Wall Writers: Roger Gastman & Taki 183 Interview
Juxtapoz is extremely excited to present, along with Ace Hotel and International Documentary Association, a special screening of Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence the documentary film and 350+ page companion book. The screening will take place at the Ace Hotel's theater in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday, June 23, 2016, at 8pm. And for anyone interested in the origins of graffiti, there is going to be a great panel discussion led by our good friend Cheech Marin featuring director Roger Gastman, and graffiti legends, TAKI183 and KOOL KLEPTO KIDD.
Wall Writers: Roger Gastman & Taki 183
Interview By Alec Banks
There’s a point in the documentary film, Wall Writers, - which portrays the true pioneers of graffiti in Philadelphia and New York City in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s - where you think to yourself, “the filmmaker was willing to spend every last penny and travel to the ends of the Earth to ensure the accuracy and authenticity of the film.”
This is, of course, a testament to the work ethic of the filmmaker, Roger Gastman, who over the course of his two-plus decades working to preserve the history of the art form, has become the de-facto “protector” of the medium. Although Gastman has alluded to the history of graffiti in documentary filmmaking before – most notably with Infamy, Exit Through the Gift Shop and The Legend of Cool Disco Dan – Wall Writers is perhaps his most ambitious project to date because not only did it force him to retrace the steps of teenagers over forty years ago, but he also published a 350-page book alongside the film, Wall Writers: Graffiti In Its Innocence – featuring an introduction by Barry McGee - which traces the history using first-person accounts, historical records and old photographs.
As the film is set to make its Los Angeles premiere at the Ace Hotel on June 23 - which features a book signing and a panel discussion moderated by actor Cheech Marin with Gastman and graffiti royalty, TAKI183, and KOOL KLEPTO KIDD - I had a chance to speak with both Gastman and TAKI about the making of the film and graffiti in its most formative years.
What were your intentions with this film?
Gastman: My intentions were to tell a true story. With anything like art, music or whatever, there are a lot of people claiming that they were the first to do something. My job and goal – both as a filmmaker and fan of graffiti – was to get my facts straight. While that sounds easy in theory, it took hundreds if not thousands of hours to get what became the final product. I think a lot of people instantly equate graffiti with New York City. Obviously, the role of New York City writers is unquestioned. But I wanted to shed a bigger light on the pioneers in Philadelphia like Cornbread, Kool Klepto Kidd and their friends who without a doubt were writing graffiti before anyone else.
What were the biggest challenges?
Gastman: The biggest challenges actually turned out to be what became strengths of the film. Since I wanted to try and find every single person, when I did, it also meant I had access to the friends who wrote graffiti alongside them as kids. Sort of a two steps forward, one step back kinda thing when it came to crafting a narrative. But in the end, talking to TAKI gave me the ability to talk to the “Phil’s” and JAG and talking to Snake opened up the whole world of U.G.A and led me to Mike 171 and SJK 171 and that led me to this person and that person. Overall I had a great team that helped me with this project.
In your wildest dreams as a teenager, could you have imagined that graffiti would become a billion-dollar-plus-a-year industry?
TAKI183: I think you have to differentiate between graffiti and art because when we’re doing it – just as the movie ends – is when the “art” starts. You could never imagine that happening. I think that’s the point of the film. We were never doing it for the money.
Given your experience in the field prior to starting work on the film, I wondered if there were many surprises along the way for you? Or was this more about enlightening the general public to these pioneers?
Gastman: My discovery is something so nerdy that most of it didn’t even end up in the film. The things I found were very important to the history, but were for the extra, extra history buffs. The Time Magazine article in 1971 which talks about a massive scene in Philly was awesome to find and ended up in the book. I really enjoyed bringing these people back together. They’ve rekindled friendships and this has been a rebirth for many of them. Mike 171 told me one time, “it’s like we were in cocoons and now we’re moths.”
One of the biggest urban legends in graffiti is that Cornbread climbed inside the elephant exhibit at the Philadelphia Zoo and tagged one of the animals. Is that really true?
