The twenty-first century is no place to have feelings. Certainly not if you want to make it out of your twenties with any semblance of your mind and “sense of self” intact. With this in mind, “elusive” street artist UnCasso a.k.a. Uncutt Art—though how elusive is one, really, with only a bandana to cover his mouth on an NY1 news report?—first helmed the ism in 2007, pervasively placing his now world-famous platitude throughout the sidewalks of Manhattan and Brooklyn (one somehow doubts the graffito made it to the Bronx, Queens or Staten Island). Over time, it spread to numerous other cities including Boston and D.C., ultimately becoming so universally beloved by visitors and residents alike that even celebrities could be seen quite literally touching the ground to pay homage to it.
The message, dual in nature as one can easily see from the way “HEART” is written, came to UnCasso after he, in typical form, got fucked over on a few projects he created in the film and fashion industry. What’s one to expect when he’s being paid for his work?; its bastardization is inevitable. Thus, the germination for this simple, to the point phrase came to fruition. Because, yes, trite as it may sound, what is dearer to one’s heart than his art?—unless, of course, he’s not a selfish prick incapable of thinking about anything else other than fame and fortune that only a hyper-specific sect of New York City denizens can appreciate.
While the intent of the street art’s dime store wisdom might be to remind passersby to be at one with one of their most important chakras—the anahata—and to “freely give and accept love throughout the universe,” this notion presents something of a problem when you actually live in the world that is New York. A city infused with anger, negative energy and the distinct sense that your closest friend will fuck you over if it means their advancement either financially or otherwise, UnCasso’s urging is the sort of thing that would have gotten him bitch slapped by old school New Yorkers like Fran Lebowitz.
But then, this isn’t the New York of the old school, and the hippie-dippy message that is “Protect Yo Heart” not only flies without condemnation, but gets upheld as a benchmark of “great” street art. After going to Art Basel in 2013 and presenting the now at least nationally famous graffito there along with another installation, UnCasso’s philosophy only took off further from there as he spread the gospel to a wider net of locations in 2014. By 2016, even “celebrities” like Miranda Lambert were taking notice and contributing to the decree’s Instagram fame.
The acceleration of the mantra’s renown speaks on a larger global level to a trend even more alarming than just banal graffiti: the implementation of selfishness as a defense mechanism. While NYC is already the selfishness world capital—you simply can’t live here and not start thinking more regularly about yourself, at the very least on a basic survival level—the manner in which humans have evolved as manifested at its most cartoonish by millennials indicates that we would rather disengage from true emotions than take the risk that comes with attachment of any kind.
When examining the increasing disposability of people on a romantic and sexual front (Tinder being the most hyperbolic poster child for this phenomenon), the Protect Yo Heart ism interpreted in this context comes off as particularly grim—as though to affirm the skewed logic that you’re not treating others like shit, you’re just protecting your own self from inescapable heartache should you foolishly not choose to cut bait before it’s too late.