Secret Histories | “Wall Writers” Uncovers Graffiti’s Earliest Years
Photo: Wall in the Bronx featuring Nixon posters and a CHARMIN 65 tag, ©Jon Naar.
Picture it: New York and Philadelphia, the late 1960s. A curious phenomenon takes hold as names begin to appear on the street, written on the walls. In the beginning, it’s just a couple of names, written over and over again. It’s a mystery, these names. Who are they and what do they mean? It doesn’t quite register with the general population but it hits home with kids. It’s fame of a most unusual kind. The fame of being known for what you do long before anyone knows who you are.
It slowly begins to grip the imagination of a few who are dedicated, and from these humble beginnings, a cultural revolution begins. Graffiti is one of the most basic human impulses. As soon as children know how to write their names, they’re keen to leave their mark. This offends many who find it indecorous, such is their longing to conform to other people’s rules. But then there are those who refuse to conform and insist on living on their own terms.
Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence, a new documentary film and 350+ page companion book conceived and directed by Roger Gastman, take us back to those heady days between 1967 and 1973. Narrated by John Waters, the film is superb as it digs deep into the history of the culture and unearths countless gems, from the writers themselves to archival photographs and film.
Wall Writers opens up with footage of older white man walking through the hood, surrounded by a group of kids who are enjoying their moment on camera. The man is a newscaster, and he represents the establishment speaking to its self, trying to understand, but failing miserably. He intones with the greatest seriousness, “The Vandals were a tribe of people who invaded Europe in the fourth and fifth centuries and for no apparent reason destroyed much of what they found there. Sometimes it seems as if the Vandals live again and have invaded the United States of America.”
Hyperbolic much? But we can’t expect much more from an industry that profits off inflaming the fears and ignorance of its audience. In this way, Wall Writers is a gift, for its ability to speak truth to power is a testament of love to graffiti itself.
“I didn’t even plan to make film,” Gastman reveals. “All I knew was these guts are going to die and are never going to talk. I just wanted to get it down because who knows what’s going to happen. I didn’t try to embark on it. It embarked on me.”
Gastman assembled a superb team of collaborators who unearthed the writers themselves, getting them to talk on film and reminisce about the activities more than 40 years ago. What stands out, besides the way in which the phenomenon took hold, is the charisma and charm that each of these writers hold. To hear CORNBREAD tell the story of how he got his name or to listen to TAKI 183 reveal how he got so many ups is as inspiring as it is entertaining.
There’s no pretense, no self-importance, no bitterness. There is simply history as it was created and as it was lived. Author Jon Naar remarks, “They call themselves writers. I do not recall any of them calling themselves artists.”
Wall Writers chronicles graffiti’s humble beginnings, when it was in its purest form, when it was done for love and how it began to evolve in style, in notoriety, and, finally, into commerce and into art. It covers all the bases but it does not overreach. There are incredible reveals throughout the film, secrets that are shared and secrets that are kept. It allows the writers to present themselves on their own terms, while preserving the privacy of some of its greatest figures that are no longer here to speak for them selves.
There is something remarkable about seeing the face behind the name, hearing the voice, seeing the hand. There are two types of people in this world: the people who read graffiti, and the people who don’t. Wall Writers is for everyone because it’s all that is left.
Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence will be screened:
- Tuesday, September 27, 2016 at the Helsinki International Film Festival, Finland.
- Wednesday, September 28, 2016, at 7:00 p.m. at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Admission is $5 (free for members). Following the screening, a Q&A will be held with Steve Keso (SJK 171) and Mike Hughes (Mike 171).
- Monday, October 10, 2016 at Princess Cinemas, Waterloo, Ontario. Time TBA.
- Tuesday, October 25, 2016 at 7:15 p.m. ArtsQuest, Bethlehem, PA.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.