In memoriam: James “Jim” Prigoff. 1927 – 2021

This is a Repost from our friends at the Swedish Podcast Svenska Graffare. A podcast primarily in Swedish but some episodes in english for international listeners.

I did not know Jim Prigoff well but was delighted to be able to ask him a few questions during the Urban Creativity Conference in 2020, when he participated in an on-line Q&A session together with Henry Chalfant and Susan Farell.

Jim answered candidly and made quite a lively impression in spite of his respectable age. We stayed in touch after the conference via e-mail, discussing the origins and trajectory of style writing and were planning an audio interview for my podcast (Svenska Graffare Podcast).

That was, sadly, never to be recorded but he did humbly devote the time and effort to type down some lenghty and super interesting answers to some of the many questions I had.

I was planning to try and get it published as an article sometime down the line but learning of Jims recent passing, it feels more appropriate to make it available here, for free and as a tribute to his work.

This interview was conducted on the 20:th July 2020.

I am very happy that I got the chance to thank the man for producing works as Spraycan Art. A book that left an immense imprint on me, and so many other kids in the 80’s with over 250 000 sold (racked?) units. It was tremendously inspiring to discuss various graffiti-related topics with a man of such insights and passion for art and culture As a graffiti writer and chronicler: I salute you Mr Prigoff!

To graffiti-aficionados, I would claim you became a household name in conjunction with the release of the book Spraycan Art. By then, in 1987, you were 60 years of age. I would like to know what you did before this. What was your childhood like and what was your relation to art and expressions in the public space before graffiti came along?

My life history was that of a middle- class child growing up in suburban NY. There was every expectation that I would go to college, get a good job, and have a successful business career. My mother took me to Museums and in general I was a visually oriented person. At age 40, I became interested in tracking and documenting murals and community art particularly as it had political reference. I began to see tags appearing and photographed some. As the art form developed and became more sophisticated, I incorporated it into my mural search wanting to give dignity and respect to this new burgeoning form of art expression.

What are your earliest meetings with, or memories of (style writing)graffiti and what did you make of it?

I remember seeing BIO, BRIM, MED, T-KID TAGS in the Bronx and then some of Keith Haring’s characters in the early 80’s. A Samo here and a Sane there. Going to Freedom’s tunnel on the west side. Tracking Lee, Vulcan, Daze, Crash, Blast, Phase 2, Tracy and so many others.

How did you go about approaching it and learning more about it?

In the early eighties I began to meet some of the writers, particularly on the west coast when I moved in 1981. The TMF crew, TDK crew and TWS, writers that I am still in touch with to this day. Also, many of the writers in LA like Slick, Hex, Chaz, Risk etc. As the writing moved from tags to pieces, I recognized the skill involved and became interested in following its development as well as to give respect and dignity to those creating the art. I watched the writers creating their pieces, talked to them about the culture to understand their motivation, creativity, and how it was becoming such an important part of their lives. I remember inviting the TMF crew to my home in SF. to do an in-depth interview with them.

When did you first cross paths with Henry Chalfant and how did you come to work on the book together?

Tony Silver came to see me when he was working on Style Wars, hoping I would have some ideas for fund raising to help finance the film. He mentioned his film partner, Henry Chalfant and suggested I should meet him when I was next in NYC. When I decided to do a book of how the art came above ground from the NY City subway system, began to appear on walls and handball courts and then move across the country, I wrote and invited Henry to join me. His reply was “My brain is Graffitied out. But let’s do it”.

We recently spoke about the process of selecting what works and cities that were featured in the final product (Listen to the snippet published in this post) Could you speak a bit about the response and critique the book received and any tangible proof of its impact on subsequent travels/interactions the coming years? The first trip to Sweden for example.

The book received an instant positive response world-wide. It was voted one of the 50 best books for layout and design in Britain in 1987. There were many newspaper reviews and received commendation in a NY. Public Library list. Henry was already recognized internationally and with the publishing of Spraycan Art, I became very visible and invited to speak in venues around the world.

