Book review: The History of American Graffiti

The History of American GraffitiThe History of American Graffiti
by Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon
Published by Harper Design (April 5, 2011)
Buy it at: Amazon

The best trivia

  • In 1985, a graffiti artist named WARP wanted to make the local graffiti scene more organized. So he called a convention. Hundreds of artists gathered in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects, infamous for being some of the most dangerous in the United States. Group photos were later used to make some of the largest arrests in Chicago graffiti history.
  • Mayor Harold Washington was Chicago’s first African American mayor, and his sudden death from a heart attack shocked the city. Artists SLANG, SKID, and WARP tagged two cars in the mayor’s honor. Though the Chicago Transit Authority kept most graffitied cars from running, they let those two pass through the city.
  • In the 1940′s, James J. Kilroy worked as a rate-setter in a shipyard. When he finished a car, he marked it with the phrase Kilroy Was Here. It became an early viral sensation, and soon thousands of copies spread across the world. The tag became a ubiquitous urban legend. Soldiers claimed that after Hitler saw the tag, he wanted Kilroy captured and killed. Another story claimed that at the Potsdam conference, Joseph Stalin saw Kilroy Was Here above a urinal and panicked because he thought it was a threat.

An art form from the streets

Graffiti had a long past before it was embraced by muralists, hipsters, and corporations, and American Graffiti is a perfect picture-packed photo book to see the controversial art form’s evolution.

This book starts at the beginning (well, almost the beginning—you won’t find a gloss on cave paintings). As the authors use archival photos, interviews with street artists, and lots of pictures to document graffiti’s history, you’ll be satisfactorily introduced to the signs and symbols of street art. Sometimes, ugly artless tags make it easy to see why graffiti was a scourge, while other times the beautiful artwork redefines public space.

The imprint that published this book—Harper Design—is fitting for the content. The focus is on the evolution of graffiti as art, and much of the book is devoted to an analysis of each American city’s unique style. Fortunately, interviews with famous (and infamous) taggers make this more than a picture book. It may be the closest we’ll come to a history of an art form that requires anonymity.

What the book is

You’ll find lots of great, full color pictures, interviews with taggers, and a thorough decade spanning look at each city’s graffiti scene. This hefty volume will make your coffee table proud.

What the book isn’t

This isn’t an academic history of graffiti, so don’t look for data on graffiti, social history, or analysis of the causes and effects of street art. It’s about a scene, and the authors are invested enough in that scene that they don’t choose to use it as a platform for more sweeping cultural or historical observations.

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