From Tags to Riches: A Conversation About Documenting Graffiti with Jim Prigoff
There is probably no other art form in the world more tied to the importance of photographic documentation than graffiti. Those are Jim Prigoff's words, not just ours, and as a documentarian of graffiti, he has seen just how fleeting and temporary the greatest works can be. The legends we all know, DONDI, FUTURA, LADY PINK, the list goes on, rely on a the photographer being at the right place at the right time, in-situ, to put those legendary works in the history books for us to see now. Through February 29, 2020, First Amendment Gallery will present these moments in From Tags to Riches, a retrospective photography exhibition highlighting the career of photographer, lecturer, and author James Prigoff. Ahead of the show, L. Herrada-Rios sat down with the 92 year old photographer to talk about how his art and graffiti are intertwined, his legacy and his in-dpeth chronicling of San Francisco graffiti.
L. Herrada-Rios: Since you started photographing graffiti and street art, how have you seen the impact of this timely artform evolve? In your opinion, what ways have they cultivated community or social awareness?
Jim Prigoff: In high school, I developed a sense of social consciousness and became dedicated to work for world peace and social justice. In the early 70’s, I attended a slide show of mural art. The images were intriguing, expressing concerns of the communities and the local citizens. This Museum of the Streets also had an aspect of a “treasure hunt” as there were not any location maps as to where they might be found. In many cases, [the murals] became a beacon of community pride and were staunchly defended against any efforts to deface or remove them. While tracking murals, particularly in NYC, I was constantly confronted by very primitive “name tags,” mostly lacking any sense of good calligraphy. I decided to take a few photos of some I saw repeated over and over again.
Being there at the beginning was just a matter of luck as it led me on a journey that took me around the world tracking the growth of what became a “Graffiti Art Movement,” perhaps the most important art development of the past 50 years. What was most interesting was the fact that it was developed by youth, many with no formal art training. As part of a movement entitled HIP-HOP, which included break- dancing, rapping and Djing, Graffiti was the one easiest to be involved in. Some of the kids, who had been involved in gangs, left to join “crews,” the “Fraternities of the Streets.” Also, it provided a strong social bond that replaced the comradery of local gangs or just provided a new form of companionship. Many times, writers have said that Graffiti saved their lives, as many of their former gang friends were R.I.P. In a “star culture,” it was a way to be recognized.
What’s your relationship to photography? In the context of what you do, do you think that graffiti and photography are a symbiotic pairing or in competition with each other?
I have been photographing, documenting and been involved with photojournalism since 1945. The limited life of most outdoor murals is very compelling for documentation with a camera. Most Graff has even a much more limited life, therefore the photograph was vitally important for the artist to preserve the creation, particularly to show to others. As researchers today are examining the roots and evolution of the art, the photographs have become essential as reference.
As this exhibition at First Amendment Gallery is of your favorite selections, can you describe what you think makes a good image? Technically, do you prefer working with film or digital images?
The exhibition at the 1AM Gallery represents images that I believe will help the viewer understand the many aspects of the art as it evolved from simple tags, to bubble letters, to pieces, to masterpieces and then to Street Art and now under the umbrella of Urban Art. Quality images have many ingredients. Skill, color, location, message to name just a few. I shot film until 2009 when I went digital. Digital has so many advantages over film, from every aspect of price, instant viewing of the picture, ease of communication, computer storing etc., but I suspect I may have been a slightly better photographer when I manually set every picture with film.
In 2004, you were tracked down by the FBI’s “Suspicious Activity Reporting” programs after you took a photo of Corita Kent’s Rainbow Swash piece in Boston. The piece in question was publically visible albeit on private property and your act of photographing the work prompted security to question you. How did this all pan out and was that your first run-in with the law while shooting in the streets?
The only time I had any contact with the law was when I drove from a conference in Philadelphia to a show I was having in Boston. Passing Corita Kent’s Rainbow Squash Mural on a large tank on the way into Boston, I drove off the highway to get closer to take a picture of the mural. Guards came out to tell me I could not take a picture, although anyone can go to Google and see it perfectly. As I drove away, I stopped to take the picture but they came after me before I could do so. I went around to the back and took an inferior shot.