Did you at any point feel a responsibility in regards to the amount of criminal damage/defacement that the book inspired? And, without rehashing the old “Art or Crime” debate; how big a part of graffiti do you think the illicit nature of it is/contra the artistic aspect? This could be expanded into a discussion of what happens when graffiti is brought on to canvas and the transition into the field of fine art and museums, certainly.

My chosen role in the movement was that of a photo documenter to preserve the images which often disappeared rapidly, to present the art form to as large an audience as was possible and to be its advocate. Also, to help understand its social context within a capitalist society. There is no question I played a contributing part in the larger picture/puzzle. People are welcome to ascribe whatever they want as to my influence because almost all of the feedback has been very positive. Kids I didn’t even know have told me I saved their lives as they left the gang culture and moved to Graff. Many of their friends left behind were R.I.P. Graffiti moving to Museums and fine art is partially a result of writers getting older, gaining attention, needing to support families etc. But that is just one of the many facets in an ever far reaching development.

With the spreading of style writing now having reached most corners of the world. What are your impressions on how it has evolved in respective geographical areas. I.e I see tendencies of simply imitating classic NY Subway Graffiti, with western letters/words and the same old styles and aesthetics in all parts of the world. It has its charm I suppose but can also feel shallow and bleak somehow. Are there any scenes where you think an exciting adaption and furthering of the artform has taken place?

This question is complex and better answered by the artists themselves. There were so many ways that writers chose to develop style. First, many just copied from the books or had mentors who taught them style. But as time went on, writer explored new imagery and style often became regional.

Having dedicated such a large part of your life to chronicling and collecting graffiti. Why has this movement been so important to you, and perhaps any guesses on the attraction and meaning it has had to so many? In short; what is so great about graffiti?

Graffiti documentation has been part of a much larger interest in tracking painted murals, particularly as they related to community issues, political attitudes and their influence in public visual life. For me it was a way to combine an interest in photography with my political values and then to share my point of view with a larger audience. In addition, it was an adventure, a treasure hunt, as well as a challenge and an opportunity to learn about different cultures as well as interacting with youth.

Our paths crossed recently at an international conference on graffiti and other expressions in the public space. What started as kids scribbling has now not only spawned a worldwide art movement (or is it an extreme sport or something else?) but a whole community of scholars, chroniclers and researchers who analyze and try to understand and explain graffiti. I often times, as an amateur researcher get lost in talking and thinking more about graffiti than actually painting, forgetting why I love it so much until I get to a wall and apply aerosol paint on it. What do you think are the pros and cons of the theoretical, philosophical and academic movement around this phenomenon? As one of the debates at the conference were about; Is it even possible and fruitful at all trying to frame and explain graffiti without ever having practised it? …and on the other side of that coin. Are the many ex-practitioners in the academic word inclined to be biased when indulging in and publishing research on it? Does graffiti need to be confined and understood by outsiders?

Over the many centuries, art took many forms, shapes and context. Scholars studied each period from ever conceivable point of view. So why not Graffiti which is clearly the most important art form developed in the last 40 years? I presume most of the scholarly work over the years was done by people who never painted themselves. Surely, interview the artists to get some clarity, but the answers will be wide ranged based on the individual, yet often have a similar thread.

What are your hopes or expectations on the future of graffiti? In a society with an inclination leaning more towards a fully draconian and surveilled society. Is graffiti doomed to disappear or could it rather a productive factor such as combating graffiti has been historically? Graffiti on trains saw a style renaissance of sorts when the possible times to stand in a yard shrunk remarkably. Giving birth to new styles.

I don’t really have “hopes or expectations” The art form will continue to develop in many different directions. It is like a tree with branches emerging in many directions. Graffiti in one form or another has been a part of society since the beginning of human life. Probably, it will continue in some form in perpetuity.

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