BOSTON — Love it or hate it, graffiti is a part of our urban landscape, and it has been since the 1970s. Now a Cambridge artist has co-authored an enormous, photograph-filled book chronicling the street-form’s evolution. It’s called “The History of American Graffiti,” and a chunk of it focuses on Boston.
To find out more I took a walk with writer Caleb Neelon to find out why the story of graffiti’s origin was difficult to tell. He suggested we meet in the South End because it’s the original hotbed of Boston graffiti.
“You had names like Click, Romeo, Hang, Saint, Maze, Mask, Gator, Gumby,” he explains. “All of these amazing artists that came together and they were working, exploding really, in 1984.”
In 1984 graffiti was exploding across the country, thanks to the PBS documentary “Style Wars,” a book called “Subway Art” and other bits of media and pop culture. It trickled up to Boston from New York City and kids from Roxbury, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain and other neighborhoods flocked to the South End to make their marks. They painted and tagged the corridor and rooftop walls along the old elevated Orange Line and T station, which was demolished in 1987.
As we walk Neelon stops and points to a remnant from that fertile period.
“We're standing just off Washington Street looking up at the corner of a piece that is still visible, and it's one of the real Methuselahs of graffiti because it manages to be about 25 years old," he says. "In fact I can say it is exactly 25 years old because one of the characters that's on it, a little funky cat character, was borrowed from the Rolling Stones' 'Harlem Shuffle' video, which was a spring 1986 release.”
That character’s time frame made dating this huge mural easy, but Neelon says documenting the much larger history of graffiti has been really hard.
To do that, Neelon and co-author Roger Gastman tracked down and interviewed some 500 people — graffiti writers and former graffiti writers — from all over the country.
“They owned restaurants, they drove taxis, they were in jail, they were addicts, they were millionaires, they were family men,” Neelon tells me. "They ran the entire gamut.”
And they confirmed what Neelon suspected.
“It’s an impossible task to create a history of American graffiti," he says. "You know a New Yorker we talked to early on said, 'Anyone who tries to tell you the history of graffiti is a liar or a fool' — and he’s got a point.”
Why? Because people’s memories are subjective. And graffiti is ephemeral, vulnerable to time and weather. Then there’s the fact that it is illegal and often removed by the police. Few old examples survive, which presented a challenge to Neelon, who wanted to tell graffiti’s story visually. So he hunted down old photographs to reconstruct the past.
“Where we could we used professional photography by adult photographers, but by and large adults were trying to remove this stuff, not document it,” Neelon muses.
So he turned to the graffiti writers themselves. Some of them still had photos they took when they were kids, on-the-fly, with cheap cameras.
“You know little 110 cameras that were shot on expired film and processed at a stand in a parking lot that were 20 years old,” Neelon says. "These were a real project to bring to life again with Photoshop.”
He and his co-author met them in parks where they sifted through old photo albums. “We’d have a USB-powered scanner so we could sit there with a laptop on a park bench with no power supply and scan the four photos that this guy might’ve had,” Neelon says.
One of those guys was Sly.
“I mainly took the photos because I knew that most of those things wouldn’t last,” he says, adding that he took thousands of them. His real name is John Slymon. He grew up in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood. Now the 42-year-old truck driver lives in Milton with his wife and two children.
Sly got into graffiti at age 12 or so. He also loved hip-hop, and would travel all over Boston, snapping away.
“I just took it upon myself to search out graffiti, and kids I knew who were break dancers at the time," Sly says as he remembers the '80s. "I could meet up with them, so it made me go and meet different people that I probably wouldn’t meet if I stayed in my own neighborhood.”
Sly wasn’t the only person documenting Boston’s graffiti scene. Lt. Nancy O’Loughlin, of the MBTA Police, told me she has "a plethora of photos" that date from early '80s to present day.
O’Loughlin’s been chasing graffiti writers since this history began. The years between 1984 and 1987 were difficult in terms of enforcement, she says, because graffiti was such a new phenomenon. While O’Loughlin doesn’t sanction Neelon’s new book, she does see some value in it.
“If you don’t pay attention to history you’re doomed to repeat it, so I’ll get my hands on a copy and I’ll read it, just like I read all the other ones," she says. "It helps me in my efforts to combat the problem.”
Today there are plenty of spots where graffiti, also called street art, is legal — like the handball court at Peter’s Park in Boston’s South End. It was prime illegal real estate for writers back in the '80s, and our stroll through it prompted author Caleb Neelon to reflect on how far graffiti has come.
“It’s a pretty remarkable thing, you realize this is an art form that’s crossed every single racial, cultural and language barrier imaginable, has a presence in every city across the world, and doesn’t really show any signs of slowing down,” he predicts. “It’s the 'rock and roll' of visual art.”
With his new book, Neelon hopes Boston’s place in the overall graffiti scene will be more widely recognized, alongside cities like New York and Los Angeles. This weekend he’s actually heading to LA for the opening of “Art in the Streets” at the Museum of Contemporary Art there. Neelon’s co-author, Gastman, curated the exhibition, which celebrates the rise of national and global graffiti art and culture since the '70s.