Gastman: I believe he was there. I believe he started to do it, and I know that he got arrested. Cornbread claims that when he was in lock up, “his name rang out like Jesus Christ” and cops were coming to get autographs.
What was the spot that you remember having to work the hardest to get or were you simply just doing graffiti in places that you had access to?
TAKI183: I guess after I started doing it – when I was doing it Downtown – I was doing it in places where people would have to see you doing it, but nobody ever saw me. That was the whole point of it. I know there were guys who were doing it in front of people and stuff like that. But if you were on 57th and Park Ave. and you saw the name there, you’d say, “how did this guy do it? How come nobody knows who her is?” That was the whole point of it. It was really an inside thing, and if you met other guys from another neighborhood, you’d say, “oh, that’s those guys. That’s pretty cool.”
So the superhero aspect of graffiti registered for you, Taki?
TAKI183: Yeah. Like Clark Kent, and they’re talking about Superman. Perry White is jumping up and down and he’s standing right in front of him. It’s a goof in that way.
On a personal level, Roger, I know there is a piece of you kinda disappointed that you couldn’t track down Julio 204 who many – including you – believes was the first graffiti writer in New York City. Would you say that’s the case?
Gastman: Yes and no. Yes in the sense that Julio is an important part of graffiti history and people should know that. But then again, he’s always had this mystique about him. He’s a ghost. He just popped up one day, started writing his name, and then was gone. I don’t know if he’s alive or dead, in jail, or maybe in Puerto Rico. To me, that unknown element and superhero persona is what makes graffiti so interesting to me. Julio 204 is the graffiti bigfoot. I did detective searches. I never even got close – but it was closer than anyone else has before. Maybe if the movie gets out there, he will show up. I don’t know how much the movie would be different if I found them though.
What’s it like to see your story told in such detail on the big screen?
TAKI183: The thing that’s weird is that between the first thing that Roger did with the 40th anniversary of The New York Times article and when I had stopped in about 1971, maybe there was like a handful of people who interviewed me in the next 40 years. I don’t know what the catalyst was, but 40 years later, a lot of people just started coming out. They were found. One guy is here. Another guy is there. It’s kinda weird that it took that many years for the people to come back out. Everything was very dark except for the guys that were actually still painting. Then all of a sudden, there’s all this interest. It’s kinda fun. I’m glad I’m not 80-years-old – that would be more of a drag. At least I can remember things.
You were the first “media sensation” for graffiti due in large part to the story that ran about you in The New York Times. How did you feel at the time?
TAKI183: A lot of stuff was happening at the time. I was getting interviewed by CBS, Andy Warhol and there were writers who wrote articles who interviewed me. I knew something was happening. And I guess I knew that I was the guy. I guess it just ended after the movie ends. I don’t think people were getting interviewed and stuff like that. I know it touches on it with the New York Magazine article with Snake and the guys who started to take it to the next level, but between that time and say when Banksy came out – really talented guys who did it differently – I don’t know how much of an impact it was having.
What was the impetus for stopping writing?
TAKI183: I wasn’t getting around as I had been before. I used to go to high school Downtown. I was getting around by subway and bus a lot. After I got a car, I got different jobs. I just got out of it. There wasn’t much point after that.
Roger pointed out that you were the first to go “All-City.” Is that something that you even considered back then?
TAKI183: Well, we were hitting the A-Train a lot back then, and that goes all the way to the other end of Brooklyn. I didn’t think of it as “All-City.” But I guess a lot of people noticed us.
How does your family feel about your graffiti past?
TAKI183: I’ll tell you, to this day, a lot of my family doesn’t know about my alter-ego. Obviously the ones I grew up with do, but a lot of my relatives don’t. One of the things that I’m going to do when I’m in LA for the screening, is I invited my cousin’s kids, but I didn’t tell them anything about what the movie is about or anything. So, that’s going to be very cool. My kids are going to be out there. They’re into it.