Tracy 168 was one of the originators of wildstyle and remains one of the most well known graffiti artists in New York. His murals typically consist of futuristically bright color schemes and range from murals and memorials to cartoon characters like the one depicted above. He paints memorials for those silently inflicted by urban violence, memorializing those who have died from it and representing those who are still surviving it. Even those paintings that seem to have little political significance (such as the cartoon character illustrated below) are relevant because they make noise when they are told not to.
In this picture, a woman collecting cans walks in front of the painting. Although there may not be a direct link between the canner and the image behind her, such a scene is exemplary of the urban violence that, at least in part, drove Tracy 168 to begin painting in the first place.
The New York Returnable Container Law (more commonly known as New York’s Bottle Bill) was enacted in 1982 in an attempt to offset the rapid increase of disposable beverage containers littering roadsides and sidewalks. For five to six cents a can, people can take their collected containers to redemption centers or supermarkets. While once associated primarily with the homeless, the canning population has increasingly diversified. What tends to remain constant though is that those who gravitate towards canning, for various reasons, do not have access to adequate alternative employment. Many are non-english speaking immigrants, meaning that it would be difficult (and will likely get more difficult) to seek employment in a more recognized and regulated sector without facing a whole host of repercussions.
While the law has been effective in increasing the amount of recycled cans and bottles, this environmental righteousness is not without complexity. It depends on absurdly low wages in an unregulated sector, which in turn depend on the conditions that drive vulnerable populations to collect in the first place.
As with many laws in the U.S., this one is based on the need for labor. In 1982, when the law was first enacted, there was a desperate need for sanitation workers. And if canning is financially incentivized for what is essentially a contracted group of unregulated workers, there is no need to hire more unionized sanitation workers. There is no need to offer benefits or a minimum wage.
However, with widespread unemployment and a decrease in social safety nets there comes an inevitable increase in can collectors. Sure We Can, a redemption center based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, has seen a steady increase in the canning population since the economic crisis of 2008. And in our current political climate, the population will only continue to increase.
When the need for labor lessens, the same job that was once legally encouraged becomes increasingly difficult to do within legal means. New restrictions have been placed on canning, including a law making it illegal to transport large quantities of cans in a motor vehicle. This explains the widespread popularity of the shopping cart. It’s the only legal means of efficiently transporting collected containers to redemption centers and supermarkets. This is why shopping carts are secured alongside bicycles: if the cart is lost or stolen, so is one of the few modes of labor afforded to those who have made it their job to collect our recyclables.
There has been a backlash and stigmatization against these unofficial sanitation workers ever since the Bottle Bill was in its infancy. Supermarket owners did not want to “attract the type of clientele” that would bring them the empty containers they collected. Canners have reported poor treatment when they turn their bottles into the supermarket. They are called scavengers, an act meant to delegitimize and dehumanize their labor.
And this is canning’s true crime: visibility. It’s impossible to ignore the poor if they’re carrying massive bags of bottles or cans. When people think of urban violence, they tend to think literal. They think gunshot wounds and crack-epidemic based crime. But canning is a subtler indicator of less recognizable forms of state sanctioned, economic violence. Rather than identifying the root causes of canning (community vulnerability, lack of available resources) the state responds as it typically does when those burdened by poverty make their condition visible: Punishment.
This is, of course, why graffiti (aside from the occasional commissioned mural) is in large part illegal. It makes urban degradation visible. Many associate graffiti with crime and urban degradation because it represents flawed facades. It serves as a sign of a decay. But in all actuality it is an articulation of the decay that already existed. The decay itself (schools with rotting walls, inadequate and dangerous public housing) is not considered criminal. Announcing that it exists is.