BEACON, NY • LATE 2021
Beacon is a pretty walkable town. For most of my life, I haven’t had that.
I didn’t do the typical city thing after college. While most of my friends opted for foreign countries or various urban centers, I went to Poughkeepsie, New York. I lived in a development. It was technically possible to walk into the more interesting parts of the city, but it wasn’t all that fun. Who wants to walk along a busy road for thirty minutes just to get downtown?
But I always appreciated walkable towns and cities, even though I didn’t live in one. Growing up, I did a lot of traveling with my family, and all we did was walk. When you’re in a foreign city and you don’t want to spend $200/day on taxis, that’s what you do.
And later, when I visited NYC, or any of the small towns scattered around the Hudson area, I’d spend most of my time wandering around, taking photos. Walking gives you a chance to look at things up close.
Then there’s walking at night.
That wasn’t something I really did until I moved to Beacon. Up to that point, there had been nowhere to go.
But the thing about living close to the center of a small mid-sized town is that there are always side streets, alleys, and other small routes trickling off to who knows where. I’ve walked five miles some nights with no clear destination in mind, just poking around.
Other thing: I can think better at night. People are a distraction, filling spaces with noise and confusion. I can’t fully get to know a space until it’s quiet and empty.
Beacon is weird, in the way that hipsterish, gentrifying towns generally are: quirky, multilayered, and steeped in its own private jokes. That stuff gets buried under the people during the day; it’s at night when the character of the place really takes form.
People express themselves in strange ways around here.
And new stuff gets added all the time. I’m pretty familiar with the stickers on my usual route, and I still find something I haven’t seen before every time I’m out.
Mention “local art gallery” and most people will think of Dia. I think the stickers that make up Beacon’s illicit, living wallpaper are the most interesting art around.
The street is the gallery.
And everyone lays claim to it: punk bands, activists, artists, random crazies, and—more and more—businesses.
I have a theory that you can judge how interesting a place is by how many stickers are plastered to its signs, lights, electrical boxes. Boring places don’t have stickers. Cool places do.
It’s easy to get the sense that no one sees this stuff: it’s so omnipresent, so obvious, as to be invisible. You walk down any street, day or night, and look around; I’ll be the only one snapping thirty photos of grungy stickers on an electrical box.
But people see enough.
Not too long ago, a hate group I won’t name showed up in the Hudson Valley and plastered their stickers everywhere. I saw those stickers everywhere else—but, strangely enough, not in Beacon.
Turns out those guys did come to Beacon. Someone noticed the stickers; someone told someone else. They scoured the whole town within two hours and removed every one.
Those guys never came back.
Little things matter.
Walk around long enough, and keep your eyes open, and you’ll start to see the same people over and over again.
Their names, at least. And in at least one notorious instance, sometimes their faces.
Vinny, patron saint of the Beacon sticker world; Shepard Fairey’s all-city spiritual successor; man-about-town.
This guy is everywhere. I could easily devote an entire issue to him. He—and, probably, his fans—have plastered various permutations of his face on every piece of street furniture in Beacon. Everywhere you go, he’s staring back: the kind of omnipresence that makes Kim Il-Sung look modest.
Vinny is probably one of the most talented sticker guys out there. He’s always evolving; there are easily twenty different designs of his scattered around the Hudson Valley.
Bronco Anarchy 99—he’s new here. Trying to make a name for himself, from the looks of it. His thing seems to be tags in white grease pencil.
I ran into him one night while he was tagging the stop sign in front of my place. He was tall, good-looking, with long black hair and stubble. He was looping out his name in white grease pencil. He had a friend with him—a preppy-looking kid who dressed nice, had a fashionable haircut, and stood there, shifting awkwardly, waiting for him to finish. The kid looked at me uneasily as I went by, probably thinking I was going to call the cops. Anarchy didn’t even look up.
He’s improving. The tag I saw on that stop sign was barely readable, but the more recent ones have been more legible. Not particularly creative, though.
