The earliest graffiti writers, when they started inscribing their names on city walls in the late 1960s, were just kids, late teenagers at the oldest. Imagine their surprise when what started as a simple tagging game evolved into the heady, celebrity-driven street art world of Banksy and Shepard Fairey that exists today. Roger Gastman, producer of the Banksy-directed “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” has now turned his camera to street art's predecessors with “Wall Writers,” a documentary charting the rise of early graffiti culture between 1967 and 1972, as it went from walls to trains to canvases hanging in New York City galleries.
ARTINFO recently spoke to Gastman about how wall writing started, the difficulty of finding those first writers, and the moment when graffiti experienced a “loss of innocence” in the early ‘70s.
How did you come to be interested in early graffiti, and how did the idea for the movie develop?
Since writing my book with Caleb Neelon, “The History of American Graffiti,” I was always really interested in cities’ histories, and with who really was the first tagger. It’s really rudimentary, it often looks like kids' scribbles, but I was always really curious who the first people doing graffiti in their cities were. Different cities have different histories, and the first of one city might be 20 years later than the first in another city. A lot of times those first people never saw what anyone else was doing even two miles away, because they were a little kid in a little area.
In doing research for my book, I was lucky enough to come into contact with a lot of people who I really do believe were some of the first innovators of wall writing. Luckily I got through to a few of them and they realized what I was doing, and realized their scribbles were important. These people didn’t think they were making art; they were just scribbling their name somewhere. Then the second generation saw that, and scribbled their name, and their name was a little more creative.
How do those early writers feel about their relationship to what’s going on now, and the hype surrounding street art?
A lot of them are so unconnected to what’s going on now. They see the press here and there. It’s about 50-50 between ones who relate what they did to what’s going on now, and those who don’t. There are a few... Snake 1, who’s in the film, is still actively painting. He has a job and a family but he grew up with the culture and he never stopped painting. There are other artists who are in the film who are still painting and still participating in things, but it wasn’t their career.
Do they have any reaction to the monetizing of graffiti and street art and the celebrity of artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey?
Some of them do and some of them don’t. The ones who have continued making art feel like “Crap, I want to get paid, I never got paid.” But some of them are just happy, like, “I’ve been making art my whole life, I was lucky enough to have shown it in some galleries in the early ‘70s, and now it’s coming back around where people are recognizing me as an innovator of this culture again.” And the others are like, “I was just having fun writing on walls, it’s crazy that it’s a business for people.” Mixed feelings, but overall they’re pretty happy and pretty cool with it, and happy to be able to play a part in the culture again.
Did you feel like you were pioneering the documentation of this early history of graffiti while making the film?
I’ve told a lot of graffiti stories and graffiti stories are awesome to tell because the people disappear. They’re oral histories, and they’re dying. I feel like in “Wall Writers” we helped tell the story that wasn’t out there, and I’m sure there are some writers who were overlooked, but in the end you have to draw the line somewhere. I definitely feel like we helped to tell the true story. We could have talked about gang graffiti in Los Angeles or Chicago, or other cities, but we really wanted to focus on traditional graffiti writing that became what you look at today as graffiti, and that really came out of New York and out of Philadelphia.
Who were some of the people you couldn’t find?
The main person that everyone talks about who I would have loved to find is Julio 204 from upper Manhattan, and the years he supposedly wrote graffiti were 1967 to early 1969. We found a few people who knew him, one person who was his writing partner we actually got in the film, Jag. They went to high school together, they skipped school together. But Jag doesn’t remember Julio’s last name, they didn’t see each other after that.
Does the film cover the whole sweep of early graffiti, from wall writing to trains, and the work that was shown in galleries early on?
Absolutely. The film starts with the very beginning of these kids in different neighborhoods doing their thing. The Greek kids to people out in Brooklyn who had no clue about each other — it’s not like they were going on Facebook to see what the others were doing. We deal with all of their rise, and how then some of them end up connecting, and then we deal with [graffiti collective] United Graffiti Artists, which brought a lot of them together in the early ‘70s. And that was the end of this purity of graffiti and graffiti’s innocence. It’s not a bad thing or a good thing. Someone was going to take this work and put it on canvas and put it in galleries and sell it and monetize it. The film goes up really to when the first things happen and that’s UGA, and then wall writing is done. Of course, graffiti is still reckless, and it always will be, but that’s the moment I want to take this film up to.
You were the producer of Banksy’s film “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” How did making “Wall Writers” compare with that? Was it different dealing with the roots of graffiti instead of the contemporary side?
It was very different. For the most part, we’re not talking to people in this film about what they do now. Even if they still participate and are an artist, that’s not their life. It’s asking people to revisit things that are older than I’ve been alive. There’s always that challenge when you’re interviewing people about anything going that far back in their history. There was a lot of jogging their memories. “Wall Writers” is more of a History Channel documentary.
Watch the trailer for "Wall Writers" below, and to see images from the documentary click the slide show. The film is currently in its final stages of production.