For director Roger Gastman, the “innocence” in Wall Writers: Graffiti In Its Innocence is a bit of a fallacy. His documentary may be about graffiti’s early, pre-commercialized rise to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s—before the art community became hip to its creative and monetary value—but that doesn’t mean its artists weren’t searching for validation.
“People want to say it’s a rebellion against the system and several graffiti artists will tell you that,” says Gastman, who was previously a producer on the 2009 Banksy documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop. “But 85 percent of graffiti is, and always has been, someone writing their name over and over again for the sake of fame and for the sake of ego.”
Though that sounds like strong criticism, Gastman’s inspiration for making Wall Writers had almost nothing to do with shining a light on graffiti artists’ thirst for attention or contemplating the form’s commodification. Rather, Gastman wanted to give people an accurate chronology of how it all started and who its major players were. “It’s such a hidden history,” he says. “[I’m fascinated] with who did what first and where.”
Gastman decided to shoot Wall Writers while working on his book The History of American Graffiti, a project that gave him the opportunity to interview former street art pioneers that haven’t spoken on record in years. “I figured, ‘You know what, I better start filming this,'” he says. “These guys may not be around that much longer.”
The resulting film pairs Gastman’s impression of graffiti’s evolution—from an urban, Northeast phenomenon to a wide-reaching subculture to an in-demand art genre (mostly between 1967 and 1972)—with influential creative voices, featuring narration from John Waters and interviews with graffiti artists who go by names like Taki 183, Mike 171, SJK 171, and Cornbread.
Wall Writers is also a personal project for Gastman. In addition to helping write and curate close to 50 street art books over the years, the Bethesda-born Gastman spent much of his childhood as a part of DC’s graffiti scene in the early ’90s.
“Growing up, the Red Line was king, in between the Union Station and Silver Spring metro [stops],” he says. “You ride the train, you look at the back of the buildings, you look at the rooftops. Anybody that wanted to be somebody in DC graffiti—if you weren’t up on the Red Line, you didn’t count.”
Gastman, who now lives in Los Angeles, quit the scene as he got older, and now uses his interest in graffiti to pair artists with brands and produce works that celebrate the medium. “I may not be able to tell you a lot about impressionist paintings, but I can tell you who was writing what in Boston in 1987,” he says.
Wall Writers: Graffiti In Its Innocence plays at AFI Silver Theatre on February 19 at 7:30PM, followed by a Q&A with Gastman and graffiti artists Taki 183, Mike 171, SJK 171, Lewis, and more.