If you think of a book as a sandwich (and you’re not a vegetarian) then the content is the meat. Sometimes lean other times fatty, but hopefully prepared just right. A new book adds spice to this meat metaphor. New York D!ck: Lewd Drawings and Obnoxious Comments on New York City Advertising Posters by Galen Smith (Mark Batty Publisher), follows a tradition of street art and ephemera picture books that archive everything from hooker fliers to bus tickets.
New Yorkers see coarsely drawn penises and vaginas on posters and billboards all the time. This is not unique graffiti or smart art. Still, Smith’s analytic info graphic system, a pseudo-scientific key to the various kinds of graffiti he’s chronicled, takes this content out of the realm of mere voyeurism into social commentary. I wanted to know if that was his rationale or an unintended consequence, so I asked Smith the following:
What in heaven’s name inspired you to do what amounts to be a rather beautifully designed book on dick graffiti in New York?
The inspiration for the book came to me daily as I rode the New York City subways. I had seen so many of these penis-based defacements over the years on the platform advertising that I started wondering about the motivations behind them, and our relative acceptance of them (or at least the knowing smirk that many of us get when we see them). It seemed that these dirty doodles were not just revolting, but also sort of funny and weirdly telling about our relationship to pop culture.
You’ve made this something of a pseudo-scientific study. I gotta ask, why bother?
Most of the defacements I was seeing were on the posters not on the walls, and this seemed to make the graffiti into more of a loaded pop-culture conversation between advertising imagery and its captive audience. There was plenty of plain idiocy to be sure, but there was also an interaction that was worth exploring. It’s not just a penis drawing if it’s a penis that’s drawn poking through a TV star’s head. It’s hard to say exactly what the drawing means but it’s easy to sense that it means something. A dick is not always just a dick.
The book design has a textbook quality to it. How come?
The ads were speaking a contemporary mainstream visual language and the defacements were speaking a sort of folk graphic language. It seemed that the book design should not get mixed up in either style of interaction but take a clean, mannered approach, and then go a bit too far with it. All the parties involved are a bit absurd in their own way and it was only fair that the design should be too. This led to a look that is ok with being a little arty, and text that’s ok with being a little pseudo-analytical. The penis defacement topic could theoretically lend itself to a true semiotic or psychological study, but for me it was more fun to add another layer to the visual and verbal discussion, hopefully a fun one that lets the reader enjoy all the weird visual dynamics.
This kind of graffiti has been around for ages – starting in bathrooms and moving to more overt public places. What did you learn from your research that you believe is of importance?
These poster penises are different from traditional graffiti in some interesting and important ways. Unlike the smutty graffiti found in bathrooms these drawings are public and they have an intense interaction with the pop-culture substrate images. They are also unlike graffiti street art because of their anonymity. Even though we live in uniquely visual times most people are very texty and keyboardish. But these unique hand-drawn graphics appeal to a pre-verbal gestalt, and in a split second convey a blast of meanings and intentions that words cannot. These penis glyphs, from the simple and elegant to the revoltingly detailed, give voice to a wide and telling range of emotion. Simple yet vivid, they are windows to absurd aspects of the human condition, and they display a basic, heartfelt response to carefully crafted manipulative communication and the society that buys into it: Screw you.
Seriously, have you had your fill? Or do you see dicks everywhere now?
I wouldn’t say I see penises everywhere but I’m still documenting plenty of them. There seems to be no let up in the flow of ridiculous posters and no decrease in the numbers of bored and annoyed New Yorkers who love to draw dicks on them.