
Olivia Chow is running a strong LAST amongst the tree major contenders for the job of Mayor of Toronto today…………, and she’s NOT happy! What has made her even more disgruntled is a political cartoon published by the Toronto Sun over the weekend. They poked fun at poor Olivia in a way that is either […]
What a devastating weekend in the world of entertainment folks! First Honey Boo gets cancelled because her mother is dating some sort of pervert or child molester, and then we get word on Sunday that Jian Chomeshi has parted ways with the CBC as well. In Jian’s case there were some allegations about his sexual […]
Dear Readers: Your ever forgetful reporter had a bout of Al’s Heimers this morning and forgot to print the Sunday Morning Funnies, ……………… ! So I am doing it Sunday evening instead! Since Tomorrow is an election day in Ontario I thought this short story would be appropriate! And THIS, ladies and Gentlemen, brings us […]
Dear Readers: I gave up arguing with Creationists, and for that matter anyone who is overly religious because it is always a futile endeavour. I don’t think I would go as far as Richard Dawkins, who says that anyone with strong religious feelings is suffering from a mental illness, but I will state categorically that […]
Dear Readers: As most of you are probably aware, the United States of America, Burma, and Liberia are the only countries in the world that have NOT adopted the metric system. Every other country in the world has gone “digital” and measures distance and temperature and weight and volume and time etc. etc. in a […]
Dear Readers: I was going to save this article for Sunday Morning’s “religious” column, but decided to publish it today because of assholes like Justin Trudeau, who keep saying that Islam is a religion of peace! We took a detailed look at both Christianity and Islam in my book “The Plain Truth About God” and […]
(Chris Alexander, citizenship and immigration minister, holds a Canadian flag at a citizenship ceremony in Dartmouth, N.S. on Tuesday, October 14.) Since this blog (meaning ME) is being branded as a shit disturber anyway ……………………, I might as well do a little more of it! Folks, a bunch of goody-two-shoes lawyers are causing trouble in […]
Dear Readers: With all the bad stuff going on in the world we thought you might like a little happy news! You might remember the voice of a once-homeless man named Ted Williams. He hit the media spotlight three years ago and became known as the man with the golden voice. ‘When you’re listening to […]
OK folks, here’s our “Asshole of the Day,” and a tip for would-be home invaders! You might want to consider attempting to break in via a window or a door … instead of, say, the chimney. Authorities say that’s the route Genoveva Nunez-Figueroa decided to take early yesterday in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and things went […]
Apparently there are some lines even I wouldn’t cross! I saw an article about a spider in the news today! (And it did NOT look like this one!) This thing was in the rain-forest of South America, and was at least a foot across, and it wasn’t one of those skinny things that are all […]
Late last fall, the Indians on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reservation in Grand Bend asked their new chief if the coming winter was going to be cold or mild. Since he was a chief in a modern society, he had never been taught the old secrets. When he looked at the sky, he couldn’t tell […]
Dear Readers: As you know, your often maligned reporter goes on rants and raves about stuff that seems grossly unfair, unjust, or just plain ridiculous. I have campaigned against the far left, far right, feminists, (especially the femi-nazi’s) special interest groups, animals lovers and vegetarians, bigots, racists, survivalists, cops, minorities, immigrants, liberals and conservatives, lobbyists, […]
Ladies and Gentlemen, according to the Perspective Research Department scientists have discovered that Earth’s magnetic field could flip from north to south at any time! Estimates range from next week, to more than a hundred years from now ………………, but rest assured it will flip soon! BUT! A magnetic field shift is old news. Around […]
Two hillbillies walked into a restaurant. While having a bite to eat, they talked about their moonshine operation. Suddenly, a woman at a nearby table who is eating a sandwich, began to cough. After a minute or so, it became apparent that she was in real distress. One of the hillbillies looked at her and […]
Boy, oh boy, have we got a “Loser of the Day” for ya today folks! Bad enough that this guy was attacked by a bear, but then his partner attempted to shoot the animal ….., and put a couple of rounds in him instead!http://www.theprovince.com/news/fights+life+after+being+mauled+grizzly+bear+shot+hunting+partner/10285561/story.html ——————————————— A pet parrot that spoke with a British accent when […]
Dear Readers: Despite being NDP, I had a certain amount of respect and admiration for Thomas Mulcair……., until yesterday! Even though i don’t agree with his far left leanings, (i.e. NDP) he impressed me as a politician and a leader of a political party. And then he had to go and destroy it!!!!! Mulcair came […]
Export Development Canada and the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service play key roles in helping SMEs grow and prosper
Google’s latest Play Books update for Android makes the app a lot easier to use for reading non-fiction e-books. See, Play Books is perfect if you’re just reading something from cover to cover. But if you’re using it to read text or reference books…
I’ve already written about the issue of creepy guys before. Yet here I am again. You know why? Because the issue of the creepy guys will never go away, and it depresses the crap out of me. One Mark asked me whether I thought it was true that someone in authority could laugh at and/or […]
Former Toronto mayoralty candidate Doug Ford says he might want to go on to fame as leader of the Ontario Conservatives. This is serious folks. Doug Ford is the guy who said that what the Ontario Conservatives really need is an enema. We would all have a good laugh and go home if it were not for the fact he might be serious about his next challenge.
And the reason many Conservatives are cottoning to the idea is the showing the older Ford brother made in the recent Toronto election. Sure, Ford Nation as it is called really belongs to (Read more…)
Apple CEO discloses sexuality in the hopes it may help others
The post Tim Cook: ‘Being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me’ appeared first on Macleans.ca.
Ottawa – Their Excellencies the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, and Mrs. Sharon Johnston will welcome His Excellency François Hollande, President of the French Republic, during his State visit to Canada, from November 2 to 4, 2014.
Grizzly bears in the Central Purcell Mountains are more vulnerable than shown in 15-year-old research being used by proponents of Jumbo Glacier Resort and, if the resort is built, it could threaten grizzly populations through southern B.C and into the U.S, says one of Canada’s leading grizzly bear experts.
Michael Proctor, who has studied grizzly bears in the Purcell and Selkirk mountain ranges in southeastern B.C. for almost 20 years and whose work is regularly published in scientific journals, recently completed two ecological analyses of the Purcell grizzly population and found, based on data-driven population surveys, that bear (Read more…)
NASA just spotted a needle in a haystack: the remains of the lunar dust probe LADEE, which was deliberately crashed into the dark side of the moon last year. The satellite was launched from Wallops Island a year ago to determine if lunar dust tends…
In Mickey Keating’s 2013 meta-horror thriller extravaganza Ritual, the awesomely-named Lisa Marie Summerscales plays Lovely, resident of South Texas, whose turn ons include smoking at the beach, cruising dive bars and picking up guys with more prison …
I got an e-mail recently from a woman who said she was weaning herself off from environmental activism. She was burned out. The fight had just taken too heavy a toll on her so she was hanging up her spurs.
