Getty’s graffiti black book

Artwork by © King Cre8

The years of living dangerously

“L.A. Graffiti Black Book,” by David Brafman (Getty Publications, 166 pp., $35)

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Let’s give Angst the first word: “Is graffiti vandalism or art? Yes.”

Street art, the kind you might notice on a nearby fence as you hop into your car to go to work, tends to come out at night but, being an ephemeral creature, may be gone—sandblasted or overpainted—by evening. It’s related to tattoo art, which is also ephemeral in that it dies when you die, unless you’ve donated your hide to Body Works.

At first glance, it’s surprising to find a Getty publication devoted to graffiti which, unlike a Rembrandt or a Rubens, tends to have a short shelf life, as noted. Also, it’s usually created on the fly, as hastily as one signs a credit card purchase. There’s a reason for that, of course, which can materialize as a cop with a gun or a neighbor with a pitchfork. Thus one needs to be quick and agile: “There is a degree of athleticism in graffiti that should be revered,” as AiseBorn puts it. And, if caught in the act? “Freeze means run,” says Trigz. “Remember that shit.”

Artwork by © Prime

However, while tagging or street art or vandalism is often boldly or audaciously executed, there’s often a degree of talent behind it, even when it’s downplayed as a gesture or a statement: “Artists persevere, but graffiti is not art,” says Kyle “Kyote” Thomas; “it is an act of defiance.”

These quotes I’ve been dropping were collected by David Brafman, an associate curator of rare books at the Getty. His involvement with this project came about after Ed Sweeney approached Marcia Reed with the idea of compiling a black book devoted to the street artists and tattoo artists of Los Angeles. Reed is the chief curator and associate director of the Getty Research Institute, whereas Sweeney and his wife, Brandy, are collectors of contemporary graffiti art. The timing was good because the Getty was then—in 2011—preparing for its initial Pacific Standard Time, a citywide celebration of Los Angeles art.

Artwork by © Aiseborn

A “black book” may not necessarily be black, although I doubt that it’s often hot pink, but this piece book or sketchbook is carried by many graffiti artists and filled with their designs and visual ideas. Furthermore, the young men (for this seems to be a male-dominant endeavor) sometimes ask their compatriots, cohorts or co-conspirators “to fill a blank page with artwork, whether a simple drawing, freestyle lettering, or an elaborate composition,” as Brafman phrases it. Perhaps this was the inspiration behind Ed and Brandy’s idea to approach the Getty.

Skipping ahead or scrolling down a few weeks, a core group of street artists were invited up to the Getty campus, where Brafman showed them a number of rare volumes. The one impressing his guests the most was the “liber amicorum,” or book of friends, from roughly 500 hundred years ago. Described by Brafman as “an elaborate form of autograph book,” it sounds slightly reminiscent of high school yearbooks after they’ve been passed around and filled with doodles or fancy lettering. Of course, the liber amicorum is a little more sophisticated than that, unless your high school was some sort of elite art academy and your classmates had names like Haring and Basquiat.

The Getty’s rare books curator David Brafman, third from right, and assistant curator Lisa Cambier, second from right, with “Scratch” artists. The exhibition was held at ESMoA during the summer of 2014. Photo by Gloria Plascencia

Presumably convinced that a serious moment was at hand, the graffiti artists signed on and were each given several sheets of paper to distribute among their worthy colleagues, the “assignment” being to fill the sheet with drawings, designs, calligraphy or whatever, and to return it within three months. The final tally? 151 L.A. graffiti and tattoo artists and 143 pages (a few covered on both sides). Some of the works, all of them created during the summer of 2012, are elaborate, some of them less so but often swift and direct: think of Zorro with his three quick slashes.

There were two results, the first being a handsome volume containing all of the work. Placing graffiti art into a book is like pinning a butterfly in a display case: the ephemeral is now enshrined into the permanent. I believe that “LA Liber Amicorum” is the official title, but “L.A. Graffiti Black Book” is what it will be known as.

ESMOA’s “Scratch” exhibition, summer, 2014, during installation. Photo by Gloria Plascencia

The second result of the project was an exhibition titled “Scratch” held at ESMoA during the summer of 2014. This was in many ways a landmark exhibition because, for two weeks prior to the opening, most of the artists came to the venue during the installation and helped cover the walls and floor with their art (well, actually large slabs of mounted plywood so that everything might be preserved). It was truly an immersive experience for them as well as for the visitors during the nearly four-month run of the show. That was nearly seven years ago, and as I wrote at the time, “‘Scratch’ has the potential to be one of those sensations that’s remembered and spoken of for years to come.” Brafman, with his assistant Lisa Cambier, curated the exhibition. Unfortunately, in Easy Reader, Gloria Plascencia’s colorful photographs were printed in black and white, but I’m happy to say that three of her images—in color—appear in the book.

Historically, graffiti hasn’t been something that people have gone out of their way to preserve, but perhaps there’s a different mindset afoot. Just think of all the Black Lives Matter protest signs and the like that’s being gathered up and stored, as historical documents if nothing else. After all, in a dozen years or so the contributing artists to the “L.A. Graffiti Black Book” may be considered as grand old men of that vanished scene, replaced by a younger wave of taggers and street artists armed with their markers and their cans of aerosol paint. In whatever medium, the beat goes on. ER


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Written by: Bondo Wyszpolski

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