Graffiti L.A. Author Steve Grody Interview
GraffHead interviews Steve Grody, author of Graffiti L.A.: Street Styles and Art.
All pictures below are from Steve Grody's "Graffiti" archive.
1. You briefly touch upon this in your book, Graffiti L.A., and I’m sure you’ve been asked this before. Why graffiti?
I started taking photos of graffiti for two reasons; because it was an interesting creative new thing, and because it disappeared or got covered over quickly and as far as I knew, no one was preserving a record of it.
2. Why did you decide to write this book?
As I started to buy the few books on graffiti available at that time (early '90s), it seemed to me that there were interesting things about the aesthetics of graffiti that were not being written about, so by the late '90s I sent out proposals to publishers, but nobody was interested at that time. Now there is a glut of books.
3. You have some amazing photos in Graffiti L.A. Did you start taking pictures so early on because you always knew you were going to write a book?
I originally was only thinking of taking pictures for myself and for the pleasure of finding cool work.
4. The author of Subway Art, James Prigoff, wrote the foreword to your book. Was he your inspiration for writing Graffiti L.A.?
Subway Art (Chalfont and Cooper) and Spraycan Art (Prigoff and Chalfont) were the first two books available about the modern movement, so sure, those books are classics and the shoulders any later books are standing on. Further, after I met Jim Prigoff some years ago, I had a chance to show him my archive and how I was organizing my slides, and he was glad to see someone focusing on L.A. in that way, and since then he has been very generous with his very valuable advice on dealing with things on a professional level.
For that matter, the book would not have come about were it not for him: He called me up in 2005 and told me that Graffiti World had done sold so much better than the publishers had expected, that they would probably be open to a book by me and that I should get on it and approach them. Not only that, but he said don't just propose a book on general graffiti, but specifically about L.A. because that's where my knowledge was.
5. It is apparent that you are very knowledgeable about graffiti. Did you ever do graffiti yourself?
I never did graffiti, but I have always been interested in letterforms, doing bubble letters as a kid in the late '50s and progressing to psychedelic poster art in the '60s. My college degree is in painting, drawing and photography, so it's that background that I related to graffiti with.
6. You have pictures of the works of many established Los Angeles writers in your book. How did you decide whose work to showcase?
That was a challenging thing do. I decided several ways. First, when going through my archive, who was up consistently at least for a period of time that could be considered a contribution to the scene. Second, who had a really strong personal style and technique. And third, as I interviewed writers from the various generations, I'd ask them who they thought the most important writers were to represent. That was interesting, because while I always really liked Charlie or Panic, for example, I wouldn't have known how influential they were without talking to writers.
7. Lately, I have attended galleries featuring the works of graffiti writers. Do you think that graffiti has to be illegal to be graffiti?
Well, really you're talking about two issues here. One is about a definition of graffiti and the other is a whether it's legit to do in a gallery setting. Many writers simply make a distinction; graffiti is the illegal street work, and graffiti art is what you do in a gallery. Opinions vary on whether it's legitimate to do in a gallery setting, but by and large, what's important to writers regarding someone doing graff in galleries is whether they have history, that is, they've been doing illegal risk-taking street work for enough years to be respected.
8. What makes Graffiti L.A. so special is all the comments from so many of L.A.’s writers. How were you able to get commentaries from so many them?
I am honored to accepted in that world. I started documenting at the famous Belmont Tunnel and when I would run into someone, I would talk to them a bit and I guess I didn't have a "cop" energy about me, so they would tell me about another yard, say Sanborn, and then I would be there consistently enough that kids there would trust me and tell me about other yards.
So over the years I've met a lot of writers although it did take years in some cases to be trusted or to meet people whose work I had been shooting for a long time. When it came time to do interviews for the book, writers that I knew helped put me in touch with writers that were important to talk to that I didn't have contacts for. A number that I interviewed were reticent because they had been so misrepresented in other interviews, but everyone was really pleased with the result this time, I'm glad to say.