It made me revisit a couple of conversations I’ve had with climate scientists. When, as strangers, you first meet they’re lively and full of encouraging remarks about how “we can still win this.” Eventually, when you get to the point of small talk over a couple of beers the tune suddenly changes to “we’re so screwed.”
Now, Madeline Thomas of Grist, writes of an emerging disorder, “climate depression.“
28 Days Later and Sunshine writer Alex Garland is back with a new science fiction thriller, this one about the line between human and AI. In Ex Machina, a programmer is tasked with evaluating the consciousness of a female-bodied AI, and things quickl…
Today, the Honourable Dr. K. Kellie Leitch, Minister of Labour and Minister of Status of Women, congratulated Lakehead Terminal Elevators Association and the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service…
Costas Menegakis, Member of Parliament for Richmond Hill, today announced Government of Canada funding for a musical and theatrical memorial celebrating the achievements and sacrifices of Canada’s Veterans. MP Menegakis made the announcement on behalf …
Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Athabaskan returned to its home port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, today after a successful deployment on Operation CARIBBE, Canada’s contribution to the multinational campaign against illicit trafficking by transnational …
TSB releases final rail investigation report.
Members of the media are invited to attend an event where Greg Kerr, Member of Parliament for West Nova, on behalf of the Honourable Rob Moore, Minister of State (ACOA), will make an important announcement regarding an initiative in Wolfville.
It’s that time of year again, when people attempt to spook us with stories about ghosts and monsters, but let’s face it: With global warming cooking the planet, melting glaciers, and the build-up of nuclear arsenals, the real stories are much, much sc…
You might talk about how much you hate large bezels, but LG is actually doing something about it. It just unveiled a 5.3-inch, 1080p LCD display with 0.7mm bezels, less than the width of a credit card. The Korean company said they’re the world’s…
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Reservoirs and hydropower are often thought of as climate friendly, but new research suggests that we may have underestimated the amount of methane they produce. The methane—which is 35 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2 over the span of a century—is produced by bacteria eating nutrient-rich agricultural runoff.
Scientists Learned More About How the World of Quantum Physics Works, and It’s Really Fucking Weird
The meeting room at Pionen. All photos by Emil Nordin
One hundred and fifteen feet deep under ground, inside a mountain on the Southside in central Stockholm, behind huge doors that look like a gateway to the future, lies one of the world’s coolest offices.
The first thing you’ll see when you enter this place are two massive engines that automatically start in case of a power shutdown. These are authentic German submarine engines. The mountain walls inside are covered with green plants that give you the impression that they provide the place with additional oxygen. There’s also a huge soundproof glass cube that floats above the floor, serving as a meeting room. The round carpet inside looks like the moon.
This is Pionen, one of Swedish internet provider Bahnhof’s many data centers. It’s a venue inherited from the Swedish civil defense that was built during the Cold War. During a short period in the 1990s it used to be a popular hub for Stockholm ravers. But eventually, it became what it is today: the home to Wikileaks’s servers.
“They operated their main servers from here. Later, it became common to set up servers that mirror their machinery,” Jon Karlung, the CEO of Banhof, tells me. “That wasn’t ideal for us since we’re hosting a business solution, and they were saving money setting up things in a different way.
“In December 2010, when Wikileaks was at its peak, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, and tons of other media were here. [Wikileaks’ founders] were at some hotel room somewhere launching this thing. The media wanted something visually appealing, and if there is a James Bond–looking data center around the corner, well…”
Karlung is 50 years old and very tall. He describes himself as something of a rebel, and after spending pretty much an entire day with him, I think I agree. I get the impression that this is a man who is very intelligent, who likes to play fun and games, and who fearlessly walks his own way at all times—for better and for worse. “I guess [our competitors] can get a bit uncomfortable sometimes,” he tells me as we’re drinking coffee in one of the more standard office-looking corners of Pionen.
Jon Karlung standing in the doorway to the room at Pionen where he keeps machinery for channeling heat from servers
After the coffee, he shows me around. I get to see servers IRL for the first time in my life—the things that store the stuff that makes up the internet. They’re smaller than what I had expected, but inside are endless corridors of virtual information.
We’re discussing big data, the massive collections of everybody’s online behavior and information.
“It is possible to gather big data and analyze it, and receive amazing things and knowledge from it,” Karlung says. “However, these days it’s possible to use this to shackle people. I guess you can say that there are so many things that happen in our lives online. And if you’re in this—let’s call it a closed ‘universe’—there are a few, big, dominating players who plan out the rules in that universe. I think that this ultimately is a philosophical matter. Like, what is it to be a human being?”
Sweden has recently become an attractive player on the international data center market—particularly since Facebook opened its first European data center in the northern city of Luleå last year. It’s due to the Nordics’ cold climate (which helps lower the cost of keeping the servers from overheating) that the interest in building data centers is growing. In September 2013, Microsoft announced the construction of a $250-million data center in northern Finland, and in March it was announced that Facebook would build a second data center close to its first.
Naturally, this growing interest in the Nordics is received with open arms by the governments. The data centers offer jobs in places that have been depopulated in the last couple of decades.
As we talk, Karlung tells me about a deal he has with Fortum, which is a Swedish energy provider: Instead of channeling the heat from the servers through vents and tossing it into the open air, Fortum uses the runoff to heat apartment blocks in Stockholm. Karlung says data centers where the heat isn’t taken care of and recycled cause some pretty serious pollution.
“The servers create energy, and it’d be crazy to waste it,” he says
Karlung with one of his servers
Karlung shares his personal contact details on each and every press release posted on Bahnhof’s website and personally deals with the company’s press matters. When I ask him if he ever gets unpleasant phone calls from people who think he’s annoying, he doesn’t look bothered at all: “I let them say what they have to say and that’s it.” He tells me that it doesn’t matter if his phone number is listed or not—if someone would want to hurt him, they will find a way to do that one way or another.
But why would anyone want to hurt a CEO of an internet provider? Well, Karlung likes to pull practical jokes and perform media stunts, which he’s been doing ever since he began working at Bahnhof in 1996.
“I’ve been in this game ever since the ‘Wild West years’—when internet was like this immense power, something positive and fucking cool,” he says. “If I look back at how it was in the beginning, it was a positivity that broke free. You could access things on a global scale that hadn’t been possible before—things that we take for granted today. Back then, it was freedom online, freedom of speech—not an internet used as some kind of control mechanism, it wasn’t used in a repressive way.”
The internet was made available for the Swedish public in 1994. Up until then, it had only been a service for government bodies, businesses, and universities. Internet provider Algonet—which no longer exists—is often referred to as Sweden’s first commercial ISP. But that same year, in a basement in Uppsala, Oscar Swartz set up another company that would prove to be more successful: Bahnhof.
At that time, Karlung worked as the editor-in-chief for the men’s magazine (now a porn publication) Aktuell Rapport. He joined Bahnhof two years later when he figured that it could work to bring the magazine online. “I had been working at Aktuell Rapport for quite a few years and was pretty tired with all that,” he says. “It wasn’t like the ultimate dream to keep on working with that kind of thing for all eternity. Naturally, I wanted to do something else with my life, so the question of, What can I do now? arose. So I was looking at things from a technical point of view and thought, Maybe I can do this online? But, well, it kind of fell through.”
