‘The History of American Graffiti:’ From Subway Car to Gallery

BY Saskia De Melker  March 31, 2011 at 3:25 PM EDT

Since its explosion onto city walls and subway cars in the 1970s, the increasing popularity of graffiti as an art form has won commercial success for its artists and a regular presence in pop culture and the contemporary art world.

A new book, ‘The History of American Graffiti,’ comprehensively documents the evolution of this often controversial art movement across the United States. As kids, authors Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon tagged city walls. Today, Gastman is a gatekeeper between the underground artists who work on the street and the mainstream world of galleries; Neelon, a Harvard grad, is a graffiti artist and educator.

For “The History of American Graffiti,” they tracked down thousands of photographs, from freight trains to city streets, and conducted hundreds of interviews with graffiti artists, ranging from pioneers to the biggest stars.

Young people were the key players in shaping the contemporary graffiti movement, says Neelon. The first modern graffiti writer is widely considered to be Cornbread, a high school student from Philadelphia, who in 1967 started tagging city walls to get the attention of a girl. But it was only in the 1980s that galleries began to showcase graffiti as artwork.

Today, auctioneers and collectors shell out thousands of dollars for graffiti-style pieces. British street artist Banksy’s documentary, ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop,’ (on which Gastman was a consulting producer) was nominated for an Oscar this year. And before Marc Ecko and Shepard Fairey were household names designing clothes or Obama campaign posters, they were (and still are sometime) street artists.

But graffiti is, by definition, a defiant and public exhibition. Gastman contends that there’s an earned respect and craft to graffiti work done outside in the streets. There’s also an intrinsic subversion and vanity to an art form that defines itself by writing one’s
0331_WildStyle.jpgname over and over again on property, which doesn’t translate when it moves into a more sterile setting like a gallery.

Neelon says, however, that artists who master the craft of painting on the street can create perhaps even greater work in studio settings, where they have more time, resources and don’t have to worry about the weather (or the police). What they might lose is the volume of people who see their work on a daily basis.

Bringing graffiti from the street into the museum venue isn’t easy, Gastman says, but he’s developed a niche for doing just that. Opening on April 17 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Gastman is a curator of “Art in the Streets”, the largest American museum exhibition of graffiti and street art.” The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 8, will showcase installations by 50 graffiti and street artists.

 
Above photo: ‘Wild Style mural by Zephyr, Revolt, Sharp’, 1983; front: Doze, Frosty Freeze, Ken Swift; secord row: Patti Astor, Fred Brathwaite, Lady Pink; back: Lil Crazy Legs, Revolt and Sharp, directed by Charlie Ahearn, photo by Martha Cooper