Their comments are so lively and thoughtful, it really surprises outsiders that read the book and thought all graffiti writers are just knucklehead gang kids. Actually, they book changed form as I worked on the interviews because when more than one person brought up a topic, say continually evolving your work, then that became something I'd ask others about and that's how a number of topics came to be written about.
9. Given your long-term connection with Graffiti writers, do you think there is a common trait that makes a person drawn to Graffiti?
Well, a rebellious streak is certainly required, determination, and creativity. On the other hand, there is no shortage of veteran writers that wonder if the new generation is just doing it out of faddishness and whether they have the commitment to do anything past a couple of arrests.
10. In the book, there is a lot of discussion regarding technique and style. Do you see any new developments?
Technique keeps evolving, and you can recognize a lot of work as contemporary by things like organic bio-morphic forms or the modeling of letterforms to have more dimension to them. Unfortunately, too many up and coming writers are concentrating on the technical bells and whistles and not enough on strong basic letter design. They're going for the icing and they don't even know how to bake the cake.
11. I consider the late 80s and early 90s the golden years for Los Angeles graffiti. I noticed that in the past few years the amount of graffiti has increased and the quality of graffiti is coming back. There is a whole new generation of people that are putting in the work. There are thousands of videos, MySpace pages and websites dedicated to Graffiti. A person can achieve fame all over the world without being there. Do you think the internet is responsible for the rise in Graffiti?
The internet is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you can see a lot of what's going on around the world easily, but on the other hand, there seems because of that to be less mentorship, and that guidance is what is usually required for the best development. Also, because of less mentorship, there is more stupid activity, like going on public murals, or going over a burner with a crap throw-up.
12. Speaking of the internet, there are many internet graffiti sites. You also have one called Graffitila.com. Before the internet, different geographic locations had distinct styles. Now everyone has access to pictures of graffiti from all over the world. Do you think this instant access affects creativity?
Again, it's a mixed blessing, because while it helps bring up the general level, the local distinctions can disappear. A lot of the best L.A. writers still have the distinction of having been influenced by the shapes of gang graffiti even if they weren't in gangs themselves. When I see European graffiti, for example, while some of it is very good, a lot of it is very sweet and friendly compared to L. A. graff which by comparison looks very angry or at least has attitude with a capital "A."
13. To combat the rise in graffiti, California has put some harsh anti-graffiti laws in place. Do you think this will deter graffiti? Do you think there is an appropriate punishment for graffiti?
Much of the recent legislation borders on hysteria and will do more harm than good. For example, it is a common story that there are businesses whose walls were getting hit with tags and gang graffiti, so they let a crew do an production on the wall and be responsible for maintaining it. That tended to help the problem, but the city is idiotically threatening those businesses with fines unless they comply with very unwieldy permitting procedures. This will not cut back graffiti and only make the city a duller, uglier place. For the most current information on the present legislation issues, go to ICUART.com.
14. You briefly mention in your book that graffiti is present in the world of advertising. Many Fortune 500 companies including Ford, Pepsi (Mountain Dew), Nike, Sprint Nextel (Boost) use graffiti to reach the youth. Do you think this is sending conflicting messages to the young generation?
I don't think they are sending a conflicting message, because their message is "we are cool." It may not be anything more than an advertising ploy, but it's inevitable that whatever is considered cool will be used for merchandising. The good news is that more often now, companies are getting genuine writers to do the work. Look at the Boost Mobile support of Saber, Revok and Retna.
15. Graffiti L.A. is published by Abrams. Was it difficult to get your book published? Is the nature of the book difficult to sell to publishers?
It was not a shoe-in to get my book done, because they were very New York snotty at first, "Would anyone really be interested in L.A. graffiti?" So I had to present a strong case that what L.A. has is distinctive, deserved a history, and would be of interest to a world-wide audience. They have been pleased with the interest as it has turned out.
16. Are there future projects that you are working on?
Yes, but it's a bit early to talk about. I'm still seeing if I can gather the necessary material. If it pans out, it will be something else.