Review: The History of American Graffiti by Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon (Harper Design)

I wrote this review a few years ago when the book first came out. For one reason or another, the magazine I was working with never published it.

Graffiti seems to have hit some unofficial anniversary: a graffiti retrospective at Los Angeles’ Museum of Modern Art opened; a slew of glossy volumes of spray-can art hit the shelves; and the largest archive of subway aerosol art is about to be released on DVD. And yet this “anniversary” seems almost as perplexing as it’s beginning, when in 1971 the New York Times reported that a young Greek-American teenager had written his name and street number all over the city, TAKI 168.

But as The History of American Graffiti will teach you, the art form goes back even further than that, to chalk writing on rail cars during the depression, and WWII veterans´ collective comic figure Kilroy that appeared everyone from bus terminals to subway tunnels. In other words, this is not graffiti in the sense in which it is generally discussed today: illegal urban adornment courtesy of disenfranchised youth. Since its reception in downtown galleries in New York in the 1980s, graffiti has remained not far from where it began, a neat novelty, but nothing that would actually change the world that it would – if only, briefly – inhabit. However, its international ubiquity is inarguable. Something like jazz music, graffiti has left its prints nearly everywhere in the world, to the point it’s often hard to say exactly how it has come to be this way.

Robert Gastman and Caleb Neelon, editors of the long-running street art periodical Juxtapoz, have created a book that serves both as an introduction to the aerosol world and as a definitive resource for aficionados and researchers alike. Entries explain the most basic principles of graffiti in its evolution, while uncovering undocumented histories; for example, those who, like this writer, read the graffiti paperback classic Gettin’ Up, will be surprised that its author was teaching high school at Manhattan’s Art and Design High School, a long time breeding ground for graffiti writers.   Others will be surprised to find out that “tagging” actually began in Philadelphia, where African-Americans were writing their names on walls in increasingly unexpected ways. A few Phillie transplants kept up their hobby in New York and inspired copy cats. Of course, this is just one theory. Proving that this actually influenced New York would be difficult, as it could have sprouted in two places at once. (The book provides no bibliography.)

Although there has been plenty of sociological studies of graffiti – like Gregory J. Snyder´s Graffiti Lives – this is the first comprehensive history of graffiti as a nationwide phenomenon – that is to say not just New York and Los Angeles. According to our editors, graffiti in other cities begins with the arrival of a New York or Los Angeles expat, who like a virus, infects peers with aerosol art fever. By the later half of graffiti – between 1980-1987 – media like Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant´s documentary Style Wars and their picture book Subway Art were igniting interest and inspiring copycats cities without subways to paint on. In many cases it took the arrival of actual practitioners like Revolt in Baltimore, or Seen in Providence, or one particularly zealous spirit, like Cool ¨Disco¨ Dan of Washington, D.C., to spark a trend.

Gastman and Neelon make the case that by the time the 1980s were rolling around, this art in its essence, was on the way out of the subway tunnels. Then few suspected that aerosol art on trains would ever end. Now entire collections of “flix” have been published recently by graffiti writers like Alain Maduera, suggesting that there is an expanding market for private collections of Polaroid pictures. From the Platform: Subway Graffiti 1983-1989 is basically Paul Cavalieri’s, – better known as CAVS – collection of pictures from his and his friends ceaseless documenting of the last the six years of subway graffiti. Translucent chinsy white font aside, the candid photos of teenager in 1980´s flashy studs, sideburns and moustaches, smiling in cars of dripping scrawl, or flashing their sneakers at the camera like fancy meals, not to mention the dozens of trains splattered in colorful letters, beneath gray and brown apartment buildings, are mesmerizing.

Jeffrey Deitch, curator of the exhibition at MOCA, might have canonized street art, but a re-birth of gallery graffiti is less than likely. What was once fresh and raw has gone the way of so many vanguards, absorbed into the putty of consumerism, and rendered another ornament in our hyper-baroque lives. If someone had actually ripped one of these trains´walls off, it would surely be selling for top prices; unfortunately, no one then would have guessed subway graffiti would cease to be painted on public transit. As a result, the closest thing to evidence of their ephemeral art, are these pictures. Their rarity has even been further pumped by graffiti task forces recent tendency to confiscate picture collections as evidence in criminal trials. Graffiti photographer legend, Henry Chalfant, has been compiling an online collection of early subway art, soon to be released on a DVD that contains photos of 800 painted trains.

This handsome volume will surely serve either as a reliable reference work – thanks to thorough investigation and photo gathering – or a streetwise coffee-table book; if not, it will could serve as a bible for the ever-growing base of graffiti fanatics.

Whatever graffiti is, or where it is, it illegally persists in some form or another in most parts of the world. Cities everywhere allot large sums of money to clean surfaces with even more layers of paint, an endless battle of a thousand micro-Pyrrhic victories. At the same time, this sign of urban decay casually decorates handbags. It still seems to be a symbol of something, but what exactly? Meanwhile, the act of graffiti – be it painting, etching, chemically burning – is very much illegal, and particularly frowned upon by police in the United States. The fact that it can be at once so appreciated and despised is perhaps a reason to say that this art form – if not, aesthetic – continues to be relevant in our society, decades after its start.

