Sunday, November 13, 2016

Writing On The Wall

"Wall Writers" a movie by Roger Gastman ( in the red hat ) at
The Memorial Art Gallery

At the Memorial Art Gallery last Friday night people were unwinding from the elections and there was a premier of a new film that is touring the world right now, devoted to the early history of graffiti in the 20th Century.  Actually, the film starts out in the late 1960's and tells the story about tagging, and how this grew into a trend that circled the globe,  emanating from the neighborhoods of Washington Heights in New York City and the west side of Philadelphia.

I was there in New York City when I first noticed it, and maybe that was back in 1966-67.  I was around the age of the kids that were going all over Manhattan with magic markers, putting their names surreptitiously on public property - mostly lamp posts, subway signs and the like.  This was way before the jazzy full color jobs that were done on the sides of subway cars, or the rolling freight trains that look like a colorful mural passing by.

An article from the early 1970's in The New York Times

Maybe I was sixteen, and thinking " Who was this Taki 183 - and why did he need to put his name and street number all over the place"..?

Once the film got rolling on Friday at The Memorial Art Gallery, I began to understand how and why this art form began.  Kids, - boys and girls got into the act - putting their names on almost anything you could think of and this really grows out of a long tradition of people involved in transgressive behavior doing the one thing that could get them some extra attention and some recognition that they even exist.  Marking your territory probably dates back a few hundred million years, so why not?

Narrated by John Waters
"Wall Writers" tracks down the early graffiti artists
to tell their story

"Wall Writers" is a brief history lesson from 1967 to 1973 of a certain urban lifestyle and how it became a huge art movement.  On stage, Roger Gastman reminded me of the curator and writer Carlo McCormick who wrote a big book five years ago called "Trespass" - A History of Un-comissioned Urban Art, that I have in my library.  So, Roger isn't the only one who has noticed that this is a big deal, but he is certainly avid about going out to interview key players in the growth of this phenomenon - and he brought some of them along for a Q & A after the movie.  That the artists were tagging everyday things like the subway walls, post office boxes, and railroad cars didn't hide the fact that this was an illegal act of defacing property, and many were arrested.  Graffiti became a group activity - maybe for safety sake - someone had to be on the lookout for those wielding the spray cans.

Keith Haring's Radiance

All this happened way before Keith Haring arrived on the scene from Kutztown to make the subway art his own.  I used to work for a publisher right next door to Keith Haring's studio in the Cable Building on Broadway, and his studio was always open so I could see what he had going on and we could exchange a few words.  While the graffiti writers were getting up on the walls all over the five boroughs, I was studying art at The Cooper Union, and I could see what was happening on the street.  
It was only a bit later that the art world opened their doors to some of the writers who became big name artists like Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat aka SAMO.

SAMO was all over SoHo