Graffiti in the pre-internet era
March 10, 2013 5:41 PM   Subscribe

I am currently working on a young adult novel set in a small Massachusetts town at the tail end of the '80s in which one of the protagonists is a graffiti tagger. Unfortunately, I am less familiar with some of the most basic aspects of graffiti writing and the preparations for it, particularly in that era. Below the fold are some questions.

- How would taggers buy spray paint and avoid detection? Would they go a few towns over to buy their paint? Would they buy a few cans of paint and some other sundries, the way teenagers would buy condoms or feminine hygiene products?

- Would fresh graffiti tags appear in a police report, or would graffiti only get published in a police report if the tagger was caught?

- Would the local press cover graffiti writers, or would they just not pay attention?

- What other information should I know about graffiti at this point in time?
posted by pxe2000 to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You should definitely see Style Wars, a documentary from 1983 that focuses heavily on graffiti artists and is highly regarded as one of the best films of all time on the subject.
posted by mireille at 5:51 PM on March 10, 2013 [7 favorites]

I was a teenager in the 80s and there was no difficulty at that time in buying paint. Where I lived it was more common to huff it than tag with it, but I don't think you would have any difficulty in small towns anywhere. I think the bigger issue would be for the tagger to not get caught after the fact.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:23 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's no buying of spray paint, there is only racking of spray paint. That's why all cans are kept behind locked metal cages now. Those started popping up in the early 90's. Paint pens and Japanese wide tipped markers were popular in the late 80's, as were special control nozzles like fat caps. You could buy a bag of fat caps in LA for like a dollar then. Sorry I don't know anything about small towns in that era.
posted by last night a dj saved my life at 6:25 PM on March 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: cjorgensen, I should probably have made my question a little more specific...would hardware stores be likely to turn over information about taggers to the police if the authorities were looking for more information about a particular tagger?
posted by pxe2000 at 6:39 PM on March 10, 2013

I wonder if folks at 12oz Prophet would know this kind of thing, or if they're too young and smartalecky. Might be worth asking/reading up over there.
posted by tapir-whorf at 6:41 PM on March 10, 2013

Your character should have a blackbook to practice his style, he should also ask other taggers he admires to make a piece for him there. If a cop finds his blackbook on him, that's big trouble!
posted by Tom-B at 7:06 PM on March 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Tom-B, it's a her, but point taken. :)
posted by pxe2000 at 7:08 PM on March 10, 2013

Whoops, sorry about that! Also, she should know the jargon
posted by Tom-B at 7:12 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some classic info on not getting caught
posted by Tom-B at 7:17 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love the recommendation for Style Wars, but aesthetically keep in mind that small town Massachusetts would be much less ambitious. In a small town it probably would have just been words scrawled with spray paint, very little stylistic variation or sense of aesthetics.

I remember starting to notice the graffiti in New Orleans around then, specifically the sharp transition from "that is shitty/hard to read words" to the more cryptic probably gang-related tags that was happening right around that time. And that was a major city with very serious gang activity.

One of my brothers has a non-trivial interest in graffiti, and has since childhood. I remember him drawing tags in the "New York" style around the mid to late 90's. I remember it looking really new and fresh to me as a southern kid from the sticks.

Around that same time (circa '97?) I met my first street artist via a gallery I was working for in New Orleans.
posted by Sara C. at 7:46 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a reformed Baltimore writer, you NEVER bought paint, you "racked" or stole it. Many times you would barter for it, skateboard parts, guitar strings. Fat caps were hard to come by and were quite valuable.

Things got so out of hand in Bmore with a crew called KSW that it actually made the paper when one of the most prolific artists got caught. I remember the paper saying the police open a bottle of champagne after his arrest.

Remember, there is a difference in writing. Look up the definitions of tags, pieces and throw-ups. The books Spraycan Art and Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant are a great starting point.
posted by extraheavymarcellus at 7:57 PM on March 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

This addresses your questions generally: Grafitti was thought of only as crime in the 20th Century, by most people, not art.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:10 PM on March 10, 2013

A few years ago, I picked up Getting Up for a friend who was interested in the subject. It's the right era, but it's focused on NYC subways. I'll ask him for a review.

Also, anecdata, in the early 90s when I was in a small town in Upstate New York, it was pretty easy to buy spray cans at the general store & Woolworth's & hardware stores, but I did always feel I was viewed with suspicion. (I was buying them for dorky hobby purposes.) Any of those proprietors, though, surely would've remembered me if the cops came around asking questions. The small amount of graff in our town was from kids using markers on stop signs & transformer boxes, with probably just bingo markers, Sharpies, and likely fatter standard chisel tip permanent markers, IIRC.
posted by knile at 2:52 AM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

My tagging friends had no trouble buying spray paint at the hardware/art supply store in Massachusetts up through the mid-90s. I remember being amused when Pearl Art in Cambridge started locking up their spray paint in '95 or '96, I want to say. If I'm not mistaken, the first security strategy they tried was removing the caps from all of the spray paint and keeping the caps behind the register, so you had to ask for them when you bought the paint. Sara C. is right that the aesthetics of tagging would have been, by and large, pretty poor in a non-urban environment in the late 80s. A big colorful piece in my suburban town would have been talked about for some time.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:13 AM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to do graffiti - in the early 90s. I remember if you were "hardcore" you racked your cans - the rest of us suburban kids bought them, and I seem to remember buying them with friends with a sort of defiant attitude about it - we knew they suspected we were going to paint walls with them, but buying spray paint was totally legal so there was nothing to be said or done about it.

In a small town, people might not even think about why the kids are buying spray paint, or it might be really easy to steal because there might be alot of stereotypes of what "kind" of kids do that. Also, there might be a similar suburban aspect to it - the middle class kids imitating what they perceive happening in inner city areas, etc.

Also, I remember there were "freewalls" where you could paint legally - the owners gave permssion to do so, so it was great - so being a graffit artist was never a secret, since I spent so much time drawing in my blackbook and painting freewalls. I didn't care so much about being "up" (having your tag in as many places as possible, especially hard to reach ones, thus getting "fame" from other taggers, who you only recognized by their tag, not necessarily in person).

I also remember there were taggers, who were really intro their writing style (think calligraphy with markers) and throw ups and bombs (quick balloon letters for getting up fast) and then there were piecers (like me) who were really into the art aspect of it - doing murals, really crazy, original letters, etc etc.

I agree with the other posters in the idea that a not-so-urban area the first trickles of graffiti would have been really bad tags, or some imitation wildstlye letters, and maybe by only one or two kids - someone who is connected in other ways with underground. An older cousin from New York? A head shop that gets zines from big cities?

Also there was your writing name, your tag. I remember numerous discussions on choosing what you were going to write - based on how the word sounded, what letters the word had (some letters were more adaptable to different styles than others) and how it expressed an element of your personality - and how it became your alter ego afterwards.

Good times!
posted by Locochona at 2:41 PM on March 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Locochona: we knew they suspected we were going to paint walls with them, but buying spray paint was totally legal so there was nothing to be said or done about it

I should add, just to be clear, the security measures that were taken up in the mid-90s were not at all about preventing graffiti, they were about preventing theft. I mean, maybe Old Man Witherspoon of Witherspoon's Hardware didn't want a bunch of punks messing up his town, but he really didn't want them stealing his inventory.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:36 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

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