Instead, his technology hobby took over, and Karlung left the magazine. “[The internet in the mid 90s] was so much fun! It was incredible,” he says. “It was the one thing that made it possible to log on and discover the world in ways that were completely new. I mean it was a revolution that was very positive.”
The ‘Alien’ server hall in Kista, outside of Stockholm
One common perception that people have of Karlung is that he’s a provocateur. In 1997, he and his then companion Swartz staged a news story about Cambodian dictator Pol Pot coming to Sweden—a complete lie—which was picked up by Reuters.
“It was pretty mad in itself. But it took a while before they figured it out. And it did cause a mess,” he says. “But that was like a market-based practical joke, which showed some of the possibilities the internet has. Practical jokes are always fun if they have a serious message embedded into them. Practical jokes without any substance aren’t fun. In this case it was about the fact that you can’t trust information online. That’s given today, but back then, people considered information online to be the truth.”
Whatever people think of Karlung, the fact is that behind the humorous take on media and sci-fi designed data centers, is a person in a very rare and powerful position. Being the CEO for an internet provider gives him the means to effect, and possibly change, the centralized direction he’s fearing that the internet is currently taking.
“Then there was this thing with North Korea [in 2001]. They wanted us to build an internet that wasn’t the internet. They wanted a fake Yahoo, a fake Altavista [a search engine prior to Google], and a range of different websites, so that the people of North Korea could surf in a kind of small world—almost like in the Truman Show. They were supposed to surf on a mini-internet, thinking that it was the real internet. And then there would be people monitoring and controlling everybody online. People might laugh about that today and think of it as silly, but as a matter of fact, we’re in a situation where a few big players control the internet. And we are made to believe that it’s free and open. So that image of things might not be that bad.”
The deal with North Korea didn’t happen. “Plenty of things are possible—I mean you can rob a bank if you want—but this didn’t feel right even though it was an exciting thought.”
Karlung is the kind of guy who likes to take action when it comes to things he believes in. Sometimes in pretty weird ways. In 2013, Wired reported on what was, according to that magazine, “the single most enjoyable comment on the year’s NSA spying scandal.” One evening, Karlung and his friend Love Ekenberg made a video starring three gingerbread men, titled Gingerbread Data Center: NSA & Sweden Eat Cake. The film takes place at Pionen and the gingerbread men represent NSA, the Swedish Security Police, and FRA, which is the National Defence Radio Establishment in Sweden. These three institutions are government bodies that Karlung associates with internet surveillance. And he’s not particularly fond of them. The video ends with a thank you to Edward Snowden.
Video making goes hand-in-hand with Karlung’s first experiences of the internet. “I did experimental films—and this was before video! I did 16-mm films and animations and arty stuff or whatever you like to call it. [The gingerbread video] was something we did pretty quickly, but in pretty much the same kind of spirit as those I did in the beginning.”
The gingerbread video is nothing compared to some of the hands-on measures Karlung has been doing over the years. For instance in December last year, Karlung had several meetings with the Swedish Security Police—which might explain their representation in the gingerbread video. “They wanted to access our systems in a standardized way, so that they in a standardized way could get access to a kind of information they considered having the right to access,” he says. “And we considered that wrong.”
In a response to what he believed was wrong, he decided to secretly record one of the meetings with the police. Furthermore, he handed over the recordings to the news desk at Swedish public service radio. They broadcasted the entire thing. “That might be a little bit outside of the box of what you normally do as a technical provider, but who else would do that?” he says. “There isn’t anybody else! That’s the thing. There isn’t anyone else who has that kind of access, or who is like a spider in a web at a technical provider, and who’s actually interested in these issues.”
Karlung walking on the imported lava stones in Kista
It might be thanks to the fact that Sweden is pretty progressive in terms of freedom of speech that Karlung is able to do these stunts without getting into trouble. Or maybe due to the fact that he always seems to have the law on his side.
Over the past decade, Bahnhof has only had one major legal issue. In 2005, the Swedish Anti-Piracy Agency alongside music giants Universal, Sony, and EMI, reported Bahnhof to the police for unlawfully spreading copyrighted files. The police searched Pionen and allegedly found the files. This was during a time when piracy was a hot topic in Sweden. The goal with the search was to find file-sharers who were customers at Bahnhof.
Bahnhof responded with a lawsuit against the Anti-Piracy Agency on the grounds that material had been placed on the servers by an infiltrator from the Anti-Piracy Agency. Eventually, a deal was settled, and didn’t result in any legal consequences for anyone involved.
It might sound a little odd, but Karlung’s ability to combine his hobbies and concerns with his business has given results. Despite being one of Sweden’s smaller operators, serving about 100,000 households, Bahnhof has become a trusted internet provider with a unique trademark. And it seems to be going well. The company has an annual turnover of about half a billion Swedish kroners ($88 million).
It’s not only Pionen that is designed in a spectacular way. One of Bahnhof’s newest data centers is located a bit outside of the Swedish capital in the suburb Kista.
From the outside, this building looks like an actual space base. There are giant, square-shaped container-like rooms made out of armor-grade steel. These various armor blocks are connected with an air-filled tent—just like you’d expect a house in space to look like. And the entire construction stands on top of red lava stones, which are imported from Iceland. All in an attempt to give the place a feel of how it would be like to be on Mars. And if that wasn’t enough: upon entering this planet, Karlung shows me (with the excitement of a child) how the doors that open the armored rooms—in which the servers are stored—make pschhh sounds. They open in a just about identical way as the doors on the spaceship in the movie Alien.
Design aside—it is the company’s caring attitude towards the privacy of their customers that makes it unique. Probably also the fact that some of Bahnhof’s clients happened to have been big actors within the freedom of internet movement—such as WikiLeaks back in 2010.
“I was pretty naïve, and was going to auction out everything [from Wikileaks] on eBay and donate the money to Reporters Without Borders. That was the plan. But it all fell through due to eBay not being deigned to deal with that kind of thing. The server was sold for like a couple of hundred thousands [kroners] to a guy who had used his dad’s credit card. So obviously we had to withdraw the entire thing and were like, ‘Fuck this.’ We actually still have both the [Wikileaks] web server and database.”
Karlung at Pionen
Bahnhof continues with their political fights for what they believe is right. In 2014 alone, Karlung and his company have been involved in two pretty chaotic media hunts, both which are related to gathering and use of personal information online.
“It all comes down to freedom online without it being someone else’s business,” he says “I mean, if I get a phone call from someone, what gives a third part the right to record that conversation, store that information for all eternity, and use it for their own purposes?”
In January, Sweden saw a new type of online service called Lexbase. It’s a business built around taking advantage of the country’s Freedom of Information Act. It’s essentially a search engine that allows its users to browse freely through criminal records of Sweden’s citizens. By typing in someone’s name, you’ll get access to some of that person’s dirtiest secrets.
