JAMES PRIGOFF INTERVIEW
How where, when and why did you be come involved in documenting aerosol art?
I have been documenting public art, mostly in the form of murals since the seventies. Actually, during travels in Europe in the '60s I had taken many pictures of Church frescoes as well as the monumental murals of the Tres Grandes and other Mexican muralists in Mexico. Living in Chicago from 1975 to 1980, I began to seriously document the murals there as well as around the country and for that matter, the world. Although I moved out to the West Coast in 1981, I was in New York City frequently and spent considerable time in the streets of the five boroughs tracking murals. The graffiti tags and pieces were also there and very visible, so I began to include them in my documentation.
Documenting public art satisfied three interests that strongly motivated me. I enjoyed photography, respected the community aspect and egalitarian nature of public art and had a strong concern for social and political justice, often the subject matter of street art. Graffiti and the larger arena of Hip-Hop heralded the response of the voices of youth to an ever more complex and rejecting society. Although I was interested in the tags and throw-ups from an historical prespective, I was always searching for the art of graffiti. Later on, I can remember in the early '90s after a weekend of driving through all the boroughs of New York City, probably putting over 400 miles on the car, wanting to write an article entitled "Ten Million Tags and Still Counting", but it was the "pieces" that were the motivation of the treasure hunt.
How did you meet Henry Chalfant and how did the collaboration on the book Spraycan Art come about?
Tony Silver, who co-produced Style Wars, came to visit me in San Francisco in the early '80s. He had heard that I had been successful in generating support funds for various projects and wanted to see if I could be of help. I don't remember that I was able to be of much help, but a friendship resulted from that meeting. On my next trip to NYC, Tony introduced me to Henry Chalfant. I was astonished by the quality and superb documentation that Henry had made of the trains and awed by his work with Martha Cooper in producing Subway Art. By 1984 I began to see aerosol art appearing in cities around the US and wrote a letter to Henry suggesting that he join me in producing a book that tracked the art form out of the tunnels of the subway system, on to the city walls and across the country. (Later in the development, we decided to follow it around the world) His response was clear. "My brain is graffitied out, but I like the idea, so let us do it". I very strongly wanted to call the book "Graffiti Art" to show the evolution from the tagging, but our publisher Thames and Hudson wisely suggested that there was just too much negativity around the word graffiti. We struggled with "Aerosol Art" which I liked, but they felt the word was not that well known at that time. They then named the art form for all time by simply calling it what it is -- Spraycan Art. (Note. Spraycan became one word)
Most aerosol art is illegal and the practitioners generally do not welcome outsiders. Was it difficult for you to forge relationships with the artists?
I never use the words legal and illegal. I have always talked about permission and non-permission art. Back in '85 when Henry and I were working on the book, there were a limited number of people seriously taking pictures. Henry was already well known to the New York writers and had correspondence from abroad. I was pleased to find how easy it was to locate the writers and how accepting they were. Some had doubts, but they were quickly convinced of our sincere interest by our knowledge of what we were doing, our enthusiasm and an honesty they felt they could trust. (FRAME drove around with me in LA for a full day wondering whether I was a NARC or a documenter). I remember we found a nice "middle period" FUTURA 2000 on a freeway wall that day. In Bruhl, Germany I was looking for KING PIN. As I was photographing his pieces, Johannes Stahl came up and asked me what I was doing. When I explained who I was looking for and why, he said he could call him in a town 30 minutes away by train. Within an hour, KING PIN had arrived. He had to move because he was the single identifiable writer in the town and the police were on the lookout for him. Stahl was doing his doctoral on the subject of graf and wrote many valuable articles in the years following our meeting. Hanging out near the art usually produced either the writers themselves or good leads.
I always wondered since I was readily accepted, why a sharp police officer couldn't have done exactly the same thing, but the writers seemed to have a sixth sense that told them who to trust and who not to. I always asked writers if it was ok to take their picture because I recognized a certain danger for them in being identified. Very few said no. RASHID was living as a squatter at 138th in the South Bronx and working on the long wall with SENT. I had seen many SENTOs, but had never met him until I saw him working on the wall. A very private person, I always respected his right to anonymity. Over the years I became a spokesperson for the art form and the writers. They saw I gave a lot back and took very little. I consider a great many writers to be personal friends, despite a very wide gap in our ages.
