The History of America Graffiti
US: Apr 2011
“No other art movement in human history has so thoroughly confounded the deeply held concepts of public and private property; no other art movement has so thoroughly made itself a public-policy issue.” (Gastman & Neelon) p.23
Often times, young Americans who are on the fringe of the mainstream, and use art as a vehicle of cultural and political commentary are directly linked to a particular moment or event. They are seen as direct descendants of one of the more critically romanticized groups in the American history of counter-culture. Chronologically, we primarily associate and compare present day American youth culture to post-WWII artistic movements. But our collective cultural memory tends to have gaps. This period we often credit for birthing the creativity, activism and expression of the present is often bracketed between the end of World War II and the end of the Vietnam War.
But perhaps American counter-culture today is not directly linked to the days of the beats or the days of turning on, tuning in, and dropping out as much as smashing all toys, getting up, bombing, throwing up, and tagging? Graffiti, as a cultural paradigm, is the intersection of the architecture of the Greatest Generation, pioneered by young Baby Boomers, celebrated by Generation X, and a part of the collective consciousness of younger generations. But given its significance and its association with the most influential youth cultural movement in American history - HipHop, it is surprising that less than 30 books, of any substantial note, have been written on American graffiti. Even less of this literature tells us when it began, where it began, who was doing it, why, and how - until, that is The History of American Graffiti (2011).
So who cares about kids spraying gibberish on New York City trains in the ‘80s? That’s the question some would ask. The answer lies in the inaccuracy of that common description of graffiti: kids in New York City, in the ‘80s, with spray paint. While that statement holds some weight, it’s only a small part of the story; a small part the history. The cultural and socio-economic ingredients as well as the influence and legacy of the post-Vietnam to mid-Reagan years’ American graffiti often gets overlooked, minimized, and isolated as simple vandalism; barbaric and coincidental. Once perceived as an underground cult of mischievous rogues, graffiti is now globally identified as a language of youthful political statement. Graffiti has influenced the design and execution of billboards, political art, performance art, public art, and architecture. Without graffiti, for example, the concept of going to someone’s “Wall” or “Tagging” a photo on Facebook is without context. Until now, there were only a scattered number of sources one would have to consult to get a grasp on the scale of influence and chronology of this art form.
Authors Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon have each written several books on graffiti and street art prior to their ‘definitive’ collboration on The History of American Graffiti. And this book is one of the first of its kind. Its publication is a socio-cultural and historic landmark. By comparison, Norman Mailer’s 1973 book, The Faith of Graffiti, comes to mind as one of the early acknowledgements that graffiti was more than just an isolated hobby or mere vandalism. Joe Austin’s Taking The Train (2001) offered yet further perspective with a more academic slant. The 1984 book, Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant was also one of the early offers in the historical curatorship of graffiti as an art form. There has also been the Chalfant-produced Style Wars (1982) as well as Wild Style (1983) and Beat Street (1984) as filmed narratives of the culture, each in turn offering a gradual progression of documentation and analysis. And Gastman and Neelon, on the shoulders of these, and other precedents, plus their own great work, have managed to execute a book that tells you the best of all that has ever been compiled from the familiar to the unfamiliar history of American street art. It was time for a chronological guide and detailed critique and they have provided it.
The authors’ note provides a caveat, alerting the reader to the free flowing, underground nature of the art form, therefore graffiti cannot be historicized in the same way as other galleried forms of visual art. The brief introduction truly sets the tone for the entire text as it contextualizes graffiti as a central piece of American history that does not begin or flourish in a vacuum. While others have attempted to cover graffiti with just pictures of the work or only surface-level interviews, Gastman and Neelon truly immerse the reader into the culture by starting with TAKI 183, one of the famed pioneers of the art form. TAKI 183 is credited with being featured in the 1st news article in the New York Times highlighting a graffiti writer. The article, published July 1971, was its introduction to the masses.
As much as the graffiti writer is stereotyped, the story of the art form and of its predecessors is still at the mercy of the mythologizers. But THAG provides a full story which has details that go as far into the past as the turn of the 20th century. The reader isn’t simply provided with key figures and their works. Philadelphia is the first city to be discussed, not New York City, as some would expect. KILROY and CORNBREAD are the first names to be remembered as Philadelphia pioneers.
As the story of New York graffiti is told along with a narrative of NYC politics, graffiti and commerce intersect, as the ‘70s come to a close. It’s at this point that graffiti was introduced to the entire country. Notable figures and stories are brought to the forefront in the expected urban centers such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. But who knew, while NYC kids in the ‘80s were tagging, so too were kids in Hawaii, Kansas City, and Albuquerque?
While Gastman and Neelon hop from city to city within the carefully crafted narrative, they occasionally check in with NYC to give a status update while keeping along a pretty tight timeline. As graffiti eventually spreads to Europe, Australia, Brazil etc. magazines that are dedicated to street art and artists worldwide, are created. To contextualize the timeline of graffiti in the overall art scene of NYC, they briefly turn to Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat; two figures who, in terms of content, are seen as occupying the gap between the graffiti writers and the pop artists of their time. The authors’ narrative ends where it began - with a political statement, reminding us of the important role of graffiti as a catalyst for social and cultural change.
This is a time when changes across generations happen more and more rapidly due to technological advances, the dissolution of some social mores, and the creation of new ones. Because of the speed of these changes, it is becoming increasing important how and when we curate, chronicle, and study youth culture. Although other authors have paved the way, this is the first of hopefully many texts to come that will dispel myths of this particular part of American youth culture. It is certainly one of the first to provide the type of information and analysis to comfortably embed this art form into a structure from which students can be taught about it - similar to how one learns about Surrealism or the Renaissance.
This isn’t just another coffee table book to show your friends and family that you like ‘cool stuff’ in the abstract. This book is one that should be read in sync with books on urban planning, architecture, hip-hop, public policy, politics, art, sociology, economics, and the list could go further. It is a pivotal offering that adds another previously untold entry to the annals of American history.