Although criminal records have always been available to the public due to the Freedom of Information Act, Lexbase changed the process of getting hold of that information—from complicated bureaucratic procedures, to anonymous and easy online browsing.
Naturally, a shitstorm took place when the site was launched. But Lexbase’s founders failed to predict that it’s pretty upsetting for people when others take the right to share their private information with the world. Plus, the technology behind the website wasn’t advanced enough to handle the pressure. Within a few hours of the launch, Lexbase was hacked and crashed. Bahnhof hosted its servers, and became the center of attention once again. “The [founders of Lexbase] disappeared off the radar. We were left to act like some kind of press people for their stuff.”
Following the Lexbase crash, Karlung ended their contract and edited Bahnhof’s user terms. “Now, there’s one paragraph saying that you’re not allowed to engage in ‘irresponsible circulation of gatherings of personal information.’ One thing that’s always been written in the terms is that you’re not allowed to run things that don’t work from a technical point of view, or something that can cause us major technical problems. And the formalities around [Lexbase] were the fact that their net had big technological issues.”
The updated Bahnhof terms illustrate Karlung’s engagement in civil right matters once again—as well as the success of his company. His unique position in the middle of the world wide web is in the center of another ongoing controversy.
On April 8, the European Court of Justice declared the controversial Directive 2006/24/EC—aka EU’s Data Retention Directive (DRD)—invalid. The DRD has, ever since it was introduced in 2006, been subject for debates about privacy issues and human rights matters. During the time when it was valid, the DRD made it compulsory for internet providers in all EU countries to track, collect, and store people’s online data, i.e. anything from your browsing history to chat logs and emails. Government bodies could then access this information if considered important or useful, such as during a police investigation.
Once the DRD was gone, Bahnhof erased all of its customers’ stored data and immediately stopped the gathering of new data. But despite the court’s ruling on EU-level, Sweden’s government—which voted in favor of the DRD on a national level in 2012—did not remove the directive in the country’s laws.
Following Bahnhof’s decision to stop the gathering of data, a conflict arose between the company and the Swedish state. Sweden’s Post and Telephone Board ruled that the DRD would continue in Sweden regardless of what the European Court of Justice had determined. Karlung refused to follow the directive, and on July 8, he turned himself in—confident that the case would eventually be brought up in the European court. “If you’re managing a telecom operator, you obviously see things that you don’t necessarily see from the outside. I mean I see what’s possible and in what ways you can use current technology to control [things].”
But despite that Karlung has repeatedly confessed to breaking the law—on both Bahnhof’s website and via letters to the Post and Telephone Board—action against him has still not been issued by the Swedish state.
Due to Sweden’s apparent passivity in the matter (which is weird considering that they require all of the country’s internet providers to gather data), Karlung together with Swartz (who now sits as the chairman for the 5th of July Foundation, which works for freedom of speech online) have taken further action. On September 12, the pair reported Sweden to the European Court of Justice. Karlung wrote on his website that “We will take this all the way to the EU court. But the best thing would be if the court interfered and showed Sweden what way to go.”
Check-in. Photos courtesy of the author
As the real world becomes increasingly scarier than any horror film, those of us who enjoy the thrill of a Halloween haunted attraction need to keep upping the ante. We’re all just trying to chase that ever elusive scare dragon, all just trying to feel something. LA has a plethora of options for spooky theatrics that go beyond your typical haunted hayride. In the past, I’ve paid my hard-earned money to walk on “cum”-filled condoms, watch someone be “raped,” and have “used” tampons dragged across my face, all in the name of hopefully being frightened. This year, I went to Alone: An Existential Haunting in the hopes of peeling back some onion layers of my psyche and damaging myself on a more core level.
This event, which claims on its website that it “places you as a participant in your own nightmare,” is ostensibly designed to redefine the very idea of scary. It supposedly taps into your psyche, and triggers a full-blown, Fukushima-level meltdown. However, with limited information about the experience online and the event site itself acting all cloak and dagger about what it is they even do, I was left wondering if this would end up being more Krueger than Kafka.
I arrived at the location in the heart of Skid Row in downtown LA. I had a friend accompanying me despite knowing we’d have to do the entire half-hour experience solo. We took some “before” pictures because the experience had to be documented visually, and phones and cameras were not allowed inside the attraction. I tried my best to look natural in this picture, but I ended up in some cut-rate version of an Urban Outfitters catalog crossed with the cover of a Crystal Castles album anyway. Sorry.
Before being existentially haunted
Our names were called and we rode a freight elevator up to a room where we filled out forms explaining if we’d ever taken psychotropic drugs or worn copper jewelry. I started to worry that I might need to be predisposed to belief in new age or supernatural hokum for this thing to have any impact on me. Right after I had this worry, we were led to a room to do warm-up yoga before the scaring began. Fuck. Was my lack of belief in anything going to prevent me from enjoying this as intended? Why couldn’t I just will myself to let go and be open to this stuff being real?
A few minutes into our breathing exercises, a bag was roughly placed over my head as I was yanked backward. Nice! Threats grounded in the real world! Maybe I’d be scared after all. White noise earphones were placed over my ears and I just stood immobile for a few minutes listening to a Nicolas Jaar track or something. It was a soothing, cicada-like beat. I started wishing I had any kind of talent for music. So many of my friends make things, complete projects, advance their careers. Meanwhile, I’m just begging for writing scraps to make rent. People constantly tell me, “It’ll all work out for you, Justin.”
A bulky man started touching my shoulders and ladled me a cup of water (I think), which I drank without hesitation. Is my yearning to be scared having me put myself in dangerous situations? Do I have some sort of death wish? Is this why I seek out such experiences? They never seem to deliver, either. I went skydiving once in an effort to get the adrenaline rush I’d been craving, but due to the myriad safety checks and being strapped to a pro, I felt nothing as I plummeted to the ground. Like, oh this is a nice view and all, but no real exhilaration.
I crawled to a man in a yarn mask and sat in a little pillowed grotto as he smeared war paint on my face. Once finished, he handed me a long braided strand attached to his mask. He gestured to me with a nod. Was I supposed to pull this piece off and take it? I didn’t want to ruin his mask. What do I do here? Am I the only one who didn’t get this? I started to move on to the next room and he pulled me back. Great. I really did fuck this up. There’s something I’m supposed to do here. A few seconds later, he pushed me away. I guess he just gave up on me. He wouldn’t be the first in my life to. Nor the last.
I was sat in a chair across a hallway from three hoodie-wearing figures, their faces obscured by the lone light behind them. Was this a commentary on Trayvon Martin and meant to prey upon white people’s fear of “unknowns”? Before I could formulate a real thought about this, the first figure ran up to me and raised his hand to strike me, but ended up landing the blow as a tickle. Great. Not this again. Another instance of being a poor tickling recipient that would probably make the tickler feel inadequate. It’s not your fault that I’m dead inside, friend. Just finish what you’re doing and we can both move on.
