Phoenix Artists MAC, KAPER, and SUCH Featured in Upcoming "History of American Graffiti"

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Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon grew up in the graffiti scene writing and throwing up pieces across their own cities and throughout others as they traveled.

Their history and experience plays a major role in who they are now -- writers (in the literary sense) and publishers of some of the most well-known graffiti and street art publications in the US including While You Were Sleeping and Swindle.

On April 5, the two will release The History of American Graffiti -- the result of four years of documenting and interviewing more than 500 graffiti artists who shaped and paved the way for an explosive contemporary art form.


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BASER with Katrina Waterline
photo by BASER, courtesy of Caleb Neelon
In the book's introduction, the two are very clear; the word graffiti holds a certain weight. And while the first "writers" who used spray paint and markers to put their names on a variety of surfaces didn't have a term for what they were doing, their work was quickly categorized and labeled. The two say they hope the book, which documents artists throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, can help redefine the word and the culture.

"Graffiti will always have a negative connotation," Gastman says. "And there will always be kids out there who don't care or abide by the rules and laws. But they're starting where we all did ... on the street."

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ICH Freight (2004)
photo by SPEK
The 400-page book documents the precursors of graffiti -- the monikers of Kilroy and the use of territorial tagging and writing by gangs -- as well as the development of the movement in New York City and Los Angeles. It concludes with the establishment of an "open playing field," where younger artists can now make a name for themselves by marking moving freight cars and sharing their work on the internet.

"[The book] was a daunting task," says Neelon, "neither of us had ever been to some of the cities we hoped to document, so we relied heavily on people we knew in those cities and whose names were synonymous with graffiti's growth in the area."

The history of graffiti in Phoenix gets a two-page spread with mentions given to writers including MAC, SUCH, KAPER, SWIFT, and FICE, as well as big and small crews including PCP BOMBERS, NBS, OBN, and MKT

The relatively small section tells SUCH's experience with seeing early gang writers in the 70s and 80s thoughout his south Phoenix neighborhoods, as well as the the rise of work on trains and walls, despite the city's strict laws and fast-acting anti-graffiti clean-up crews.

Gastman and Neelon both note that Phoenix was a surprise -- neither had spent time in the city and didn't know much about the scene, or even that there was much of a scene before talking to local artists.

"We were lucky enough to convince a lot of the guys out there to dig through their closets and contribute tons of photos they had taken of their work," says Neelon. "And some people took a lot of coaxing ... some of them had painted these walls 25 years ago and this was the first time they were ever asked to share anything about what they had done."

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Courtesy of MAC
MAC, one of the better-known graffiti artists to come out of Phoenix, says books like these are what drew him into the scene. MAC admits as a kid, he was determined to become a comic book artist, but that all changed after reading Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant.

He began experimenting with spray paint, which he says was incredibly limited compared to today's art stores that have walls dedicated to the medium, and was hooked. MAC has since "graduated" through the street art system and is now commissioned to paint murals worldwide. 

Neelon says his biggest surprise were the re-occurring patterns and themes that were echoed throughout the country.

"Graffiti was a sense of local pride ... it helped push a community dialogue," he says. "And these artists often moved on to create legal work and murals that still play a huge part in their cities' histories."

The History of American Graffiti will be released on April 5. For more information, check out the Harper Collins website.

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