Last night we went to the London screening of the new Wall Writers documentary! The film is directed by the producer of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop; Roger Gastman and focuses on some of the very first graffiti artists and pioneers of the movement. The cast of Taki 183, CORNBREAD, Mike 171, Kool Klepto Kidd and Rocky 184, amongst others, is an eclectic bunch of characters that share some amazing stories. The backdrop to these tales is incredible archival footage, much of which has not been seen for decades.
The film concentrates on Philadelphia and New York in the period between 1967-1972, a time for graffiti that has been, until now, largely un-documented. Gastman describes graffiti as “the largest art movement in the Twentieth Century”, we’ve all seen the colourful subway trains of New York City in the late 70’s and 80’s and we’ve seen the amazing modern era of art that is produced by graffiti artists across the globe, but this film answers the question; “where did it all start?”
A few minutes in I started to realise what a monumental task it must have been to put the film together. In his director’s statement, Roger Gastman describes some of the problems he faced; “This project involved tracking down people known only by pen names, piecing together shreds of information like a puzzle and trying to document things that have long been erased–literally” the process eventually comprised over 7 years worth of research. Before now, no one has been able to either find or be given such complete access to these pioneers of the movement. The film being the first on-screen appearance of many of the artists.
Wall Writers clearly shows the alternative paths of the writers in the two cities of Philadelphia and New York. Whilst Taki 183 in New York clearly inspired thousands to start writing he cites his inspiration as the mysterious Julio 204 in 1967, a character whom very little is known about. At around the same time, CORNBREAD is making his mark around Philly and the film does a great job of presenting how his obsession for writing grew. Both Taki and CORNBREAD are such entertaining and inspiring personalities that their stories are definite highlights.
As well as the featured artists there are also interviews with photographers, historians, journalists and politicians. In the film, photographer Jon Naar notes; “They call themselves writers. I do not recall any of them calling themselves artists.” Even the term graffiti was made fashionable by the media, not the writers. One of the main take-home points of the movie for me was that these kids (most were 13-17 years old when they started writing) were not making political statements or in any way trying to be artists. They were just writers, they wrote for fame, recognition and for fun. Cool Earl from Philly says “It was a sign of the times, a sign of our youth, our lack of funds and perhaps our lack of paternal guidance.”
As with all good movies, there is a villain in this story. Hugo Martinez is an early adapter that organises opportunities for the graffiti artists, facilitating graffiti art moving from the street onto interior walls and canvases. The artists talk about how they were initially happy to receive free spraypaint and markers in return for their work. When they realised he was selling their paintings for a high price and not paying the artists, things got heated. You’ll have to watch the film to see the resolution, at the London screening it received loud applause! Martinez refused to participate in the documentary, so his side of the story remains untold.
Whether you’re a graffiti historian or a novice with a casual interest, this is an accessible and enjoyable film. You can download Wall Writers here now: http://wallwritersthemovie.com/ Do it!