Adam Mansbach moves out of the bedroom and into the world of graffiti in his new book Rage is Back , a tale of redemption revenge featuring a “nerd with swagger” and his father.
Kilroy Dondi Vance, a biracial teenager, is kicked out of his elite Manhattan prep school and his home for selling marijuana. He reunites with his long-lost father Billy Rage, who reigned over the 1980s graffiti world to defeat the man who drove Rage from the country.
Mansbach, best known for his 2011 bedtime spoof for parents Go the ... to Sleep , spoke with Reuters about graffiti art and trying to develop an American version of magical realism. Rage is Back was published earlier this month.
Q: How did you get interested in graffiti, and why did you decide to write a book about it?
A: “I was very much into hip hop growing up. I was an emcee and a DJ. I wrote a little bit myself, and I quickly realized that graffiti writers were the most interesting people in hip hop. They were the eccentrics and the weirdos and the mad geniuses and they embodied a lot of interesting paradoxes to me. Fame and anonymity were somehow being balanced, art and vandalism. Even the way that they talked about their art would span the gamut from the word ‘beautify’ to the word ‘destroy.’ “I wanted to do something that was an adventure, fast-paced and had a lot of moving parts, and do it from the perspective of someone young who wasn’t really a part of that world, but rather an inheritor of it.”
Q: What would you say to people who view graffiti as vandalism, and not as art?
A: “I think one of the central tensions is that it of ten is both, and being one doesn’t prevent it from being the other. I think there’s a lot of contradictions. ... You can put a naked woman in a dog collar selling vodka on New York trains – that’s fine – but what you can’t put on those trains is anything resembling graffiti.”
Q: Is there a place for legal graffiti, or does that take something away from its subversive essence?
A: “I think that cities that have created legal walls have reaped enormous benefits. For certain graffiti writers, the thrill is going to be in fighting the system and putting up illegal work. The vast majority of graffiti writers do legal work and enjoy legal work, especially nowadays. There are really successful programs in a lot of cities that are bringing youth into the art world through graffiti.”
Q: What would you say to critics who say you romanticize the heyday of graffiti, when there were also a lot of negative things happening at that time?
A: “Graffiti, like a lot of hip hop, was born out of profound deprivation and marginalization that young people – particularly young poor people and young poor people of colour – were facing.
“I want to romanticize graffiti on one level because I think it’s a brilliant response to these conditions. The way that writing on those trains evolved in the span of a few years is truly remarkable. It’s like the history of art compressed into this really small span, like from cave paintings to cubism in about five years.”
Q: How did you decide to incorporate magical elements like the time-traveling staircase where Dondi finds his father?
A: “I wanted to think about what magic realism in the context of contemporary New York might look like. What it ended up looking like is that people react with skepticism, but I’m attracted to the idea of a New York that still has layers, still has some magic to it.
“For me, there is some association with graffiti and mysticism because the work is done in this secretive and anonymous way. It’s literally done underground with all of the history and associations that that implies.”