How do you feel about the fact that Spraycan Art inspired new generations of aerosol artists?
Spraycan Art was voted the book "most likely to be stolen in London". For many weeks we were number 3 on the bestseller list for art books, right behind a book on David Hockney. There were a few seminal books and movies that introduced ten of thousands of youth to the possibilities and potential of becoming a spray can artist in the Museum of the Streets, the Museum Without Walls. Youth, who never would have had any interest in art through the normal channels, became obsessed with "getting up" and seeing who was up. It kept them out of the gangs because there was no time for anything else. Many went on to careers in digital imaging, magazine publishing, art pursuits in many forms, none of which would have ever happened if they had not spent so much time in the Hip-Hop scene. If we inspired youth to reach beyond their assumed capabilities, then we made a contribution. Perhaps we helped accelerate the explosion of visual imaging, but it would have happened any way with the passage of time. Sales of "Spraycan Art" are well past 150,000 copies to date indicating that a broad spectrum of readers, not just writers, was interested in what was happening. Looking back, our choice of the Mode 2 piece for our cover was a very intuitive decision. Introduced to a worldwide audience for the first time were exceptional writers like BANDO, LOKISS, SKKI from Paris, SHOE, DELTA and JOKER from Amsterdam, MODE 2 from England and Paris, GOLDIE, 3D, PRIDE, ZAKI, SCRIBLA and State of Art from England.
One of the many contradictions in dealing with the subject matter is the fact that "Consumerism Coopts Oppositional Culture". So while we see stricter laws enacted and law enforcement clamping down on youth, we also see advertising agencies etc. using the very same techniques to gain market penetration. Pepsi-Cola can do "top to bottom" wraps of buses and that is just fine, but be a youth and do a "top to bottom" piece on a bus and you probably have yourself a $10,000 fine and six months in jail. If you are the Chrysler Corp., you can print an ad sheet with a Mohawk on top of the car, but don't try billboard alteration if you are a youth unless you can run very fast. In San Francisco, graffiti on wooden fences can become a felony if it costs over $400 to remove, but if you are a movie or record company you can wheat paste your ads to your hearts content on the same space and no one will put the CEO of the company in jail.
Since Spraycan Art came out, I have co-authored two other books on murals. Included in both are murals painted with a spray can as well as brushes. The artistic talent of so many youth has been dismissed with a wave of the "graffiti wand". I have tried to properly place it in the art world and give it the respect and dignity that I think it deserves. That isn't always easy in a journalist's world that wants to have its lead headline the most stupid of all questions "Is it Art or Vandalism?".
Your long-term and in depth commitment distinguishes you from the countless photographers who have documented Aerosol Art. What motivates this commitment?
You ask what motivates my commitment? It hasn't changed. It is the same three reasons that started me in the streets in the first place. Photography, community, social justice issues, and the treasure hunt. And perhaps one new added ingredient. The many friends I have made along the way.
Is there an artist who's work is particularly impressive to you?
I have been very reticent through all the years to name a few specific artists as the ultimate Kings. In London about ten years ago, a group of writers and I sat down and made a list of those we felt on a world wide basis had earned the top recognition over the years. The list came to 35 names. Since then, so many new writers have produced such sophisticated work, that it would be a long list indeed.
Any personal comments on the culture and or your experiences in it?
The Hip-Hop movement over the last 30 years has been the most dynamic force in art and culture. That the art component was solely the product of youth was unique in the history of art. That it had the strength and dynamism to grow and proliferate surprised many. That there would be some 130 magazines world wide, a web site put up by Susan Farrell and Brett Webb with literally thousands of pages where you can see what went up in Europe this morning on your screen late today. It has all become quite sophisticated because everyone is no longer under 20 in the scene; in fact many are pushing their middle 40's. There is Internet and e-mail and the possibilities are exponential.
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