Tonight will bring a special screening of the documentary Wall Writers to the Theatre at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. The film covers the earliest years of graffiti, when teenage vandals were going nuts on whatever surface they could find in the streets of New York and Philadelphia during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Directed by Roger Gastman and narrated by transgressive legend John Waters, the film is packed with archival material and interviews with the writers, many of whom have never appeared on camera before.
The Los Angeles screening will be followed by a Q&A led by Cheech Marin that will feature participants including Gastman, as well as graffiti pioneers TAKI183 and Kool Klepto Kid. In anticipation of the Wall Writers showing, we spoke with Gastman about convincing people in their sixties to talk about the trouble they got into when they were kids, why it was important to not tie the film to hip-hop, and getting the art world to care about graffiti from before they monetized it.
How did this project come to be?
I’ve been working on Wall Writers the documentary on and off for seven or eight years. When I was working on the History of American Graffiti book that came out five years ago, I was obviously trying to dig up who was first in all these different cities across the US. And everyone wanted to fib. When you’re talking about graffiti or any subculture, there’s the early discovery period, and six months or a year really does matter in the scope of things. So I got real lucky and started to find some of the people who really were the first in New York and in Philly. And when I’m saying the first. I’m not talking about cave paintings and things like that, I’m talking about graffiti as it’s known today.
So I was lucky to start finding some of these guys and I realized they were telling me the truth. They had friends, and [the friends] had friends. And their friends mostly hadn’t been talked to in years—and by years I mean 30-plus years—or probably hadn’t even thought about graffiti or what they had done back then because some of them may have stopped when they were 17 or 18 years old.
So I figured, I’m interviewing these guys, I might as well start filming because who knows when they’ll be willing to talk about this again. Or these guys are getting a little older and they might not be around much longer. So we started filming them. There was no huge intention of what it was gonna be. Then somebody would run into somebody at a funeral, somebody would run into somebody on the street, somebody’s cousin ran into somebody, and so on and so on. I dug through tons of archives to find the archival footage, photos, advertising, and everything else and ended up with a movie that tells the true birth of graffiti. It’s definitely very educational. The film starts in ’67 and ends in around ’73 with the first gallery show, the Razor Gallery show with UGA when all of a sudden graffiti has a dollar value on it. Which of course, snap your fingers, the culture’s changed because of that.
How much of making this documentary this was an education for you?
I was very familiar with a lot of this just from being such a nerd on the subject, but I was constantly revising what I knew and learning new things or having certain dots connected that had been connected wrong in the past because no one knew. We would make our best educated guess from not being able to find the people, or someone was deceased and you would just go by somebody’s hearsay, but all of a sudden you finally find somebody’s brother or cousin and they were there and they can tell you how it really went down.
Were most of these early writers still living in the same neighborhoods when they started doing this or had they dispersed?
[They were] all over the place. Some people retired in Florida, some people were living in California, some people were in the same neighborhood, and some people were in the same house.
Were most of them receptive to being interviewed?
Most of them were happy to talk to us. It definitely took a little push on some of them, not where they were like, “Screw you, get away,” but more like, “What do you wanna talk to me about? I haven’t done that shit in a long time.” It was a lot of making them understand that what they had done was important.
Do most of them think about that time fondly or just consider it shit they did when they were kids?
Both. They all look back at it very fondly, even if they don’t necessarily agree with what they were doing then as far as lifestyle, or just vandalism in general. They look back at it with fond memories and good times with good close friends, and something they would not necessarily go back and change.
You mentioned earlier that with the documentary you were able to connect some dots that had been connected incorrectly. What are some examples of that?
All the things that were cleared up for us were honestly so nerdy that I don’t think it’s worth your readers knowing because it’s such a backstory that it wouldn’t matter. But we did an entire book, which goes along with the film, that really dives much deeper into a lot of those nooks and crannies and historical facts, that I recommend getting. It’s over 350 pages, it covers all the source interviews we did and many more that didn’t fit in the film.
After you first got into graffiti, how long did it take you to start getting interested in the earliest days?
When I got into it, early on I was interested in who was first and who was doing what. I was in [Washington] DC and I wanted to know who was first. When I got into punk rock music and hardcore and all these things I was into, all these subcultures through the years, I was always curious who were the first people to do things.
How did you decide on having John Waters narrate the film?
There was so much back and forth with who should we talk to about the voiceover. So many people we were talking to were like, “Get LL Cool J. Go get this rapper. Go get that rapper.” All these people were totally great and all were be so perfect for a lot of projects, but graffiti always gets lumped in with 1980s New York City hip-hop. Graffiti is not hip hop, graffiti is its own culture, so we didn’t want somebody from hip-hop to narrate it because that would just show one of the things we’re fighting against. Not against hip hop, but it’s a fact that graffiti starts before hip hop.
John Waters, I’ve always been a huge fan. He’s a super art guy. He’s done everything. I heard through a long stream of friends that he was really interested in and a fan of graffiti and the outlaw nature of it. He didn’t really know the culture, but was a fan of it. We reached out and he said that this sounds great and would be happy to do it.
As you said, John Waters has credibility in the art world, and at the LA screening you’re going to have Cheech Marin there, who is a major art collector. As you said, the film ends just as graffiti is starting to get shown in galleries. Is the art world starting to get interested in the era the film covers before the galleries got involved?
The art world is starting to come around and understand the history to these things and why it’s important. More and more people are asking me about the history and asking my friends about the history. I think the art world is starting to pay attention.