More crawling in the dark and I was spat out into a diner where a feral, long-haired Ring girl was scurrying around. She pulled me to a booth where we played with salt together. Some people love doing this sort of shit with their toddlers. Why don’t I want children? Is it just a lack of desire for them now or am I permanently, fundamentally broken? Millions of years of procreation stopping with me just seems like such a tragic failure.
I was led to a dining room table where an old man in a suit did a little monologue meant to creep me out in a Twin Peaks kind of way. This guy had the best chops of any of the actors yet and I started to wonder about the path that brought him here. Did he arrive in Hollywood off a bus in the 60s, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed expecting to make his mark in the world only to wind up here, decades later, an unknown, doing seasonal bullshit like this to make rent? Would I have a similar journey toward a disappointing outcome? Probably.
A woman grabbed me from behind and marched me to a door. She told me to head downstairs and look for Pablo. At the bottom of the stairs, I exited to an alley behind the building. A crew member told me the exit was ahead on the right. Oh. It’s over already? Probably not, but even so, I needed to collect my things from the front desk. As I rounded the corner, a bum asked me for change. I gave him my usual “Nah. Sorry, man.” He asked again. Wait, was this still part of it? He then asked for the watch I wasn’t wearing. I see. Well, if they wanted this part to be scarier to other people—not me—they should’ve used a black guy in a dirty old jacket instead of a white 20-something dressed like a painting of the hobo-clown Emmett Kelly. Was it racist of me to think that just now? Is my understanding of other people’s racism somehow in-and-of itself racist? Am I not appreciating my white privilege enough? I know where it manifests and subconsciously get it. But I don’t actively consider it in my day to day life. I’m sure I’m part of the problem to some people. This Norman Rockwell-style tramp corralled me back into the building and I continued to feel a troubling lack of fear.
I soon found myself in a strobe-lit room. A woman danced around the floor, which was covered with feathers. We playfully waltzed and she pushed me against the walls and then had me lie down on the cold concrete. She rested her head on my chest and I stroked her hair. This was the most intimate moment I’d had in days. Will I ever be loved again or even let myself experience love? I didn’t want this moment of the attraction to end. But, like all relationships, it eventually had to. I trudged off to the next room truly alone for the first time that night.
A Zulu warrior in a grass skirt jumped out of the darkness at me and herded me toward the real exit. Zulu? Really? Was this meant to scare people like my dad? I’m sure he’s disappointed in me. How could he not be? I haven’t lived up to my potential at all. My parents have watched me fall from grace so many times, only to be scraping by with no upward trajectory in sight. On the one hand, I hold their generation in contempt for stacking the deck against my success. On the other hand, I know it’s just as much my own missteps that have left me in my current fruitless predicament.
I was given a complimentary Dos Equis in the exit lounge while I waited for my friend to finish. I’ve been drinking more lately. Am I self-medicating? Trying to blind myself to the wolf at the door? Jesus, I’d probably have to kill myself if I got a DUI. There’d be no coming back from that sort of debt. I realized that it would be better to stick with just one beer here and drink more at home.
After the terror
A woman started painting a masquerade mask that I had been given. We chatted about my favorite parts of the night and she took off with a “See you around!” Why are connections in LA so superficial and fleeting? Of course I wouldn’t see her around. I barely see half my friends anymore. I know they’re all busy trying to survive their own lives, but it’s impossible not to feel cast aside and unwanted. Like I was never part of the group to begin with. I’ve never had trouble fitting in in any sort of clique, but when you’re such a social diplomat, it’s hard to feel like you truly belong anywhere. A nomad without a home.
I was hoping to be broken down with some enhanced interrogation techniques, Guantanamo Bay-style, given the release I had to sign at the beginning, but, yet again, was left just as unaffected as in years past. Alone might be scary if you’re spooked by modern horror movie tropes that play into eerie aesthetics, but if you’re a bit more traditional with what raises the hair on the back of your neck, a much cheaper haunted hayride is probably more your speed. What am I doing with my life? Does this article suck?
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Images courtesy of Ed Piskor
Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree is an astonishing feat of cultural archaeology, in both ambition and execution. The project somehow doesn’t seem quite real: a comic-book history of hip-hop going back to the very beginning—the late 70s—where lore is thick and documentation scarce. To tell this story in any language would be a challenge; to tell it in the language of comics feels like a magical summoning.
The very first panel takes place at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, believed to be rap’s birthplace, a community center where DJ Kool Herc first got the idea to talk in rhymes over the records he spun. From those beginnings emerged a local culture that became a global empire.
Piskor’s preparation for this historiographical undertaking is limited to his comic history of computer hacking, Whizzywig (2012), as well as the drawings he contributed to Harvey Pekar’s The Beats: A Graphic History (2009). So far, he’s published two volumes of Hip Hop Family Tree—out of the six he’s contracted for—with new pages serialized weekly at Boing Boing.
Piskor manages to make his history live by isolating key moments in the culture’s development—some of them obscure but crucial, others nearly as well-known as they should be—and extracting from these moments a few key anecdotes which are then dramatized and made humorous through illustration. He’s able to employ this methodology in telling about everything from rap’s first appearance on Soul Train to the definitive battle between Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee to hip-hop’s acquisition of a socio-political consciousness, to the making of Wild Style (1983), to the formation of Run DMC. The characters he draws are animated and nuanced, with affectionate attention paid to period detail. The whole concept works, on every single page, and, taken in its totality, the book is allowed to become as epic in its variety and dimensions as the story it tells.
I spoke with Piskor about the hip-hop community’s response to the series, how he finds most graphic illustration to be “garbage,” and how tall and wide he’d like to grow his rap Family Tree.
VICE: Can you tell me about your earliest memory of rap?
Ed Piskor: By virtue of being born in 1982, it was already in the atmosphere on a routine basis, man. So the area I’m from—the neighborhood I lived in was predominantly black—there were constantly boomboxes walking up and down the sidewalk, all that kind of stuff. I remember the very first rap song that I owned, that we had in the house on wax: It was Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” because it was on a disco compilation that my parents had. I’m from Pittsburgh. It’s not New York City, but at that stage, which would be ‘85, ‘86, ‘87, hip-hop was in a sort of golden age of sorts.
How has the hip-hop community responded to the series?
Really good, man. It’s almost like the book is officially a piece of hip-hop culture at this point, because different rappers will get in touch, and they want to make sure they’re a part of the story when it comes to their time.
What rappers have gotten in touch with you?
De La [Soul]. Biz Markie. DMC is down. Chuck D will retweet my stuff. Grandmaster Flash will retweet my stuff. There’s a bunch, man… Some of these guys will try to [denigrate] other guys, and say, “Ah, man, he didn’t do this. He didn’t do that.” So I have to have a critical ear for the stuff I’m being fed. It’s good that they’re getting in touch, but when it comes to usability of information, I’m suspicious of stuff. I feel like I have a good bullshit detector. If it sounds too wild and I can’t find one other person who says the same shit, it can’t get put in the book, man.
