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Here's a Rewind to East Coast Graffiti’s Halcyon Days

John Waters narrates a new documentary about the early East Coast writers that invented what became what we know as modern street art.

by Shana Nys Dambrot
15 June 2016, 9:45pm

Bronx wall with Nixon posters and CHARMIN 65 tag. All images courtesy Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence.

Today, street art is characterized by big, splashy murals, ubiquitous postering, stencils, and stickers. It’s shown in galleries and museums around the world. But that kind of welcomed reception wasn't always the case. In its earliest days, writers didn't call themselves artists; they were considered vandals by the mainstream media, and criminals by their city police. It is precisely those early days in New York and Philadelphia, roughly between the years 1967-73, where the new documentary Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence takes audiences—through a treasure trove of archival material, extensive writer interviews, and deft narration by none other than graffiti aficionado and legendary filmmaker John Waters.

“This is the end-all-be-all story,” says the film’s director, Roger Gastman. “If these guys were not doing what they did, the culture would not be where it is. I feel like I have been doing research on this film my entire life.” The filming, research, and editing process took seven years, and the team feels like they barely scratched the surface. “But we laid the groundwork,” Gastman tells The Creators Project. “Graffiti culture has gotten so large,” he continues, “but no one knows where it started. I felt while there were still enough of them, thankfully still with us, the story needed to be told.”

Wall Writers focuses on the organic scenes that sprang up more or less at the same time in the cities of New York City and Philadelphia, circa 1968. As the film shows, the crown of "earliest writer king" is still contested—but the general idea is that both cities had their superstars; and while Philly had a larger scene and an earlier onset of support from cultural institutions, it was NYC that made it famous. Within months of the phenomenon of tiny written name/tags peppering the city’s public transportation, billboards, street signs, and public spaces, the first New York Times and television news stories hit. For about three exuberant years, a dedicated, inventive core of insouciants literally left their marks everywhere they could. The scene grew competitive as space grew limited, while designs and fonts grew more elaborate, all in attempts to keep visibility up in an increasingly competitive pursuit. In 1971, Warhol’s Interview Magazine ran a feature on the scene. Its gritty innocence would soon be over.

SNAKE 1 being interviewed for Wall Writers

Writers from both scenes were laboriously tracked down for the documentary, and all but one agreed to be interviewed. The main thing that comes through, is that all of them, both men and women, only wanted their names to be seen. “We just wanted to get in the paper,” they say on camera. “We were writers, not artists. We just wanted to say, ‘I was here, like Zorro.’” In NYC, they developed truncated monikers made by combining their name and city block (JOE 182, TAKI 183, MIKE 171). In Philly, full-on aliases like Cornbread and Joe Cool. In both cities, the writers describe motivations no more complex than simply saying, “I was here.” Of course, in certain political and economic contexts, resisting invisibility is a political act. “I figured politicians put all their crap up, why can’t I?” remembers TAKI. “We just wanted to be noticed. There was no payoff except local cred.”

BAMA with his painting “Orange Juice” at Razor Gallery 1973

The film has been traveling around the country for several months, but for its big Downtown LA premiere at the end of June, the screening will be followed by a Q&A with Gastman, artists from the film, and moderator Cheech Marin—an avid art collector who, like John Waters, has his own unique spin on early graffiti. “I'm more familiar with the origins of street art here in California,” says Marin. “Chaz Bojorquez—the grandfather of LA graffiti—is a friend and I have works by him in my collection. So when Roger told me about his documentary, I was intrigued to know more about the experiences of East Coast artists, too.

TAKI 183 filming for Wall Writers

The movie is full of hilarious, salty, sometimes rather tragic anecdotes, and compelling, where-are-they-now aspects. There are more women in the film than you might expect, and as the film’s title promises, a lot more innocence. It wasn’t until the cops started coming down hard that violence started to infiltrate the nascent culture. In fact, in one early Philly story, the legendary writer Cornbread was moved to tag a live elephant at the zoo (this is decades before Bansky got a similar idea) and he remembers, with obvious relish, cops coming to his holding cell to get his autograph. Those were the days. 

TAKI 183 being interviewed for Wall Writers

Wall Writers screens at 6:30pm on Thursday, June 23 at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, with Cheech Marin, Roger Gastman, TAKI 183, and KOOL KLEPTO KIDD. Follow the film and its nationwide screening schedule here.

Related:

Whenever Storms Strike, So Do Graffiti Writers

Banksy DOXED?: Last Week in Art

German Cops Slapped a Ticket on an Art Installation

Who's Afraid of a Banksy & Co. Street Art Exhibition?

Tagged:
crime
Art
Graffiti
street art
Vandalism
freedom of expression
john waters
art history
roger gastman
documentary film
urban culture
Wall writers
cheech marin
new york history
philadelphia history