Up until now New York’s most famous literary son has been Holden Caulfield. However the privaleged protagonist of JD Salinger’s boring coming of age novel never hit up a million tags. In fact, regarding a million, Holden Caulfield believed that “you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs” graffitied in that number of years. Well, the author of What Do One Million Ja Tags Signify? estimates, “through averages & fudging with time & math”, that the eponymous tagger of the title has put up a million of his own fuck you’s in just thirty years!
Like Holden Caulfield the nameless narrator of What Do One Million Ja Tags Signify? hasn’t reached a million either. But he isn’t a phony, he recognises JA as the defining statement of his generation’s New York. The book, by Dumar Novy, is a monograph on the tag ‘Ja’ and the academic discipline of ‘Jaism’ that it has now spawned. I read it as almost a parody of intellectualism that delves into race, religion, gentrification, the police, Darwinism, genocide, philosophy, capitalism, and bum sex.
The first chapter is a stream of consciousness in which the author introduces the Ja tag and describes how it has become a crucial element in the dysfunctional relationship between him and his girlfriend. As their lives degenerate into a sordid sexual mess Ja is the one thing left between them. It’s pretty grim.
After the opening chapter the narrater describes Ja in more detail; who or what is Ja, how Ja has evolved and changed, and what influence Ja’s had on New York and its residents. Every chapter in the book moves along at a swift pace onto often wildly different and unexpected topics. So by chapter five there’s a description of a therapy group that encourages its members to go out bombing ‘Ja’ as a remedy for their suicidal tendencies. In another chapter I found myself reading an imaginary conversation between a detective and the author about his dead father. It’s all slightly bizarre with Ja tags leading the narrater into the land of the dead, but at the same time it’s really funny, and it literally had me laughing out loud. Lol.
In fact I was chuckling right the way through futuristic visions of New York, genocide, and other topics you won’t often encounter in a book on graffiti. However, in between the humour, the text can be profound and has something serious to say. For example each paragraph in the fourth chapter of the book is a hypothesis on what the meaning of the Ja tag is and how it can be interpreted. Throughout the book there are philosophical ideas and discussion around the politics of the state, society, racism, and culture. When the author says that “viewing the world with distrust and cynicism are the conditions set for me to find something like JA’s million tag march through NYC as the most important cultural event of my lifetime…” he’s describing a feeling of dissatisfaction that resonates throughout the book.
I’m not sure how best to describe What Do One Million Ja Tags Signify? maybe as part novel, part tongue-in-cheek philosophical thesis, and part religious devotional text. I’d definitely recommend it like no other book on graffiti that has come before it. It was really engaging and I read the book cover-to-cover in one go. The whole monograph is brilliantly written and can be nicely poetic too; “Graffiti writers get to be king for a day, fool for a lifetime.”