This has been my constant question — and concern — to myself as I undertake this project to map subway graffiti from the 1970’s and 1980’s. Thankfully, as I’ve begun my research, my original inclination that there would be plenty of photo documentation of the graffiti has been proven correct. There is even some video. But detail beyond the images has been lacking.
I can’t ignore the context in which works of graffiti were created. It was, and still is, highly illegal. And as the movement grew into a fever pitch in the 80’s, the penalties if caught became increasingly severe. It was a game of cat and mouse, which helped to bring even greater notoriety to the writers* who were able to complete their complex pieces anonymously.
There was documentation taking place. But collecting and retaining too much information — when the trains were accessed, how it was done, how long the piece stayed up, who was involved — was all detail that could potentially incriminate graffiti writers and their crews.
There are vague, potential plot points that have emerged. Writers benches were spaces where graffiti writers would gather to observe trains pass by with new pieces of graffiti, and where they would collaborate on future work. Lay-ups and yards were the locations where the work was usually done as the trains sat unused and immobile overnight, or even over the weekends. But actually linking these potential plot points to specific works of graffiti, to photographs, or to video, seems to be. . . well. . . rather difficult.
I’ve gone back and forth in my mind about how to narrow my scope, and which avenues to pursue for more detail, particularly within the limited time-frame of this project. Should I pursue individual artists and prolific graffiti writers to collect their stories and memories? Or do I try to pursue the handful of well-known photographers who, at the time, were given amazing access to writers and crews as they worked? And do I have a prayer that somewhere, among these people, someone kept detailed records? I hope so.
I think my focus has to be on the photographers, who, if they maintained any kinds of records, would likely be able to provide a broad range of examples, of moments in time, of their thoughts on the progression of styles, and of prime locations where they captured various writers’ works throughout the city.
* For the sake of this project, I will largely use the term “writer” to describe someone who is a writer of graffiti.
Above image is from the cover of Subway Art, a book by photographers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant.