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

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.