THE INCEPTION OF GRAFFITI
A Spotlite on Photographer, Filmmaker and Sculptor HENRY CHALFANT
By Lori Zimmer
Henry Chalfant is a legend in the graffiti world, but not with the spray can. Many important graffiti artists from the 1970s and 80s have helped to shape, inspire and cultivate the street art movement that is still going strong. But the historical evolution and importance of its ephemeral beginnings would not be as relevant and accessible if it were not for the extensive documentation by Henry Chalfant, Martha Cooper, and a few other photographers. Taking an early interest in the culture, they dedicated much of their lives to capturing the phenomenon on film, thus allowing future generations to digest the beginnings of an art genre that has worked its way into everything from advertising to politics.
I met the 72-year-old Style Wars producer at the least likely of places–a friend’s wedding in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The friend happened to be a relative of Henry’s. Coincidentally, the gallery I was working at at the time of the wedding was showing Doze Green, and Chalfant was an early manager of both Doze and the Rock Steady Crew when they were young teens. Mr. Chalfant’s reputation preceded him; I’d of course seen Style Wars, and spent lots of time poring through his countless photographs of train graffiti. But what I had loved most were the photographs of the young graffiti writers and breakdancers–many only 15 or 16 years old–who would go on to shape a generation of new artists, and develop an art genre that would make it into future art history books.
‘Street art’ and ‘graffiti’ are household terms nowadays. Everyone knows who Shepard Fairey is, or at the very least has seen his Obama “Hope” piece. These days street artists don’t only have to compete with other artists for coveted space on the streets, but also with wheatpaste advertisements–ads meant to look like street art that are, in reality, selling us something other than ideas of rebellion.
But Chalfant was at the exciting inception of the street art movement, the few years of purity before it became tainted and affected, as most things that become mainstream tend to do.
Today’s street artists and graffiti fans owe Chalfant, (as well as a handful of others, like Martha Cooper, Charlie Ahearn and Tony Silver) a thousand ‘thank yous’ for helping to preserve the beginnings of an art movement that has come to a peak in our lifetimes.
Lori Zimmer: When you first started photographing graffiti, did you ever think it would develop into the phenomenon that it has become today?
Henry Chalfant: When I first started taking pictures of graffiti, I wasn’t thinking like that at all. It was just fun. There didn’t seem to be an obvious way to exploit it. I was not a photographer, but a sculptor. It was logical to have a show in a gallery, and that was the first public thing I did with the photos, perhaps four years after I started taking pictures.
LZ: Can you remember what you thought when you saw the first painted trains in the late 1970s?
HC: I was already seeing tagging on the trains in the early seventies. I thought it was interesting that there were rebellious kids doing their clandestine mischief at night, but it wasn’t until the tagging evolved into full color pieces, scenery, great calligraphy, and characters that I really became enthusiastic. They had invented a new art form.
LZ: What do you think of graffiti artists today making the move from the street to the galleries, and now to the museums? Do you feel that they don’t have the same motivation with the growing art market?
HC: Graffiti artists in New York have been moving from the street to the galleries since 1973. So it’s an old argument. Some graffiti writers insist that the only true graffiti art is that which has been done illegally on a train or wall; they consider graffiti in a gallery setting to be inauthentic. Others see a potential for themselves to have a career in art and they pursue it. Still others are perfectly happy to be in a gallery setting, making money and continuing to get up on the street. It’s hard to deny yourself the wonderful freedom of painting that graffiti affords: the freedom of painting what you like, where you like, when you want to. I myself think that the appeal of graffiti on canvas is limited. When graffiti artists make that move, I prefer to see their work evolve and grow, so that the lines between so-called “high art” and “low art” begin to blur, and they can explore all aesthetic possibilities.
LZ: Because of your work, photographs, and documentation, an important movement in art history is shared and preserved. Have you thought of the gravity of that? Are you excited that future generations can learn about the origins of the street art scene because of you and Martha Cooper?
