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REVS: Underground Memoir

December 19, 2009

During the late 80s and 90s, an artist called REVS was the center of the New York graffiti world. His signature was postered to newspaper vending machines and ‘WALK/DON’T WALK’ signs, scribbled on trash cans and telephone polls, painted in massive block-letters on building facades. You couldn’t cross a street, get a coffee, hail a cab without seeing those four letters: R-E-V-S. Unlike the fiery, neon-colored pieces of other graffiti writers, REVS’s crude letter-style reflected the cityscape to the point of being camouflaged. His tag was always in the corner of your eye, a whisper just audible above the static of the city. It was as though REVS was a subliminal message permeating what Jung called “the deeper levels of the unconscious.” Later in his career, REVS would take the idea of sub-conscious graffiti to a whole new level.

For about six years, starting in ’94, REVS painted his autobiography on the walls of NYC’s subway tunnels. He would go down into the tunnels late at night, hoisting a ladder, a bucket of paint, a paint roller and a spraycan. Setting up the ladder on the tracks, somewhere between the platforms, he would paint a 5 by 12 swath of white on the wall; on this ‘page’ he would spray a few sentences, as though in a diary entry. These diaries are spread throughout the city – they can be found between any two stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. They begin as a memoir: the first pages record the day he was born in Victory Memorial hospital, April 17, 1967,  3:00 pm, by way of Caesarean section. Most are recollections of a Brooklyn childhood, some are in-the-moment philosophizing. Subway riders catch glimpses of them as the train rushes past, but to actually read them, you have to go down and walk the tunnels.

I love this idea of using such an inaccessible space as an arena of self-expression, especially to record your life story. REVS inevitably brings to mind Dostoyevksy’s Notes from the Underground. The ‘pages’ of REVS’s memoir may not carry the literary caliber of the Russian novelist, but he is the flesh and blood embodiment of Dostoyevsky’s existential trope. Both men are invisible, existing on the margins of society. (I should say that REVS has never been photographed and that the interviews he has given reveal a misanthropic hermit, who is rather full of rage against society). Having been effectively excluded from society aboveground, they express themselves underground.

That’s a cursory summary of REVS. There’s a lot more to say. I’ll be writing about him (outside of the blogosphere) for the next few weeks, but will record my thoughts here from time to time.

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