This book review of Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon's landmark The History of American Graffiti originally appeared on ArtSlant Chicago in May 2011.
If there’s one thing that graffiti books know how to do, it’s the pictures. Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon’s recently released The History of American Graffiti (Harper Design, 2010) follows this rule without fail, producing an attractive book that can just as easily be thumbed through as read. These photographs are particularly valuable since they are all that is left; as the authors note, the original art has long since been destroyed.
Beginning with train-riding hobos and the monikers they left to mark their transient journeys, American Graffiti traces the roots of graffiti all the way up to its current evolutionary stage, Street Art. The book dwells heavily on New York City as graffiti develops there, but also features many other American cities as graffiti’s influence moves across the country.
The Chicago chapters indicate the value of a book like this: mention of a Harold Washington memorial that writers painted on a CTA train that was allowed to run when Chicago’s first black mayor died (with picture, even more valuable); a 1984 exhibition at the Renaissance Society entitled “Rapid Enamel”; the vendetta of the Chicago Police Department against graffiti writers and the brutality they employed; and a picture of a sweet burner by DZINE (a.k.a Carlos Rolon) from ’95, who is now an international artist.
That’s the success of The History of American Graffiti: it attempts to rebuild and retell a history that is lost and illegal. But that’s also part of the problem with the book, its reliance on pictures at the expense of interpretation. Sometimes it seems that the authors avoid the challenges of their project.
Consider the description of Philadelphia’s local graffiti style called “wickets”: “Difficult to describe, Wickets are essentially a more elaborate form of the tag, with complex lines and embellishments that render it almost illegible.” That description that could stand in for almost any type of graffiti; it’s up for the authors to draw out the nuances and differences between them. Similarly, the authors refer several times to a “classic Philadelphia letter shape” or “the distinct Philadelphia style” without really telling the reader what that is. Sometimes the captions to the images hint at the meaning behind inclusion, but mostly only hint.
These are points where the tools of history books could be useful: side-by-side comparisons of writers’ tags down to specific letters, diagrams of hand motions, some chronological comparison. Most tellingly, this history book lacks an index, leaving one unable to connect mentions of crews and writers as they travel between cities and through time. Likewise a welcome addition to this history book would be a timeline that could chart a number of concerns often lost within the jumble of street names: periods of activity for highly influential writers, the increasing legal penalties, when graffiti scenes picked up in certain cities, major events in graffiti history (like major art exhibitions, or the publication of significant books like Bomb the Suburbs or Subway Art). But these devices of history books are not sexy.
This book seems to suffer from a problem similar to that of the major exhibition that Gastman co-curated, titled “Art in the Streets” and on view at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art through the end of the summer. As identified in Kate Wolf’s review for ArtSlant, the problem is a “lack of criticality, historical contextualization, and actual attention and description of visual style and detail.” However as Gastman and Neelon note at the beginning of their book, “[those] who don’t have at least a quibble or two about this book should check their pulse.”