Spraycan Art, published in 1987, is one of the earliest documents of graffiti culture and is still relevant. 200,000 copies have been sold and sales continue to climb. Prigoff’s photographic prints from the 80’s are on view now as part of The Classics exhibition at 1:AM, as well as a monumental portrait of the visionary author, itself done in spraycan by Brett Cook aka Dizney.

Spraycan Art cover

Valerie Leavy: You were already documenting public art and murals in the 70’s, and that’s how you came to be interested in graffiti and spraycan art; it was another form of public art to you. Did you sense that yours was a minority opinion, or was there already some enthusiasm for the new form of expression outside of the youth and hip-hop culture that was creating it?

Jim Prigoff: I moved to Chicago in 1975. Although I frequently visited NYC on business, I wasn’t really confronted with the growing tagging [movement] in NYC and the great era of the trains. An early visit by Tony Silver to my San Francisco home in the 80’s to talk about the upcoming Style Wars film and a later introduction to Henry Chalfant in NYC, plus Getting Up by Castleman and Subway Art by Martha and Henry all made me more aware of the murals, pieces, and tags that I had been photographing. By the mid 80’s I realized that the art was coming out  the Subway tunnels, onto the city walls and handball courts and was beginning to move across the country. I wrote to Henry and said I was going to do a book about the progress of the movement and asked him to join me. He answered that, “my brain is graffitied out, but let ‘s do it.”

The first concept was to check the major US cities, but the project soon evolved into a trip around the world. The art world was barely aware of the movement, and outside of a few shows in Europe and in NYC this was more of a city’s war against graffiti and the early “expert” panels were all “Is it art or vandalism?”  None of us could have predicted its lasting and staying power. We were in a rush to get Spraycan Art out in 1987 for fear the whole movement might be dead by then. Who could have predicted that millions of youth and people all over the world would become involved and that Spraycan Art would go on to sell 200,000 copies?

VL: In another interview, you mention, “wanting to write an article entitled Ten Million Tags and Still Counting, but it was the “pieces” that were the motivation of the treasure hunt.” Can you describe what, for you, is the difference between a tag and a piece? Is it more than simply size and color?

JP: A tag is simply the writing of one’s aka. Taki 183 was simply his tag name and the street on which he lived. Embellishing the letters turned tags into “throw-ups.” Good calligraphy was a rarity in the early days. IN was an easy tag to get up thousands of times because it was quick and simple. A BLADE tag would be more complex. Mural-type images contained letters, often characters, and usually had multiple colors and embellishments. There were “pieces” and there were “master pieces.”  Style became an important factor early on, as it would be in any art canvas. I documented tags when I thought they had historic value or were unique in some way, but it was the quality of the art that I found fascinating, particularly because it was painted with a difficult brush (a spray can) and because the artists were self-trained and few had any art schooling. As a political person, I could also relate what I found to the social injustice of the existing economic system and its effect particularly on inner city youth.

I have an  autograph that Martin Luther King Jr. gave me, but I also have a good slide of a T-Kid 170 from the streets of NYC, and many tags in a book from a show in Holland with all the well known NYC writers.

VL: When you were putting together material for Spraycan Art with co-author Henry Chalfant, how did you find the writers and how did you gain their trust?

JP: Finding the artists in the early days was helped considerably by the fact that Henry had already met many of them or had contact with them by mail. In Europe I would often go to a wall and note who was watching me. Often it was the writer. In Bruhl, Germany, while standing at a wall, I struck up a conversation with a young man who turned out to be writing his doctoral thesis about the art. Did he know the artist? Yes he did, but the artist had to move out of town because the police were looking for him. He would call the artist who might be able to catch a train and be there in a half hour. That is how I met KING PIN.

Youth naturally were entitled to be careful in meeting us, but we gained their friendship because we were somewhat unique in that we came with an interest in their art and an understanding of the movement. We were both able to bridge the age gap easily. As time went on, it was clear that we could be trusted to protect their identity. Somehow the writers had a sixth sense as to who were the NARCS and who were the good guys.

Opening Reception

VL: Is there a writer that you wanted to find but never could?

JP: I know most of the major early writers in the US and abroad, but as the movement grew it was impossible to keep up with all the new, current talent. Although I knew SENTO well and photographed much of his early work, I always respected his request never to photograph him from the front. I did not have to meet everyone.

VL: Have you ever tried your hand at spraycan art or tagging? What would your alias be?

JP: I always thought my alias would be TAG, but I believe I may have seen it once somewhere along the way. I have tried a spray can. It is VERY difficult. Many artists who can sketch well, cannot reproduce their work with a spray can with the same quality of image.

VL: Your interest in spraycan art is longstanding. How have you seen the form evolve since the publication of Spraycan Art?

JP: From the mid eighties until the early 2000’s, very little was published, but the art form was evolving world-wide. Since then, literally hundreds of books have come to market. Writers were old enough to tell their own stories. The art form had attracted interest from many different perspectives. There is currently an oversaturation of material. Quality of publication varies considerably. As Graffiti evolved into “Street Art,” whole new avenues opened up to artists and those who began to follow the scene.

VL: Is your home covered in murals? I’ll bet you have a family pet named Fat Cap.

JP: Although I had the opportunity, I never collected the artist’s interior work. But I do have some 80,000 slides of graff and murals. I have a wonderful Dzine (Chicago) abstract on my living room wall and soon will have an exciting portrait of myself by Brett Cook/Dizney. My walls are covered with screen prints, wood cuts, and political art. I do not like cats, but I would not call one FAT CAP. Perhaps PHAT KAT.

VL: Any new projects in the works?

JP: Projects are continuously happening. I hope to be involved in the big Street Art show happening at the LAMOCA in April and the TWIST show opening in 2012 in Berkeley. People are in constant contact for photographs and many of mine will appear for the first time in an important book on the History of Graff from authors Sonik and Gastman.

Be sure to keep your eye on the ubiquitous James Prigoff. The Classics is on view now at 1:AM through October 16th.

Valerie Leavy is an art and history fanatic, and associate at 1:AM Gallery.