It wasn’t until the past few decades that the public’s opinion about graffiti began to shift. What was once thought of as simple vandalism (and still is, in some parts of the country), “street art” is now common parlance. In his new documentary Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence, director Roger Gastman examines the early years of graffiti subculture in Philadelphia and New York City.
The idea for the film started several years ago when Gastman was working on another graffiti-related project, his book The History of American Graffiti. “I just kept uncovering these great pioneers of the culture,” he says, “people that didn’t go on to become great artists. It was something they did when they were teenagers, and they did it for six months or two years.”
The film, narrated by John Waters, follows these early pioneers from 1967, which Gastman calls the real beginning of the subculture, up through 1973, when the New York City subway trains are the primary focus of graffiti. It’s also around this time that the first pieces of graffiti were being sold for money, which Gastman says is a point where graffiti really loses its innocence.
“In the early days, they were really looking at themselves as just wall writers, not artists,” Gastman says. “In the early ’70s, a few of them did start to look at themselves as artists and what they were doing as art, but in the beginning they were really just out there writing.”
In addition to the film, Gastman put together a massive companion book, which Gastman describes as an “encyclopedia-meets-school book-meets-really fun art book.” In it, he uses “Q&As, blurbs, photographs, screen captures, old news footage, and just so much ephemera, to tell the same story again—the same story as the movie—just a little more in depth, a little bit nerdy.”
Gastman will be bringing Wall Writers to the AFI Silver Theater on Feb. 19, where he will be accompanied by a large portion of the cast, including TAKI 183, MIKE 171, SJK 171, SNAKE 1, LEWIS, and WICKED GARY. There they will be hosting a Q&A session, as well as signing the book.
“The book and the film is a true historical document of this massive art culture that’s out there today,” Gastman says. “This is the chance to see the movie, get the book, and meet the people.”
Handout photo via Wall Writers/Roger Gastman