What are you working on today, in specific?
I’m putting together the strip for next week, and it’s gonna be a good one, man. It’s the introduction of L.L. Cool J into the mix. I hope to pencil two pages today; one of the pages is gonna be a splash page of the young L.L., because I think he deserves that.
Nonfiction comics seem to have undergone a flourishing, of sorts. Do you have any opinions about that?
I actually don’t think about this too much. I hate biopics and I don’t really read many nonfiction comics, to be honest. Thinking about it, the only nonfiction comics that I’ve really ever read were autobiographical. There’s room for everything in comics, though.
Given the ambition of your own nonfiction-comics undertaking, I’m surprised you don’t have more appreciation for people who are doing similar things.
Well you know what it is: I think they all suck, so it’s like, “Let me make a good one.” That’s truthfully the spirit. So it’s like, “I’ll show you mooks how to do this shit.” It’s true, too—you can quote me on that. You have your outliers. You have your work by Joe Sacco. You have [Art] Spiegelman’s Maus. And that stuff is unassailable, untouchable. But now there’s been a graphic novel boom-and-bust kind of thing where people are getting these gigs to make stuff for big New York publishers. So there’s a lot of chaff. But just in general, in every medium, there’s a lot of garbage, and then there are the few outlying pieces of good work out there. I kind of live by this maxim, man, that the enemy of the best is the good. So if it’s passable, then that’s a failing grade to me, man. I’m just trying to digest the best diet I can, so I can make the best comics I can. That goes for film, that goes for prose books—I just have no time for something that is a C average.
It’s obvious that you’ve used sources outside of what’s indicated in the bibliographies, particularly when it comes to interviews. Why don’t you give yourself the credit you deserve by better indicating your sources?
All my friends bring that up to me, and I really just don’t give a fuck about creating an academic text or something. I’ve never gone to college; I don’t even know how to write that shit. A lot of my information is from internet interviews and stuff like that. So I don’t even know how to cite that stuff properly. I’m from a position of ignorance, man, when it comes to that part—citations and shit. And I actually don’t care to pass, in academia and stuff like that. I mean, it’s pretty cool that different college courses do use my books, but I just want to make a cool comic. That’s just a different level of work.
I feel it would take me a month or something to corral all my sources, because I didn’t start documenting them from the beginning. I’m just trying to do my thing and have fun, and that doesn’t feel fun to me. I don’t take liberties, man, and if I do, I call it out immediately. There’s that one image in the first book where the Furious Five gets their first advance, and they go out and buy dirt bikes. I just drew a couple of the characters doing weird jumps and stuff, and I call it out: “Artistic license.” ‘Cuz, you know, I have no evidence that they knew how to do dirt-bike jumps or whatever.
Around when does your interest in rap history start to terminate?
I’d say ’93, ’94, maybe. But then it goes beyond that a little bit. I’ve got six books in me right now—that’s my focus. I’m not sure how far that’s gonna take me.
How far are you interested in taking the project?
That’s an impossible thing for me to answer because as I keep writing and putting stuff together, I keep finding things that are visually interesting and need to be put in the book. So the better way I can answer that question whenever it comes up is I can tell people I’m signed up for six books, and I’ve finished two so far, and I’m well over halfway done with book three. So just by gauging the way things are moving and how much information is being put into this stuff, the end of the sixth book probably will not get beyond ‘87.
What makes you believe the origins of rap should be honored in this way?
The narrative is about community and world-building and how word of mouth works. So at the Kool Herc parties at 1520 Sedgwick, the future of hip-hop—the next people in line—were all at those parties. Hip-hop as we know it is from a very congested area in the South Bronx. By virtue of that, everyone involved in it has a relationship with each other. So that was my whole thing. It’s like, OK, we’ve got this pressure cooker right here, man—we have all this energy—and if you play the six-degrees-of-separation game, you can draw clear lines back to any of these people who were at 1520 Sedgwick. So that’s the exercise, is introducing these early characters and showing how they all interconnect.
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Those of us who consider ourselves progressive bloggers are well-aware of the dystopian nature of the world we live in. It is a world where black is often white, white is black, and deceit abounds. The perpetrators of environmental degradation and climate change offer us commercials showing pristine landscapes to ponder; the moneyed elite tell us that their success is our future success, and those who wage war tell us of their commitment to peace.
Sadly, Canada is not exempt from this madness. Now that the Harper regime has seized the narrative following the attacks in Quebec and Ottawa, almost (Read more…)
Last night on The Tonight Show, Daniel Radcliffe professed his love of rap to Jimmy Fallon. He said he’s been obsessed with memorizing lyrically complex songs since he was young. After a quick shout-out to Eminem, the show segued into a bit in which Radcliffe admirably performed “Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious, an indie hip-hop duo from Sacramento. But why is seeing Harry Potter moonlight as a tongue-twisting MC such a good late-night-TV gag?
This isn’t even the first time we’ve seen this kind of joke on Fallon. He’s done variations of it again and again. Back in February, he released a mash-up video of Brian Williams reciting Sugar Hill’s “Rappers Delight” that has racked up more than 14 million YouTube views. And he’s also had white stars like Anne Hathaway sing rap lyrics by black artists like Kendrick Lamar in a show tune style in a recurring bit on the Tonight Show.
But this comedic trope of an awkward white person rapping goes way beyond Fallon. It’s so well established that it even has a name. Known as the piss-take rap, it’s premised upon the cultural divide between stereotypically awkward caucasians and the black-dominated genre of urban hip-hop.
In 2007, Flight of the Conchords dabbled in piss-take rap. Although the Kiwi duo drew laughs for their parodies of all kinds of music, their performance of “Hiphopopotamus Vs. Rhymenoceros” was arguably the funniest. The show’s stars cause two tough guys to back down after they display their lyrical prowess, a scenario that’s absurd considering one of the protagonists is wearing a cord jacket and uses words like “motherflipping.”
Two years later, Joaquin Phoenix turned the idea of a white guy rapping into performance art. He appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman disheveled and bearded, claiming that he wanted to abandon acting to pursue a career in hip-hop. The charade lasted for two years and produced the brilliant—fuck what you think, it is brilliant—Casey Affleck-directed documentary, I’m Not Here. In the movie, Phoenix performs at Miami’s Club LIV—a notoriously expensive nightspot—for a very confused crowd. In this instance, the piss-take rap is used to troll people sipping $20 cocktails.
Then there’s the Lonely Island comedy troupe featuring comedian Andy Samberg. They’ve practically made a career off of piss-take rap, releasing humorous songs like “I’m on a Boat” with T-Pain and convincing Natalie Portman to spit “Shut the fuck up and suck my dick” over a hip-hop beat in a digital short for Saturday Night Live.
It’s fascinating that it’s still often seen as joke when a white guy picks up the mic, considering white artists like Blondie and producers like Rick Rubin have contributed to the genre since its early days. Of course, Vanilla Ice, the first really popular white rapper, has been permanently labeled as a doofus, so much that his current gig is clashing with Amish folks on the DIY Network. But not all white rappers will go down in history as cultural punch lines. In late 90s, Eminem blew up and opened the floodgates, allowing more serious white MCs such as Yelawolf and Iggy Azalea to get traction and respect.
It’s hard to say why this joke is still funny. When you try to apply the piss-take rap formula to other genres of music, it doesn’t work as well. Like, isn’t Marty McFly performing that Chuck Berry song in Back to the Future the same exact thing? McFly was getting pushed around by Biff right before he picked up a guitar and pulled off one of the coolest performances in all of moviedom. If the piss-take rap joke works because it involves a character subverting our expectations, shouldn’t we be laughing at McFly instead of wishing we were him? And if it doesn’t make us crack up because McFly succeeds in wowing the crowd, then why are we so interested in gawking at Radcliffe who, actually, did a pretty good job spitting Blackalicious’s verses?
Maybe it has to do with the fact that we don’t think of the rock music Marty was playing as something co-opted from black culture—even though it certainly was. Unlike rock, however, people still see rap as the province of the urban African American community. I guess, that’s why it’s funny, if not problematic, that we laugh when we see a goofy rich white dude wade into that territory.
However, with the way things are going in hip-hop, the piss-take rap joke might stop garnering big laughs, simply because—for better or worse—white guy rappers are becoming pretty common. Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” now has the record for the longest a female rap song has spent at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. And whether or not you think it’s fair (or that the Grammys even mean anything), Macklemore won Best Rap Album last year. And Eminem isn’t just the best-selling rapper of all time, he’s the second-best single male artist of any genre. White rappers are so ever-present right now in hip-hop that in a few years finding humor in a white guy rapping might feel as played-out as Gallagher smashing a watermelon.
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Canada has the dubious distinction of being a global leader when it comes to outsourcing and privatization of public services and infrastructure. The rush to outsource comes with very little debate in our legislatures and rarely rises above the noise … Continue reading →
Annoucement could come as early as today
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Dutch artist Hans Eijkelboom works through the medium of clothes. Kind of. You might know him from his previous project, 10 Euro Outifts, where he bought—and photographed himself in—32 outfits that cost less than ten euros. His new book, People of the Twenty-First Century, tackles the subject of sartorial decisions once more, only this time he turns his camera outwards.
Over the course of ten years (1993–2013), Eijkelboom took to the streets to document tribes of the general public—the everymen and everywomen. But don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s interested in fashion. “No,” he says when we meet up to discuss the book. “I’m interested in people and their desire to shape their identity with attributes.”
In this case, those attributes are clothes and mass trends—be it a mad flush of pink worn across men’s chests, a sudden wave of red sailing jackets, or even a sea of orange trilby hats. People in (scarily) similar clothing appear in blocks of 12 in the book, and each “look” was captured in a very short timeframe.
“I worked in the same way from the beginning of the project,” says Eijkelboom. “I went to a city, looked for the main street, and tried to find a mass theme, a particular piece of clothing or accessory. Then I began taking photographs. I never worked more than two hours on the same theme.”
There are many “mass themes” in the book, but seeing as the project brings us almost up to the present day, I asked Eijkelboom if he thought there was one defining trend that characterized our modern era. “Message T-shirts,” he replies. “I find it interesting that more and more messages appear on clothes. It’s not about attempting to look attractive anymore—rather, it’s about saying, directly, ‘I’m looking for love.'” He feels the internet is to blame. “Your image in the digital world is more important than the one in the ordinary world.”
It might be objectively hilarious to look at 12 shots of men all in various shades of genital pink, but People of the Twenty-First Century is tender at its heart. Eijkelboom loves people. Normal people—people just going from A to B.
“Compassion and love are the basis of my project,” he says. “I am just trying to pose the question we all ask ourselves, which is: ‘Am I an independent individual, or am I simply a product of the culture in which I live?’”
Hans Eijkelboom’s People of the Twenty-First Century is published by Phaidon.
5Pointz, a graffiti Mecca in Queens, which is now no more. (Photo via Flickr user Sauvage Ocèane)
In 1994, ten months after winning the New York City mayor’s office for the first time, Rudy Giuliani stood in front of news cameras and announced the newest target of his “broken windows” policing strategy: graffiti.
“A cleaner city is a safer city,” Giuliani said. “That’s something that everyone instinctually understands. And something we have to make a big part of efforts to improve the quality of life in our city.” Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern added that “the 60s are over,” and called graffiti “a metaphor for urban decay perhaps best shown in A Clockwork Orange.”
New York City back then didn’t exactly have Kubrickian drugged-up clownish teenagers wandering around raping people, but it didn’t resemble Friends or Seinfeld either. Times Square was still saturated with porn shops and prostitution, subways were riddled with graffiti, and Williamsburg was a good place to score blow (OK, so that might still be the case). Graffiti artists with names like Revs, Cost, and T-Kid ruled the streets, and Giuliani—and, more importantly, his NYPD Commissioner, William J. Bratton—wanted to do something about it, drawling a line between the aesthetic issue and violent crime rates.
A 25-man vandal squad was launched by Bratton’s NYPD to hunt down taggers, and in just 17 days, 21 people were arrested. Several city agencies coordinated to form an anti-graffiti task to fight the plague of aerosol, and sales of the spray-on chemical to kids under 18 were banned.
So began a decades-long battle of wits and money to erase the graffiti of the 70s and 80s from every corner of Gotham, a struggle that was recently captured in the Museum of the City of New York’s City as Canvas exhibit. After Giuliani left office, his billionaire successor Michael Bloomberg carried on the crusade. He had his own version of the Vandal Squad, called GHOST (the Graffiti Habitual Offender Suppression Team); Howard Stler described these guys as “the shock troops in Bloomberg’s latest campaign to clean up the town” in a 2005 piece for New York magazine.
Cops have scooped up some of the city’s bigger names in street art, like Cost. Photo via Flickr user carnagenyc
Given his reputation as a progressive concerned about income inequality and police excesses, few expected new mayor Bill de Blasio to treat graffiti as one of the city’s chief menaces. But the anti-graffiti movement has reared its head yet again now that its founding father Bratton—who called the City as Canvas exhibit “outrageous”—has reclaimed his old gig as police commissioner.
“Graffiti is a constant battle,” Bratton told local radio station WNYC in April. “It’s one of the issues I’m going to be focusing on. I’ve already spoken to the mayor about my sense that graffiti is growing in the city now again.” Bratton also made use of the phrase “urban decay.”
The numbers show Bratton means business: According to the the first eight months of 2014, graffiti arrests rose 4 percent, to 1,080. Last year, 3,598 people were arrested for graffiti or graffiti-related crimes, and that was actually lower than 2009 and 2010, when the number surpassed 4,000. But the most symbolic gestures of the rejuvenated crackdown have been the NYPD’s gloating arrest of Cost (45-year-old Queens resident Adam Cole) last month, and November’s whitewashing of 5Pointz, the soon-to-be-demolished Mecca for graffiti artists in Queens.
