Photo: Photograph by Jon Naar, 1973. Courtesy Roger Gastman.
Graffiti is a basic human impulse. From the oldest known cave paintings, going back 40,000 years in the Maros region of Indonesia to a toddler in 2017 who has discovered the magic of crayons and walls, the desire to leave a mark speaks to a fundamental tool of communication. The visual and the verbal commingle and merge in its purest form, continuing to speak for the person who may since be long gone.
Graffiti, in its contemporary form, found its footing in New York and Philadelphia during the Summer of Love as the idea of writing on the wall transformed from a primitive impulse to craft an anonymous message took shape as an increasingly stylized representation of a specific personage. As it did so, it became more than act of rebellion; it became a form of art, a flourish of a handstyle that was as unique as a signature and as bold as an autograph.
The earliest practitioners of the form have been left largely to the underground, to the myths of history or fallen into the cracks of the past. As pioneers and innovators, their work could be rudimentary, as it was more invested in discovery than perfection. It wouldn’t be until the second generation came along with its top-to-bottom whole train car masterpieces that many sat up and took notice. But the first generation certainly made waves, inspiring newspaper and magazine stories, books, and later collaborations and films. But quick as they came up, they disappeared, moving on with their lives as they aged out, from boys to men.
Leave it to Roger Gastman to go on a quest to unearth the legends, share their stories and their work in Wall Writers: Graffiti in Its Innocence. What started off as a documentary film and book has since become an art exhibition, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, now through May 7, 2017. The exhibition brings the story to life through the impressive array of art, artifacts, documents, and installations that evince the pure energy of the tag in its most glorious form.
In addition to canvases, photographs, black book, and ephemera, Wall Writers has a stairwell installation that will make you feel like your back in the 1970s. For graff fans, there’s really nothing better than the tag. In its essence, the tag says it all: this is who I am, this is how I write, and this is how I get up. When layered one next to the other so that every surface become a page from the book of life, graffiti becomes a force of magic and mystery.
This is what makes Wall Writers so phenomenal. For decades, people like TAKI 183 and CORNBREAD have been mythical figures of urban life, personalities that were known only by those in the know, their handiwork as admired as it was scorned. Who they were and what they did influenced a generation of kids to go out and do it themselves.
And like a virus, graffiti took off, spreading so quickly and rapidly that the squares were alarmed. They floated ideas like the “broken window theory” to distract from the horrors of “benign neglect,” thinking disinformation and misdirection could put an end to it. But they were wrong—graffiti has only continued to grow, taking root in all corners of the world, including the art market.
But for the first generation, things did not quite work out like that. Instead they did their thing at a time that predates gentrification and its proponents. Through graffiti, many kept out of harms way, able to channel their aggression and angst into something creative during a dark period on urban history. Their energies are now, some 50 years later, being recognized for what they are: historical, museum-worthy works that continue to inspire new generations to be true to themselves.
Thursday, May 4 at 7pm: Roger Gastman and artist Mike Giant will be giving an exhibition talk at the museum.
Saturday, May 6, at 7pm: Wall Writers film screening followed by a talk and book signing with TAKI 183, MIKE 171, SJK 171, WICKED GARY, and SNAKE 1 at the SIE Film Center.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.