Books

Coloring Outside the Lines: The History of American Graffiti

Abandoned warehouse walls full of graffiti. Photo from Shutterstock.

Who cares about kids spraying gibberish on New York City trains in the '80s? That’s the question some would ask. Counter-culture historians and art critics, that's who.


The History of America Graffiti

Publisher: Harper Design
Length: 400 pages
Authors: Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon
Price: US $40.00
Format: Hardcover
Release date: 2011-04
Amazon
“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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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