Graffiti's first burst of mainstream attention came in the early '70s. The 1974 book The Faith of Graffiti featured text by Norman Mailer and photos of subway graffiti transitioning from handstyle tags to bubble lettering filled with stars. But New York graffiti exploded across the globe with the landmark 1983 graffiti documentary Style Wars, the 1983 film Wild Style (a fiction starring real-life graffiti painter Jorge "Lee" Quinones), and Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant's 1984 book Subway Art, all of which showcased the artistic zenith of Gotham graffiti circa 1980. And graffiti was considered the visual expression of hip-hop, which defined cool for a generation.
The art world also embraced graffiti, but paintings that wowed when covering subway cars as they rattled from end to end of New York City often didn't translate onto canvas. The young artists were bewitched by the attention and money, and at times taken advantage of. So the art world's dalliance with graffiti fizzled. And by 1989, New York officials declared the subways clean.
Note: the public face of hip-hop was black and Latino, but graffiti was a rainbow coalition. Taki, a white kid, was inspired by a Colombian kid tagging as Julio 204. Among the folks that Dondi White, a black Style Wars star, painted with was Andrew "Zephyr" Witten, who was white. But is it any wonder that this macho marking territory game was — and remains — a sausage fest?
Despite assertions by artists like Barry "Twist" McGee that graffiti's infestation of private property is a form of civil disobedience, counter-programming to an environment filled with advertising from the Man, graffiti isn't so much culture jamming as imitative of corporate advertising. Graffiti's goal is full market penetration of your brand name. So it was an easy fit when IBM illegally stenciled its name onto San Francisco sidewalks in 2001 to seem more cool. Remember that, before street artist Shepard Fairey's 2009 arrest outside the Institute of Contemporary Art, the biggest Boston street-art story was the law-enforcement brouhaha when blinking artworks were found stuck to local highway overpasses in 2007. That turned out to be an advertising stunt for the cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
Neelon and Gastman skip most cartoon-character graffiti and memorial walls, and nearly all stenciled street art and wheat-pasted posters. Their singular focus is tagging — illegally hand-writing your name on other people's property. "I'd much rather see a wall that's totally bombed with tags and throwups and silvers and straight letters than a street-art piece by most street artists. That's because I'm a graffiti purist," explains Gastman. "The straight illegality of graffiti to me is one of the beautiful things of it. . . . Graffiti is meant to be in your face and out there. It's a full-on contact sport."
Based on some 500 interviews, Neelon and Gastman recount the exploits of writers like Kool Klepto Kidd, Dead Leg 167, Stay High 149, Iz the Wiz, Super Kool 223, Lady Pink (one of the rare female artists), Cool "Disco" Dan, Risk, Sane and Smith, Warp, Cost and Revs, Twist, Kair, Saber, Revok, and, well, Popeye, better known as Jordan Knight of the '80s Boston boy band New Kids on the Block. The authors travel from Baltimore to Hawaii, Atlanta to Albuquerque, Providence to Seattle. In Los Angeles, instead of public transit, graffiti artists favored freeway retaining walls, "which are huge and everybody sees them," Neelon says. In Boston, graffiti writers bombed stations and rooftops along the elevated Orange Line south of downtown, until it was demolished in 1987.