Bash Compactor: Tag, You’re It

Written by Jon Reiss on . Posted in Bash Compactor, Posts.

One of the best ways to avoid anxiety at social events is to know a little bit about every possible subject. Unfortunately, graffiti, the subject of last Thursday night’s book party, was one of the few topics about which I know nothing. Thanks to the invite, what I did know was this: on July 21, 1971, the New York Times ran a profile of a 17-year-old graffiti artist called Taki 183. The article was considered to be the introduction of graffiti culture to the mainstream in New York City, and it was 40 years ago to the date of the party. Now Taki 183 and a slew of other famed graffiti writers would be at The Hole on Bowery for the release of Harper Collins’ new graffiti bible, The History of American Graffiti. It was absolutely the haziest, hottest evening of the summer and the purple polo I was wearing telegraphed wetness better than any other shirt in my wardrobe.

Walking up Bowery from the J train, it was easy to spot the event by the legions of graffiti aficionados pouring out of the venue onto the front sidewalk with freshly signed books and sweaty foreheads. The Hole’s interior was brightly lit, with glaring white walls that featured odd smiley face paintings and sculptures scattered throughout. Two small tables were set up in the spacious room, one selling the book and another giving away free bottles of Colt 45 Blast in watermelon and cherry flavor. Across from the drinks, another long table stretched the entire length of the room. There sat the two authors of The History of American Graffiti, as well as a number of the graffiti writers featured in the book. By the time I made my way over to Roger Gastman, co-author of the book and copublisher of Swindle Magazine, my cherry Blast was already hotter than the inside of my underwear.

I asked Gastman what he thought of the turnout.

"I’m just thrilled that so many of the original graffiti writers showed up. Look around—everyone’s happy, everyone’s smiling. It’s hot, but it’s so great."

Beside Gastman sat Caleb Neelon, co-author of the book and a prolific graffiti artist in his own right.

"This is an excellent turnout," said Neelon. Then, looking giddily to his left, he whispered, "I mean, Taki 183 is sitting right next to me. The teenager in me is gushing right now."

At that point, my desire to understand what exactly made this event so special that people would pack into this oven of a gallery was matched only by my desire to find cooler air. In a sweat-soaked stupor, I found myself talking to Derrick Harden and Laura O’Reilly, co-curators of Gallery 151.

"The artists in this book," Harden said, motioning to the signing table where graffiti writers Taki 183, Mike 151, Rocky 184 and Snake 1 sat scrawling their tags into book after book, "These guys are like the Afrika Bambaataa of graffiti—they’re the true innovators of the art form."

I felt like I understood. I shook my head, causing a couple of sweat droplets to launch off my forehead towards Harden.

"By the way," he said, "there’s a mini air conditioner in the back room."