The Writing on the Wall: New York and Philly in the Early 1970s
Before the politically adroit stencils of Banksy, the beautiful calligraphic designs of Retna, and the clever humanoid figures of stikman, most graffiti consisted of simple tagging. Writing your name — or, more commonly, your nickname — on as many locations as possible was the obsession of many urban teenagers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Graffiti had not yet acquired the aesthetic characteristics that would later cause it to be dubbed “street art.” It was then simply about getting your name seen as widely as possible.
Roger Gastman’s documentary Wall Writers recounts this era when, as the film’s subtitle states, graffiti was in its innocence. Combining contemporary interviews with period photographs and film clips, the movie focuses on the men and women in New York and Philadelphia who were graffiti’s early proponents. Narrated by John Waters, the movie provides a lively account of the personalities and activities at the dawn of modern graffiti.
The film’s debut Philadelphia screening at International House this past Saturday featured appearances by director Gastman and a number of the graffiti writers profiled in the movie, including Philadelphia’s Cool Earl, Cornbread, Kool Klepto Kid, Karate, and Lewis, and New York’s Wicked Gary.
In addition to covering the personalities involved in the early graffiti movement, Gastman’s documentary shows how the practice evolved from simple tagging — just getting your name up around the city — to become the foundation of today’s more elaborate graffiti artwork. Ironically, many of the early wall writers didn’t pursue this trend, eventually abandoning their work on the street to move on to other pursuits.
An amusing sequence in Wall Writers shows a series of graffiti writers all claiming to be the first to embellish their signature by adding a crown, marking a key historical moment when the practice began to morph from simply writing a name to embracing aesthetic flourishes. But claims of originality are impossible to verify for a medium with scant documentation and diverse local practices that evolved independently.
Whether the honor of being the birthplace of modern graffiti goes to New York or Philadelphia remains equally ambiguous — although the loyalties of the Philadelphia crowd at Saturday’s screening were apparent from the audience’s response.
Gastman’s film laments a certain loss of purity as graffiti became more widely recognized as an aesthetic activity. Art dealers moved in and co-opted the works of many young writers, in some cases providing them with free access to the tools to perform their craft, but without letting them share in the profits from their efforts.
By the mid-1980s, when Taki 183 sees his moniker echoed in the mainstream Hollywood film Turk 182, it was clear that while graffiti’s public profile was rising, its role as an underground cult movement was changing.
Following the screening at International House, Gastman moderated a question and answer session with several of the individuals portrayed in the film, now looking older and more reflective than the impetuous youth seen in the movie. Following the Q&A, long lines formed for a signing with these participants and others featured in Gastman’s companion book about the film.
Gastman’s film and book provide lively insights into the personalities and practices of the early days of the modern graffiti movement. Now, many decades after their activity on the streets, these men and women are receiving recognition far beyond their youthful dreams of being known around the neighborhood.
The top image from Wall Writers is from a copyrighted film and book, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the film’s production company and/or distributor and/or the book’s publisher and possibly also by any people appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.