When subculture documentarian Roger Gastman was working on his encyclopedic graffiti bible, The History of American Graffiti, he met such unique characters among his older interview subjects that he decided to start filming them, thinking it might perhaps result in a short film down the line. “Before I knew it I realized I had a film of a lot of originators, a lot of people that had never spoken before about what they did 35, 40 years ago,” Gastman told Mass Appeal by phone from his home in Los Angeles. These original vandals made crucial contributions to the early development of graffiti culture in New York and Philadelphia, yet much of their legacy had never been properly documented, until Gastman decided to dig deeper.
Seven years later, Gastman was getting ready to travel to New York for the last in a string of premieres across the country of Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence, his new documentary feature. The film and accompanying book focus solely on the generation of graffiti writers that, with little precedent, was laying the groundwork for graffiti’s language, styles and code of conduct.
“I knew I wanted to speak to people who mostly had not been spoken to much before,” Gastman recalled. “And I wanted to talk to the wall writers. The guys that made the first crowns, did the first arrows, were doing the first stick pieces on the street. Really the guys that helped get style to what it became. So many of these people are overlooked. They wrote on walls in the late 60s and early 70s. Some of them did it for six months, some of them did it for two years. Most of them graduated high school and stopped doing it, or they went away to the service and stopped doing it, and most of them didn’t look back. Those were the people I wanted to talk to, those were the people I wanted to celebrate.”
In order to find these early writers and get them to agree to tell their story, Gastman had to be extremely patient and play what he calls “a huge game of telephone.”
“Luckily there were a few people around that we could talk to,” he remembered. “I’ll take TAKI for example. He wasn’t easy to find, but we got at him. Once he saw that we weren’t asking him the same six questions a lot of people were asking him and that it was actually much deeper than that, he said ‘Hey, what about my friends that taught me about graffiti?’ He told us about PHIL T. GREEK the first, PHIL T. GREEK the second, GREG69 and a few others. He dug them up for us and we brought them in and talked to them.”
Sometimes what seemed like a dead end turned out to lead in a new direction. “We tried to find JULIO. That unfortunately went nowhere. But through trying to find JULIO, TAKI dug up JAG, who was JULIO’s only real graffiti partner of the time, and we talked to him. There were numerous people where it was just through someone, through someone. SNAKE helped greatly. He was at a funeral and he ran into ROCKY, who he hadn’t seen in probably 20 years. He ran into MIKE and SJK. MIKE saw him while he was out on the street painting a mural.” SNAKE connected them to Gastman, and they in turn connected him to other writers.
While the film features a great number of individual personalities and stories, Gastman couldn’t skirt the question that may also be on the minds of many viewers: Who did it first? Popular lore has it that the first graffiti writer was either Philadelphia’s CORNBREAD (who recently shared his story with Mass Appeal) or New York’s TAKI 183.
“There’s always a question of who did it first,” Gastman relented. “If you talk to CORNBREAD he will tell you, hands down, he did it first, and I’m not gonna sit there and argue with him. But if you talk to a few people in New York they’ll tell you they did it first. In the end, I think TAKI has the best quote about that: It doesn’t matter who was first, it’s who you saw first and what influenced you. TAKI will also be very upfront and tell you he was not the first NYC graffiti writer. He was probably the first NYC graffiti writer to go all city, and he’s the one that had the New York Times article about him, but he will tell you he was not the first.”
The film’s subtitle describes another facet of the story Gastman tried to tell. Almost every subculture at one point or another becomes permeated by commercial interests of some kind. Gastman wanted to capture what graffiti was like before it lost its “innocence” as a cultural movement.
“These kids were running around being kids,” he said. “They were having fun, they were getting their names out, they were doing it for fame. There weren’t too many things that went along with it. They weren’t fighting for space. They were rarely fighting with each other. In the end, UGA comes into the picture, United Graffiti Artists, which is the first group of graffiti writers taken off the street, put into a studio and then into a gallery setting”—as early as 1972-73, long before some of the subway writers entered the galleries in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. “As soon as the dollar comes in, it’s a whole different program.”
However, that doesn’t mean the game has lost its innocence completely. “I think when people start writing graffiti, for the most part there’s always going to be innocence to it. A lot of times of course the innocence is lost by the first fist fight, the first arrest, the first diss, et cetera. But I think all graffiti starts off as innocent.”
Ultimately, what was most important to Gastman was to celebrate the originators and thank them for their contributions while they were still around to tell their stories. Graffiti, Gastman ventured, is “the fastest growing art movement of the last 50 years. It’s in fashion, it’s in music, it’s everywhere. And so many times the originators of all these subcultures that turn into [a major cultural movement] don’t get to be celebrated while they’re still living.”
Wall Writers, its director insisted, is for anyone who loves subcultures and art. With the film’s New York premiere, the legacy of its subjects is coming home.