Upon my return home, I found a card from the Joint Terrorism Task Force asking me to call an agent. Apparently two members came to my door while I was away. Finding no one home, they went across the street and asked my neighbor to tell them about any suspicious people who might have come to visit me. She told me the “suits” looked like FBI. They had tracked me through the Philadelphia rental car agency. My conversation with the agent was brief as it became obvious to him, I was not taking the picture in order to plan to blow the tank up. The ACLU noted my experience and combined with three others who had similar experiences, sued the government to challenge the “Suspicious Activity Reports” law which was basically enacted to locate suspicious bank fraud. The ACLU posted the case in their publication and had 660,000 hits, the most they had ever received for a case. The courts, as one would expect, upheld the law and likewise denied an appeal.
For your upcoming show with First Amendment Gallery, From Tags To Riches, you are harkening the genuine beginnings of your photography career. Unbeknownst to you at the time, these were the roots of a historian of one of the biggest contemporary art movements. The show moves through those seminal moments to present day graffiti culture. In recounting these memories, is there any defining moment in your career that has stuck with you and impacted the seriousness of your work? Any favorite stories from your early years of shooting?
As I reflect on 50 years of documenting and particularly tracking the Graffiti Art movement, my major satisfaction is observing the success and accomplishment of youth who were maybe 16 to 18 when I met them, and with whom I have stayed in touch all these years. Now, in their adult life, they have earned the respect of the art world and recognition of what they have created and accomplished. In addition, my archive of probably 100,000 slides has become a reference source for museums, books, PhD studies, shows, etc., having preserved the creativity that disappeared almost as soon as it was created.
Somehow, everyone wants a story. There are so many, but here is an unusual one: Ritchie Mirando – SEEN – one of the all-time premier Graffiti artists, called to say he was flying from NYC to LA with a friend to paint his name on the Hollywood sign, [and asked] would Henry Chalfant and I fly there to document the event. We gathered some plastic milk bottle containers to allow him to reach up and showed up early the next morning to see the results. Nothing appeared on the sign. When we reconnected, he advised he had gone up on the wrong hill and was lost. Back again the next night, success as a large SEEN tag was “seen” on the sign. By 10:30AM, it had been buffed. Ritchie advised us that when he got up to the sign, he found there were search lights flashing and he thought they were looking for him, so he hid in the bushes. Little did he understand that the lights are on every night until 10PM. What preserves the image, so briefly visible, are the photos taken that appear in the iconic book Spraycan Art.
Looking back on your 50+ year career, did you ever think that chronicling this global movement would have taken you around the world, immortalized in print as well as in museum shows and lectures? Is there anything else you would like to accomplish in your career and what do you want your lasting legacy to be?
Documenting painted murals around the world was included with the fact that I traveled extensively, so that became part of the trip goal. As a member of the Explorers Club, I often found myself in interesting countries, but until I started to gather material with my co-author Henry Chalfant for a book about graffiti, I hadn’t documented the art form abroad. The book concept started with the thought of tracking the art as it came out of the NYC tunnels, spread across the city, and then traveled across the country. Only as we started the planning did it become obvious that we should track what was happening around the world. Even at that, we urged Thames and Hudson (our publisher) to get the book out in 1987 as there was no way of knowing whether the interest and energy would continue or perhaps focus elsewhere. From there, the momentum was highly energized and the story became history.
Recently I have had many requests for involvement as there is considerable ferment involved with the art– Graffiti Museums opening, requests for book forewords, involvement in shows and symposiums. I hope to participate. I am not into the “legacy” stuff. I have been fortunate to have accomplished many things in my life. Very satisfying for me. What others may think, I trust will be respect. Some kind words and not too many bad ones.
Jim Prigoff's solo show of photography, From Tags to Riches, will be on view at First Amendment Gallery in San Francisco through February 29, 2020.