HC: Yes, I’m very excited that Martha and I, and a few other people, were able to make a photographic record of the beginnings and the blooming of an original art form, and that we were able to preserve a relatively large number of these ephemeral works of art.
LZ: You started out with intentions to be a sculptor. Do you ever feel that graffiti has taken over your life?
HC: I had sculpted for almost 15 years, and I was beginning to feel that I needed a change. I had begun to take anthropology courses at Columbia, and I was beginning to take pictures of the trains. Eventually, working on Style Wars and doing two photo books, Subway Art and Spraycan Art, led me to abandon sculpture for film and photography. There was a period from about 1986 until 2003 when I didn’t have much to do with graffiti. Then I started getting invited to do shows, and Tony [Silver] and I made an updated DVD that included interviews with the artists 20 years later. More recently I’ve been working on my archive of painted trains, preparing a DVD set of approximately 850 images to go along with current interviews with about 50 artists from the subway graffiti era. We’re also raising money to restore and digitize Style Wars. We’ve begun the actual restoration work, and we’re retrieving the outtakes as extras for the eventual Blu-ray. So, once again, graffiti has taken over my life.
LZ: Style Wars is perhaps the most important documentary about the hip-hop and graffiti scene of New York in the early 1980s. Can you tell me how it came about? How did you start working with Tony Silver?
HC: In 1981 I was invited by Norman Tafel to put on a “performance” in his Soho space, based on the photos I had taken of graffiti. At the time, breakdancing was virtually unknown beyond very marginal neighborhoods in the city. Martha Cooper had seen some kids breaking and she described it to me. She asked me to let her know if I ever found any breakers, because she wanted to photograph them and do an article with dance critic Sally Banes in The Village Voice. I asked Take One, one of the writers hanging out in my studio, if he knew any, and he said he knew the best crew in the city. The next day, Take brought two members of Rock Steady Crew–Crazy Legs and Frosty–to my studio to demonstrate their moves for me. I was amazed, and I invited them at once to take part in my performance. Martha did the article, in which my upcoming performance was noted, and Tony Silver, whom I knew slightly, saw it and called me up to see if he could attend the show. I said yes, and he came to the dress rehearsal. The rehearsal that day ended in chaos, as a notorious gang, the Ball Busters, who were arch enemies of Rock Steady Crew, showed up. All hell broke loose. Fortunately nobody was injured in the ensuing melee, but a gun and some machetes came out, and that was enough for Norman to cancel the show, saying “I don’t have insurance for this type of thing”. Tony said, “I think there’s a film in this” and asked me if I’d like to collaborate with him, and I said yes. I provided the knowledge of the culture and the access, and Tony was the filmmaker.
LZ: You’ve spent much of your life documenting cultures that fuse music and street culture, perhaps your most known being Style Wars. Do you think each culture/music scene you’ve documented is interrelated?
HC: Taking photos of graffiti and working on Style Wars set the direction that my documentary work would eventually take. Nearly everything I’ve done since has developed organically from the work I had done before. I had the interest in street culture and I was lucky to be a witness to the extraordinary power and variety of its forms at that time. I relied on my familiarity with the neighborhoods and my connections in the underground society, which gave me the access that is so hard to get yet so essential to making a documentary.
Henry Chalfant is a New York based photographer, filmmaker and sculptor. He recently successfully funded a campaign to create a release of the Style Wars outtakes.
Henry Chalfant interviewed by Lori Zimmer
Written by Lori Zimmer
Edited by Jonathan Metzelaar
Photography by Jonathon Ziegler for Patrick McMullan.com
Design by Marie Havens
Henry Chalfant, THE COMMON GOOD and CATHERINE KEENER Honor STYLE WARS, Tiny’s and the Bar Upstairs, NYC, May 25, 2011, Photography by Jonathon Ziegler for Patrick McMullan.com