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Wall Writers: Graffiti In Its Innocence
“CORNBREAD declares he has retired”, 1971Photo used with permission of Philadelphia Inquirer © Philadelphia Inquirer

How graffiti became a global art movement

The underground networks of young people that sparked a worldwide phenomenon by writing their names and street numbers all over New York and Philadelphia

According to Roger Gastman, the curator, producer and director behind the book and film Wall Writers: Graffiti In Its Innocence, graffiti first started showing up in the summer of 1967 in the cities of New York and Philadelphia.

Overnight, it seemed, writing appeared on walls, doors, pavements, stairs, mailboxes, lampposts, public transport and any other surface within reach. The tags – which usually featured the writer’s name and the street number that they lived on written in spray paint or felt tip pen – were the work of unprivileged adolescent kids. Unbeknown to them, these regular, mindless acts of gleeful vandalism were laying the foundations for street art as we know it today.

While, over time, the styles changed and altered, the motive remained constant: fame. During this period, graffiti artists were the celebrities, forming subcultural, symbiotic networks and movements of admirers and peers. Gastman’s project – a documentary film (narrated by John Waters) and 350+ page companion book – shines the light on a host of mischevious, charismatic characters. One notable story details a rumour that claimed CORNBREAD, an artist from Philidelphia, had died. In order to make it known that he was still very much alive and well, he tagged “Cornbread Lives” on an elephant at the Philadelphia Zoo – ultimately bringing himself even more notoriety.

Whether it’s the aforementioned TAKI 183, KOOL KLEPTO KIDD, COOL EARL, ROCKY 184 or the aforementioned CORNBREAD, each writer played a fundamental role in graffiti’s inception. Wall Writers documents a time, during 1967 – 1972, before the threat of commodification took hold, back when creativity existed without ulterior motive.

In conjunction with the Wall Writers’ release, we sat down to speak with Gastman to talk about critics, the role of commodification and why mindless, juvenile innocence was truly at the heart of graffiti’s inception.

What drew you to the subject of graffiti and its history?

Roger Gastman: I have been involved with graffiti since the early 90s. I was always interested in who was doing it first, in my own city and then in other cities that I would visit. I was working on a book called The History of American Graffiti several years ago with Caleb Neelon for Harper Collins and we were doing a lot of research. The thing we kept coming across over and over again – especially in New York – was that everyone was full of shit about when they started doing it. Not everyone, but the majority of people were full of shit about precisely when they started writing graffiti. Of course, there aren’t photos of everything, but there’s photos of enough to be able to tell what’s real and what’s not. That way, I became very interested in who were the true beginners and pioneers of this culture.

So I began to look. Through different people you’d get leads – ‘this is their phone number’, or ‘oh, I ran into them a few years ago, they work here’. My interest was really to tell the truth of the beginnings of this culture that has become so big today. How I define graffiti is writing your name over and over again for the sake of fame. For my historical purpose, it all starts with young people in New York City or Philadelphia around 1967, totally unknown to each other.

Do you feel graffiti provided escapism for these young people, allowing them a chance to prolong their childhood?

Roger Gastman: I don’t think it was about either of those things, because I don’t think most of them were aware that they didn’t have this life. They weren’t sitting there saying ‘I wish I had this, I wish I did that’. Most of them stopped writing on the walls – not all of them, but the majority – when they graduated high school or turned 18. Whether they were going to college or into a job, they realised that they needed to grow up. As soon as they could drive, as soon as girls started to come in, as soon as school was up, their time was up. It was a two or three-year window, and then move on. They were of course still friends with a lot of the people involved, but they weren’t writing like they were. I don’t think they were prolonging childhood. With a lot of these guys, they would graduate school and they’re done. It’s just them enjoying themselves, making the mark and finding how they can be famous.

“How I define graffiti is writing your name over and over again for the sake of fame” – Roger Gastman

Detractors would refer to graffiti as an ‘antisocial’ activity, but in fact, the wall writing culture was an incredibly friendly, symbiotic social phenomenon:

Roger Gastman: They’re kids. There’s the Vietnam war. There’s all kinds of other turmoil. There aren’t many after-school programmes – art or sports. They’re not in the best neighbourhoods, always. They’re just kinda being kids. I think about my age group of friends in the early 90s. When making this film, we didn’t want to push out ‘oh my god, that person stole this, that person did this’, but it was just the lifestyle they were living. The stealing, the fighting – it makes for great film. We weren’t trying to glorify it in the film. It was just their life. With what was going on, these kids could have been a hundred times worse. But graffiti and wall writing was their safety and their outlet. 

Is it that sheer mindlessness and lack of ulterior motive that really embodies the graffiti culture documented in Wall Writers for you?

Roger Gastman: That’s why we called it ‘graffiti in its innocence’. They’re out there just having fun. There are no thoughts of graphics for a t-shirt company, or thinking ‘maybe Sprite will call me to do a commercial’. There’s nothing. Just the fact that they might get in the newspaper is awesome. Being in the news as a kid is positive, regardless of whether they’re being discussed in a positive light or not. But, once there’s dollar value put on things with the gallery world – that’s what takes away its innocence. There’ll always be a new generation of graffiti with kids out there writing with no concept – or no goal – of making money from it, but just the fact that it’s so out there in culture means that its innocence, in a sense, is gone. It’s not as pure as it once was. 

Do you think that kind of innocent, undiluted creative movement could ever exist again in a world rife with commodification?

Roger Gastman: I would like to think so, but as soon as there’s something even remotely interesting anywhere it’ll be on some form of social media and someone will pick it up. You could look at any early musical movement or anything and ask that question. There will be awesome new creative subcultures and cultures that continue to come up, but I don’t think they’ll ever be able to be as pure and unshaded as ones in the past – especially the birth of graffiti as it was. I mean, people were writing in one borough and had no clue people were writing in the other borough. It was so pure.

Wall Writers: Graffiti In Its Innocence is available now