Graffiti seems to have hit some unofficial anniversary: a graffiti retrospective at Los Angeles’ Museum of Modern Art opened; a slew of glossy volumes of spray-can art hit the shelves; and the largest archive of subway aerosol art is about to be released on DVD. And yet this “anniversary” seems almost as perplexing as it’s beginning, when in 1971 the New York Times reported that a young Greek-American teenager had written his name and street number all over the city, TAKI 168.

But as The History of American Graffiti will teach you, the art form goes back even further than that, to chalk writing on rail cars during the depression, and WWII veterans´ collective comic figure Kilroy that appeared everyone from bus terminals to subway tunnels. In other words, this is not graffiti in the sense in which it is generally discussed today: illegal urban adornment courtesy of disenfranchised youth. Since its reception in downtown galleries in New York in the 1980s, graffiti has remained not far from where it began, a neat novelty, but nothing that would actually change the world that it would – if only, briefly – inhabit. However, its international ubiquity is inarguable. Something like jazz music, graffiti has left its prints nearly everywhere in the world, to the point it’s often hard to say exactly how it has come to be this way.

Robert Gastman and Caleb Neelon, editors of the long-running street art periodical Juxtapoz, have created a book that serves both as an introduction to the aerosol world and as a definitive resource for aficionados and researchers alike. Entries explain the most basic principles of graffiti in its evolution, while uncovering undocumented histories; for example, those who, like this writer, read the graffiti paperback classic Gettin’ Up, will be surprised that its author was teaching high school at Manhattan’s Art and Design High School, a long time breeding ground for graffiti writers.   Others will be surprised to find out that “tagging” actually began in Philadelphia, where African-Americans were writing their names on walls in increasingly unexpected ways. A few Phillie transplants kept up their hobby in New York and inspired copy cats. Of course, this is just one theory. Proving that this actually influenced New York would be difficult, as it could have sprouted in two places at once. (The book provides no bibliography.)

Although there has been plenty of sociological studies of graffiti – like Gregory J. Snyder´s Graffiti Lives – this is the first comprehensive history of graffiti as a nationwide phenomenon – that is to say not just New York and Los Angeles. According to our editors, graffiti in other cities begins with the arrival of a New York or Los Angeles expat, who like a virus, infects peers with aerosol art fever. By the later half of graffiti – between 1980-1987 – media like Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant´s documentary Style Wars and their picture book Subway Art were igniting interest and inspiring copycats cities without subways to paint on. In many cases it took the arrival of actual practitioners like Revolt in Baltimore, or Seen in Providence, or one particularly zealous spirit, like Cool ¨Disco¨ Dan of Washington, D.C., to spark a trend.

Gastman and Neelon make the case that by the time the 1980s were rolling around, this art in its essence, was on the way out of the subway tunnels. Then few suspected that aerosol art on trains would ever end. Now entire collections of “flix” have been published recently by graffiti writers like Alain Maduera, suggesting that there is an expanding market for private collections of Polaroid pictures. From the Platform: Subway Graffiti 1983-1989 is basically Paul Cavalieri’s, – better known as CAVS – collection of pictures from his and his friends ceaseless documenting of the last the six years of subway graffiti. Translucent chinsy white font aside, the candid photos of teenager in 1980´s flashy studs, sideburns and moustaches, smiling in cars of dripping scrawl, or flashing their sneakers at the camera like fancy meals, not to mention the dozens of trains splattered in colorful letters, beneath gray and brown apartment buildings, are mesmerizing.

Jeffrey Deitch, curator of the exhibition at MOCA, might have canonized street art, but a re-birth of gallery graffiti is less than likely. What was once fresh and raw has gone the way of so many vanguards, absorbed into the putty of consumerism, and rendered another ornament in our hyper-baroque lives. If someone had actually ripped one of these trains´walls off, it would surely be selling for top prices; unfortunately, no one then would have guessed subway graffiti would cease to be painted on public transit. As a result, the closest thing to evidence of their ephemeral art, are these pictures. Their rarity has even been further pumped by graffiti task forces recent tendency to confiscate picture collections as evidence in criminal trials. Graffiti photographer legend, Henry Chalfant, has been compiling an online collection of early subway art, soon to be released on a DVD that contains photos of 800 painted trains.

This handsome volume will surely serve either as a reliable reference work – thanks to thorough investigation and photo gathering – or a streetwise coffee-table book; if not, it will could serve as a bible for the ever-growing base of graffiti fanatics.

Whatever graffiti is, or where it is, it illegally persists in some form or another in most parts of the world. Cities everywhere allot large sums of money to clean surfaces with even more layers of paint, an endless battle of a thousand micro-Pyrrhic victories. At the same time, this sign of urban decay casually decorates handbags. It still seems to be a symbol of something, but what exactly? Meanwhile, the act of graffiti – be it painting, etching, chemically burning – is very much illegal, and particularly frowned upon by police in the United States. The fact that it can be at once so appreciated and despised is perhaps a reason to say that this art form – if not, aesthetic – continues to be relevant in our society, decades after its start.

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