That raises the question: Is there danger that the city’s graffiti culture will be expunged, and does it really make sense to go after this kind of low-level mischief, especially if it has value in the eyes of many residents?
“I know some writers who have not painted at all over the last year,” Jonathan Cohen, the curator of 5Pointz and a graffiti artist known as Meres One, told me. “They’re not willing to risk their freedom. Many of them just went back to doing whatever it is they were doing.”
A 5Pointz tribute to Iz the Wiz, one of NYC’s signature graffiti artists back in the 70s and 80s. Photo via Flickr user Kenji Takabayashi
Opened in 1993, 5Pointz was a place where graffiti writers of all ages could spray in New York City without being subject to arrest. It brought tourism in the area, drawing national and international attention to the local street art scene. In that sense, Cohen says 5Pointz was “never a cure, but an alternative” to the city’s graffiti crime problem.
“We would say, ‘Please don’t go out and destroy the neighborhood. Do it here,’” he told me. “But turning up the heat is a dangerous thing. Trying to erase art completely from the streets is scary.”
“It feels like we’re back in the Giuliani years,” Marie Cecile Flaguel, a volunteer and organizer at 5Pointz, told me. “Since September of 2013, there has just been this zero tolerance. Like, these kids will be taught a lesson by being charged with higher offenses.”
She believes the whitewashing of 5Pointz was sanctioned by the NYPD; with the Vandal Squad patrolling day in and day out, it seems far-fetched to her that officers didn’t witness the operation (orchestrated by the owner of the buildings) take place. In her opinion, the following arrests of six 5Pointz regulars—the first (and last) time artists have been arrested there—was an indication that the cops wanted the place stamped out once and for all.
A tribute to NYC firemen at Gerardi’s Farmers’ Market on Staten Island. Photo via Flickr user Susan Sermoneta
Of course, it’s not the 90s anymore, and graffiti has lost much of its stigma. Most writers Flaguel knows tend to be graphic designers or set designers. “It shows that Bratton has not paid attention to anything going on in New York City since he left,” she told me.
Flaguel thinks busting graffiti artists distracts the local cops from fighting serious crime, like robberies or homicides, which have increased in Long Island City’s 114th Precinct, where 5Pointz is located, over the past year. “When we concentrate on these lower-level things, we miss the big picture issues,” she added. “It’s much easier to just bust a 17-year-old walking home in Queens late at night with a marker in his pocket.”
The problem for Bratton, like so many American security hawks, is the unintended consequences. Just as many tactics used in the wars on terror and drugs exacerbate the problems they’re supposed to solve, intense enforcement of graffiti laws seems to be doing more harm than good.
“Finding a solution to a problem is a lot better than trying to kill a problem,” Cohen said. “It’s important for people to have a legal outlet for their art. Now, it’s either you paint illegally or you don’t paint at all. This spawns a lot more people doing not nice things.”
Since 5Pointz, Cohen said he’s noticed intensified bombing in Long Island City. In fact, since this latest crackdown began last fall, graffiti complaints have gone up 24 percent citywide, from 6,947 to 8,635. In neighboring Woodside, graffiti complaints have skyrocketed by 120 percent since this time last year.
Reasons for the big bump remain murky, but to Antonio “Chico” Garcia, a longtime NYC graffiti writer, graffiti is just like weed: “The more you fight it, the more there’’ll be. And you can’t win a fight you’ve already lost.”
Chico’s work on the Lower East Side is harder to come by these days. Photo via Flickr user Wally Gobetz
If you’ve been down to the Lower East Side in the past 20 years, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Chico’s work. He’s known for crafting optimistic murals on behalf of local businesses; his most recent, on the corner of Avenue B and Tenth Street, depicted actor Robin Williams after his death.
“Artists, both young and old cats, need a place to be heard,” Chico told me over the phone from Florida. “The kids will be very upset if they can’t do anything with their art. They’re gonna get pissed off, and they’re gonna start vandalizing. Then, you’ll just see more and more.”
To correct this, Chico proposes the city follows Montreal’s model, in which graffiti artists are commissioned to beautify empty lots in dilapidated areas. He also says that New York’s subways should (once again) be teeming with color when they zoom into the dull platforms, and that can be done by hiring local bombers.
“I hope the new mayor tries to figure something out,” Chico said. “De Blasio can call me, and I’ll explain it to him.”
Over the past few years, the city’s cooperation with Chico has faltered; after being laid off by the New York City Department of Housing in 2008, he moved south, occasionally making trips back to the East Village to paint a curbside mural upon request. A graffiti artist since he was nine, Chico, now 51, is frustrated that his work isn’t valued more by public officials, who shower money on museums and other institutions of high art.
“Fuck the city,” he told me angrily. “Take what the kids want to do on the wall, and eat it. They don’t want to work with us? Well now, you’re against us. And you can’t stop us now, because the war’s gonna go on.” Chico then broke out into a quick rendition of the classic 1970s track by McFadden and Whitehead, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.”
“Because graffiti is coming right back,” he said, “with a big H. Handle it.”
John Surico is a Queens-based freelance journalist. His reporting can be found in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter.
Between February 1692 and May 1693, more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, and 19 of those people were executed. Like most sites of terrible events, Salem has become a tourist trap, and in October (its busiest month, naturally), the town erupts into a sort of haunted Disney World. I traveled to Salem the week before Halloween with two friends to see what all the fuss is about, look for real witches, flirt with zombies, and take photographs of it all.
Walking down the street in Salem on the Saturday before Haloween was nearly impossible due to the amount of people in costume. While talking on the phone with a friend back in New York, I describe Salem as “Like walking in Times Square except everyone is a drunk witch.” According to a local witch named Vlad, last Halloween night drew over 150,000 people to the small town’s normally quiet streets.
We went to the “Chambers of Terror“, which, according to owners Skip and Derek, is the scariest haunted house in Salem. It was very spooky, and they let me take photographs. At night we visited the Zombie Prom, a really big Halloween event held at Victoria Station, a local restaurant and bar. The prom was complete with a band, cheesy prom pictures, and even a zombie prom king and queen. The manager of the restaurant, Daryl, told us that the tourism in Salem has exploded in the last ten years, partially due to the town finally embracing its haunted heritage. Daryl said that Zombie Prom would probably draw a crowd of at least 650 people. Daryl even shared some stories and facts about his time as a security guard at the infamous Danvers State Hospital, the mental institution known for it’s inhumane experiments and tests on patients, now torn down and turned into a condo complex.
Overall, visiting Salem during Halloween season was an awesome and spooky experience if you like commercialized versions of terrible and tragic historical events (I do). I made a ton of friends but I don’t remember most of their names. Maybe I’ll go back next year and try to find them.
Follow Walter Pearce on Instagram for more dry moments from exciting places.
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