The more mysterious ones: SOH, Thundercloud Guy, B.F., and a host of others. What’s their deal? What drives them? Wish I knew.
CAST & CREW
You know what—let’s talk a little more about Vinny.
First of all, his name really is Vinny: Vinny Raffa. He’s an electrician.
Or, perhaps, a working man’s hero. As I said, he’s everywhere. I have a growing collection of Vinny photos, and I’m always adding to it. I’m pretty familiar with his style, but every now and then, Vinny surprises me.
A few nights ago, I found something special.
11:37pm on a weekend night—I’m crouched in front of a lamppost behind the diner, taking shots of what appears to be Vinny’s most ambitious work yet. He’s moved on to posters, it seems, and they’re nice ones. I wonder how long he’s been doing this.
Abruptly, a car fixes me in its headlights and stops.
I’m always aware that what I’m doing—displaying an unusual obsession with documenting vandalism—is an inherently suspicious activity. Cops might think I’m recording my own work; the people whose work it actually is might think I’m a cop. Municipal vandal squads often maintain vast databases of photos, so they can charge vandals with all the incidents they have evidence for. (Vinny, oddly enough, does not seem to be remotely concerned about this.)
“Hey man!” the guy yells. “I was trying to give you some more light…”
Now that was nice of him, wasn’t it? And it definitely helped. That’s the above photo. I never use flash—not unless I’m going for the crime-scene look—so I try to illuminate a lot of my night photos with the light from passing cars. It’s a kind of lighting that seems distinctly urban and in line with the aesthetic I’m going for: off-the-cuff, ephemeral, documentarian, and slightly eerie.
Beacon, I think, getting back to work. I’m still in small-town Connecticut-suburb mode, where people live proper lives and try not to deviate too noticeably from the local norms. In some ways, Beacon is similar—upscale, not particularly diverse—but like I said:
Beacon is weird.
Vinny never stops.
He doesn’t stop designing. He doesn’t stop coming up with new ways of presenting his face. And he definitely doesn’t stop posting.
Some day, I’ll go through all the photos I have of the various Vinnies I’ve seen around Beacon: Skeleton Vinny, Starbucks Vinny, Disney Vinny, Fidel-Castro-at-a-Yankees-Game (???) Vinny. All of them. He warrants a closer, more comprehensive look.
Most of the names I’ve come to recognize around here are notable just for their sheer persistence. They’re everywhere—but it’s the same tag, the same sticker.
Vinny is notable because his energy doesn’t stop at raw promotion. He doesn’t have one design, he’s got thirty; but they’re all instantly recognizable as his. He’s a brand—probably one of the most innovative street artists I’ve seen working today.
I’m a man of microcosms. I don’t do a lot of global traveling; I prefer getting to know the intricacies of one particular space.
And most spaces have more intricacy than they’re given credit for. Even the most boring suburb—and I’d know, I grew up in one—has an unusual plant here or there, strange caterpillars, and an otherworldly quality to it if you’re out and about late at night and in the fog.
What my neighborhood didn’t have much in the way of was any sort of street art. Why would it? It was a community of middle-to-upper-class retirees who were probably barely aware that such a thing existed.
So when I visited cities for the first time, in Europe, the art—mostly graffiti—was one of the first things I noticed. I was obsessed with it. Who were these people who doggedly scrawled their art on walls in the middle of the night? And why was it so haunting?
Well—because many of them seemed crazy. And more, because I was the only one who noticed them. It felt like being in on a secret.
Gradually, I got to recognize the names and drawings that showed up all over Paris, Basel, Cologne. It was almost like recognizing a friend in a crowd; some familiar sign when everything else seemed utterly alien.
And when I came back to the United States, I took that obsession—and heightened perception—with me. Every time I’m in a city, I pay attention to who’s writing on its walls: who they claim to be, what they’re trying to say.
The world is a little richer than most of us are led to believe. We notice from the earliest age that our curiosity often inconveniences people. After a while, we stop being curious.
But there’s so much to see. Taking a close look at the city walls around you is like peering into a microscope.
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