With a paint-splattered reflective vest and a pair of gloves that look like Jackson Pollock designed them, John Provetto walks up the pedestrian bridge near West 235th Street to reverse engineer a series of graffiti tags.
There are five tags demanding his attention, requiring either gray or green paint. Luckily, he had both.
Provetto is Riverdale’s volunteer reverse graffiti artist, and he has some nuanced ideas about the act.
“There’s graffiti, and there’s art,” Provetto said.
Large-scale murals taking up entire walls are fine in his book. The tags, however, he views less favorably. Tagging is entry-level graffiti, a way to get your name out there in New York City’s decades-old graffiti subculture.
Yet, if you try it in the Bronx, it’s likely Provetto will be dispatched to cover it up.
Provetto came to cleaning up tags after 41 years in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He took up the task of cleaning up his neighborhood, Country Club, on his own just to keep busy when state Sen. Jeff Klein heard about his efforts.
“Ridding my district of graffiti has always been one of my top priorities,” Klein said. “I’m especially proud to frequently partner with Mr. Provetto, who generously volunteers his time to clean up this unsightly vandalism.”
Provetto quickly became Sen. Klein’s go-to guy, and his work isn’t just reserved for Riverdale. Instead, he works all over the Bronx, and there’s no tag too complicated that he can’t cover up.
In an effort to streamline his process, Provetto converted his wife’s minivan into a self-described “Graffiti Mobile.” His roving reverse-graffiti studio is full of buckets and cans of paint, some of which are from official agencies, like the U.S. Postal Service, so he can match hue of the tagged object.
Provetto keeps a running gallery in his phone of every tag he’s fixed, from mailboxes and fire hydrants, to buildings and walkways.
Yet, tagging and the broad er act of graffiti itself has a long history in New York City.
“Graffiti in New York is part of growing up. It’s generational,” said Joel Brick, the owner of Tuff City Tattoos in the Bronx. Tagging was a form of a self-expression for Brick, a way of building one’s reputation.
As Brick has gotten older and moved beyond tagging, he finds he’s just as dismayed when he sees a mostly clean wall with the extra-curricular marks on it. He understands both sides of it — those who write their signatures everywhere, and those who prefer clean surfaces.
Brick knows, however, graffiti and New York City are inseparable.
For more than 20 years, New York was home to the Mecca for graffiti artists: 5 Pointz in Long Island City. People came from all over the world to paint on the hallowed walls of 5 Pointz.
It was a part of the cityscape until 2014 when the owner demolished it to make way for condominiums. An ever-changing mosaic of the city’s history in graffiti was whitewashed then leveled.
While 5 Pointz may be gone, graffiti lives on in the boroughs.
“It even happened to me,” said Brick of a recent time in which his shop was tagged.
There is a part of Tuff City reserved for spray-painting legally, however, and it’s become a hub for large murals. Brick focuses on the more artistic side of graffiti. When he found his shop’s mural was tagged over, he was upset, but he set to removing it immediately.
“It stops the graffiti usually,” said Provetto of the effectiveness of street art. “The graffiti people usually won’t tag a piece of art.”
His work, however, is far from over. As long as there are cans of spray paint available, there are people eager to write their signature on any available surface.
And Provetto will follow to cover it up.