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Paint It Back: The History of American Graffiti

By posted at 6:01 am on April 5, 2011 3

coverThanks to President Obama and the Academy Awards, Shepard Fairey and Banksy are household names today. But before mainstream media plastered their work across the world, they’d already done it for themselves, rising to the status of contemporary street art royalty: infamous and rich for making illegal and legal artwork that kids cop and celebrities and curators covet. Both artists would admit, however, that they are just part of a continuum. As Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon, co-authors of The History of American Graffiti, assert in their introduction, “Humans write graffiti.” So true: cave paintings, petroglyphs, and pictographs begat World War II “Kilroy was here” and Bozo Texino scrawls on railcars begat disenfranchised kids “getting up” on any surface they could slick with ink and paint.

Exactly who was the first kid to spread a name or moniker across a cityscape is up for debate, but this book is as close as one will ever get to a definitive answer. A blow-by-blow, regional dissection of graffiti’s proliferation across the United States, relying on first-hand accounts, interviews, mountains of photographs, and a pinch of healthy speculation, Gastman and Neelon have connected the dots to reveal a comprehensive and important story about how doing something as simple as writing your name in a public space grew into a global movement that has left its colorful residue on all aspects of culture, from politics and media to fashion and urban planning.

Common knowledge to those in the know, but perhaps a surprise to neophytes, graffiti as we think of it today started in Philadelphia, not New York. In 1965, yearning for his grandmother’s cornbread while at reform school, Darryl Alexander McCray started writing CORNBREAD on the school’s buildings, vying for attention alongside the names of gangs. Released in 1967, CORNBREAD ran roughshod through North Philadelphia, inspiring others like COOL EARL and KOOL KLEPTO KIDD. Soon, teenagers were canvassing the city with their tags, running in crews, and keeping tabs on other crews operating in different neighborhoods (which eventually led to crews with national chapters, like TKO). KOOL KLEPTO KIDD recalls the first time he met writers from West Philadelphia, “that was really a beautiful feeling because we had been tracking each other for the longest time.”

There is an element of graffiti fueled by conflict – personal beefs, neighborhood disputes, gang rivalries – and while the book does not shy away from these realities, the dominant theme is that kids rallied around graffiti. In fact, as the authors astutely point out, they invented it: “Graffiti can claim something that no other art movement can: it was entirely created and developed by kids.” With the disillusionment fomented by a string of senseless assassinations, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, kids knew that it was up to them to stake their claim in a culture that was both indifferent and inept when it came to bettering the quality of life in the country’s urban centers.

Certainly that is what happened in New York when graffiti really took shape as the city’s finances and national reputation were in a downward spiral. As LIL SOUL 159, a Queens-based writer active in the early 1970s insists, “Any writer will tell you that graffiti tore down the racial barriers of the late 1960s and early 1970s – eradicated them! And you just didn’t see that in New York City until graffiti hit the scene. Once we smelled that ink, we were just writers.” This sense of camaraderie fueled with a dose of healthy competition spawned the highly stylized, audacious lettering that blanketed trains, buildings, billboards, and any other imaginable city substrate so as to spread a name far and wide. Writers prioritized subway lines that covered the most ground. Seeing SUPER KOOL 223 all over the 4 train, which runs between the Bronx and Brooklyn, STAY HIGH 149 decided he had to go bigger and better. This attitude, shared by most writers, resulted in tags evolving from written monikers followed by numbers usually representing streets to more ornate pieces comprising block and bubble lettering, characters, and other visual ornaments.

The same as MTA trains carried a writer’s fame across boroughs, freight trains began to crisscross the county ablaze with the work of writers no longer content to be all-city. The freights let kids who had never been out of state go all-country, spreading graffiti through the suburbs and desolate plains of middle America. While plenty of books have documented the graffiti of New York, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the primary instigators of these scenes, Gastman and Neelon have dug much, much deeper, covering cities like Chicago and Washington D.C., as well as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston, Nashville, Denver, Alburquerque – the list goes on. In doing so they trace graffiti’s development and make the case for it as a true American art form akin to jazz.

covercoverIn the 1980s, the documentary Wild Style and the book Subway Art played major roles in establishing graffiti as a legitimate art movement; bolstered by its relationship to hip-hop, writers got their first tastes of celebrity and gallery cultures. At the same time, because of the work they did on the streets, the media clumped Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat with writers like DAZE. Neither Haring nor Basquiat considered themselves graffiti artists, but they did help usher in the era of street art. While traditional aerosol tags continued to go up all over the country, and world, new materials and methods were applied to the streets. Posters, stickers, and stencils carried messages, logos, and more formalized characters. Today graffiti and street art thrive; artists travel the world, receive commissions, sell their art for huge sums, and license their work for ads, sneakers, and video games.

But one person’s hero is another’s vandal. Street art remains illegal almost everywhere. Municipalities actively and aggressively buff people’s work. Visit a wall in some city today and it won’t look like it did back in 1979, 1985, 1999, or even 2004. The carvings and paintings of France’s Lascaux caves and the canyons of the American southwest have been preserved as vital visual records of how early humans externalized interior thoughts. But the graffiti in this book has been painted over or chipped away, though it serves as the foundation for a global art movement that is as much about claiming individuality as it is about visual aesthetics.

This is what makes The History of American Graffiti that much more impressive. Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon have gathered the origins of a story that up until now have only existed in fragments. For graffiti fans, pieces of the puzzle will be filled in and the riot of never-before-seen imagery will guarantee that this book is always within reach. Don’t like graffiti? It matters not, as this is a worthy read if you have any interest in late twentieth century America because the world we live in would not look the same if it weren’t for bold, creative kids hell bent on making sure that their presence was recognized by a culture that easily could have forgotten them.





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3 Responses to “Paint It Back: The History of American Graffiti”

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  3. yedelstein
    at 2:40 pm on April 5, 2011

    I never liked graffiti. When I was young and my family drove to New York, my sisters and I would play a game on who could spot the graffiti on the walls of the highway first. We knew that our long trip was almost over when we spotted it. New York is not the only place that you can find graffiti however since I was there often I associated graffiti with New York. New York is large state, congested, with many poor sections filled with graffiti. I think graffiti makes a place look poor and not cared for by the people that live there. You can have a beautiful building with graffiti all over the side; the building is not as beautiful as it use to be. I think graffiti is sometimes degrading, telling people that you don’t care about the place.
    I never realized how much history graffiti has. Reading this article helped me understand the meaning behind graffiti. How it helps individuals express themselves and bring out creativity and culture. I also learned that graffiti is not only on the streets it is a kind of art and individuals license their graffiti for ads, video games and sneakers. Thank you for this wonderful and interesting insight.

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