A few years ago, I attended a screening of Charlie Ahearn’s hip-hop film Wild Style (1983), as part of the Walker Art Center’s Downtown New York: 1970s and 1980s Art and Film series. The film, “a hybrid of a narrative musical and documentary,” follows Zoro, played by graffiti legend Lee Quiñones, as he weaves his way through the various hip hop, break dancing, and Bronx DJ scenes in early 1980s New York.
Wild Style captures some of the funky tensions of the time period. For instance, if you were a “successful” graffiti artist in the 1980s, you were, like your peers, probably working your ass off to get your name out there, but not necessarily your face because anonymity back then was definitely an asset. However, if you worked hard and were good at what you did, then you were also probably a hot commodity, sought after by the vultures of the art world, journalists, toys fucking with your shit, the cops, and the MTA. My favorite scene in the film is when Zoro and his friends arrive at a party in Manhattan populated by rich art patrons and the like; one character, Neil, says he runs a museum called “the Whitley” while Blondie’s Rapture is playing in the background; another guy in a suit misunderstands rap music as “rat” and asks Zoro if he works in the dark, how can he see what he’s painting? While this scene is more fiction than documentary, I love the way it posits everyone as a potential insider or outsider, depending on who wants what from whom in any given exchange.
Wild Style, directed by John Ahearn, 1983. Japanese chirashi movie mini poster, 2015. Wild Style mural by ZEPHYR, Revolt, and Sharp.
Following the Q and A with Ahearn that night, I got the impression that there were still a lot of positive feelings and happy memories surrounding the project. The affective glow that emanated from the collective viewing and discussion of the film, coupled with a revived general interest in that particular cultural moment (ie. the short-lived Netflix original flop of a show The Get Down), stayed with me. I mean, to what extent is wildstyle —the term given to describe a particularly complex and difficult to decipher style of graffiti writing—part of my inheritance, my culture, its art history? Given graffiti’s ephemeral nature, I felt intrigued by the possibility of researching this form in its early years from the 1970s-80s. What I came to know and appreciate was, yes, the many works given to us by a generation of gifted writers, but also the work done by artists like Charlie Ahearn, Martha Cooper, Henry Chalfant, Martin Wong, among others. Without them, I’m not sure how we would remember those early days of the graffiti movement. So, for those wishing to go a little deeper down the rabbit hole, below is a brief survey of some of the landmark texts that document this vibrant period in Bronx history; it is by no means comprehensive—the number of books dedicated to the early days of graffiti are thankfully wide and vast—these just happen to be some of my current personal favorites. . .
Style Wars, graffiti by NOC 167,1981. Photo by Martha Cooper.
Style Wars, directed by Tony Silver and co-produced by Silver and photographer Henry Chalfant, released in 1983, is a classic—the documentary features many a baby-faced graffiti artist such as Dondi, Skeme, Kase 2, interviews with MTA officials, Mayor Ed Koch, various masterpieces, and more. If you want to know what these young writers were up against in terms of public opinion and the MTA, definitely start here. Plus. . . Skeme’s mom: God bless her, wow.
Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, featuring Dondi, first published in 1984.
“The bible of the street-art movement,” Subway Art was the first published book of its kind to document graffitti. Featuring full-color photographs by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, the book contains many masterpieces by artists such as Blade, Lee, Seen, and more. A beautiful print collaboration between the two foremost photographers of the movement, you can really appreciate Cooper’s and Chalfant’s distinct approaches to shooting the trains. Also, if you’re as excited as I am for Chalfant’s upcoming exhibition at the Bronx Museum, Henry Chalfant: Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987 which opens later this year, now is as good a time as any to revisit this seminal work.
City as Canvas: New York City Graffiti from the Martin Wong Collection, edited by Sean Corcoran and Carlo McCormick, New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2013.
I had no idea that the artist Martin Wong was a known collector of graffiti art until I had come across this book, published in tandem with the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition City as Canvas, and yes, I am very sorry I had not seen this show back in 2014 before I left New York. For those skeptical of graffiti’s transition from subway to canvas, this book really made me rethink my assumption that graffiti is graffiti because it lives on in the streets and on the trains but never in a gallery. In addition to color images of works on canvas, archival exhibition shots, and some recollections contextualizing Wong’s relationship to the graffiti community by artists Lee, Daze, and Charlie Ahearn, also featured are images of drawings from various artists’ blackbooks: gold.
Tag Town: The Evolution of New York Graffiti Writing by Martha Cooper, Poland: Dokument Press, 2007.
Before there was wildstyle, there was tagging. Some cool shots of tags by Taki 168, Julio 204, Barbara 62, and even Basquiat, among others. Another great monograph by Martha Cooper, who in an interview said, “I shot tags because I wanted a record of them. . . mostly I just wanted to study what they looked like and to allow others to study them in the future. I was using my camera as a very efficient tool to make a record of something that would otherwise be lost.”
Classic Hits: New York’s Pioneering Subway Graffiti Writers by Alan Fleisher & Paul Iovino, Poland: Dokument Press, 2012.
Classic Hits features photographs by Alan Fleisher, Robert Browning, and Jack Stewart. Filled with an assortment of early masterpieces by writers such as Stay High 149, Blade, Super Kool 223, and others, alongside artists’ recollections. I like this book because it showcases an earlier generation of graffiti writers from the 1970s before things really got wild. Similar to Cooper’s Tag Town, I was able to gather from this one a more expanded appreciation for the evolution of the form.
Dondi White Style Master General: The Life of Graffiti Artist Dondi White, by Andrew “ZEPHYR” Witten and Michael White, New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
OK, so graffiti legend Dondi wasn’t born in the Bronx—he was definitely a Brooklyn writer. Nevertheless, his influence on the larger writing community was so profound, his relevance cannot be understated—it went to the Bronx and beyond. Includes black-and-white and color photographs, early sketches, never before seen collage works as well as works on canvas, and reminiscences by the artist’s friends. Unlike some of the other texts on this list, this one is unique insofar as it’s a book assembled by another well-known graffiti artist, ZEPHYR, alongside Dondi’s brother, Michael, so the insights and anecdotes presented here, especially those from Dondi’s closest friends, really provide a window onto the world of the artist. RIP Dondi, you gave us so much.