So where did graffiti originate from and how long has graffiti been around? The history of graffiti is synonymous with the documentation of the art form. Inevitably, this means books. And there are a ton of graffiti books on the subject, so much so that after nearly 50 years, there are new titles each year that build even more lore of graffiti's impact. But it's not just books by photographers. Artists themselves have documented the culture, and even some museum catalogs have captured the unique essence of what makes graffiti one of the most enduring of art movements.
In the next few weeks, we will release our own new graffiti book, Nation of Graffiti Artists, a long-awaited collection of photos and words by Chris "Freedom" Pape on a unique evolution in graffiti and street art in early 1970's NYC. An excerpt:
"For many kids, graffiti provided an alternative to straight-up gang life. The more work you put into it, the higher up the food chain you went, and for kids in the inner-city, status was everything. As the media drew attention to the graffiti movement, a few interested parties stepped into the fray and helped shape the perception of what the kids were doing. Photographers Jack Stewart and Michael Lawrence documented the paintings on the trains, while advocates Hugo Martinez and Jack Pelsinger opened up workshops to shift the artists to canvas... in 1974 (Pelsinger) founded an alternative organization, the NATION OF GRAFFITI ARTISTS (NOGA), as an open workshop where kids of any age could come and learn to paint on canvas."
History of Graffiti in New York
The history of graffiti in New York has been around since the 1960’s, but didn’t heavily influence New York til the late 1970’s when the new art form took a rapid spread throughout the city. This is where the history of tagging graffiti came about, during the 70’s when people began tagging their names and works of art across buildings, streets, and sidewalks.
It quickly caught traction amongst other artists that wanted to freely express their emotions and essentially paint their stories for people to interpret. Graffiti and street art today has evolved to many more types of art forms and expressions as compared to when graffiti started many years ago.
These 15 graffiti books that we have compiled, are filled with numerous inspirational art pieces and talented artists that deserve to be recognized for their powerful works of art and expressiveness. Thanks to the history of graffiti and street art, these graffiti books each hold its combination of originality, creativity, and individuality that has influenced every graffiti artist.
Nation of Graffiti Artists by Chris Pape
This book is about that time, with rarely and never-before-seen photos of the transformations of street to studio work. With the impending release of Nation of Graffiti Artists, we compiled a list of the best graffiti books in our collection.
Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant
This one goes without saying, perhaps the classic of all classic graffiti art documentations. Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant not only defined an era and provided a blueprint for all generations to follow, but it became a bible for the actual discovery of and history of graffiti art graffiti in cities around the world. If there was ever a treasure hunt, Cooper and Chalfant showed how NYC changed the way we looked at graffiti and street art.
Graffiti a New York by Andrea Nelli
This graffiti book is one to revisit: a seminal documentation of graffiti and street art, the iconic Graffiti a New York, 1968-1976 featuring the photography of Andrea Nelli. As Gessato noted a few years back when the book was reissued, "In his early twenties, after a trip to New York, Nelli decided to focus his thesis on the early stirrings of the graffiti scene, a year before the book of the iconic Jon Naar, The Faith of Graffiti (see below) was released. With the explosion of the phenomenon in the following years, in 1978 Nelli decide to publish his book ‘Graffiti in New York’ a well rounded and structured selection showcasing the original material collected five years earlier in collaboration with New York’s old school street artist icon COCO 144."
Spraycan Art by Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff
We stay in the bygone and early era of graffiti books, and this one always serves as a sequel to Subway Art, but still an essential collection that shows the evolution of the art form, but also gives a vantage point from the artist's themselves. Released in 1987 and international in focus, there are early works from Mode 2, FUTURA, LEE, 3D, ESPO, REAS and more.
The Faith of Graffiti by Jon Naar and text by Norman Mailer
That in 1974, famed writer Norman Mailer would be penning an essay on NYC graffiti was already a major deal. Much of this graffiti book talks about the origins as to why graffiti exploded in NYC in the 1970s, with social unrest and social breakdowns in many of the city's school, transit and sanitation systems. This may be the first original academic and intellectual dissertation as the growth of graffiti, and remains one of the great writings on the subject.
Wall Writers: Graffiti In Its Innocence by Roger Gastman, Trina Calderon, Caleb Neelon and Chris Pape
Long overdue, this graffiti book topic pre-dates the subway train pieces and more "artistic" graffiti what would be seen around the world later in the 1970s. "Wall Writers explores graffiti's eruption into mainstream society in the period of social turmoil in the late 1960s and early '70s, and takes a closer look not only at early graffiti's place on the wall but its place in the culture of the time."
The Art of Getting Over: Graffiti at the Millennium by Stephen Powers
Banksy: Wall and Piece
Golden Boy as Anthony Cool by Herbert Kohl
Gusmano Cesaretti: Fragments of Los Angeles 1969-1989
Los Angeles had its own unique street culture, whether low-riders, graffiti or fashion, much of the truly originality coming from East Los Angeles. Italian photographer Gusmano Cesaretti has the most incredible early documentation. Chapters in this book include “East L.A. Diary,” “Folsom Prison,” “Maria Sabina,” “Muscle Beach” and “Street Writers,” the type of eras and people he documented truly making this one of the essential underground West Coast bibles.
Margaret Kilgallen: In the Sweet Bye & Bye
Perhaps you don't think of the late and legendary Margaret Kilgallen as a graffiti artist per se, but her works on the streets and trains become a connector between the bohemian and folk aspects of graffiti and street art. This book, although featuring her fine art as well, is her perfect monograph, and one of the great books of the Mission School movement. Not only did it elevate Kilgallen into one of the most important artists of her generation, it also showed just how widespread and nuanced graffiti's spirit had become.
Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art
This groundbreaking street art book from Taschen was certainly a game-changer in that it felt like the most complete book on street art that had been made. What was such a fertile era, the Wooster Collective, FAME Festival, DIY explosion of street art that we still remark upon today with admiration, was covered extensively in Trespass. Carlo McCormick, Sara and Marc Schiller and the other writers help contextualize this new dawn of urban, unsanctioned art happening on streets around the globe, allowing for new forms of intervention in the arts to be documented through thoughtful essays. This is a bible of street art books.
OBEY: Supply & Demand: The Art of Shepard Fairey
The essential book on Shepard Fairey, one of street art's greatest icons. That this street art book was originally published in 2006, before Fairey was to make his famed Obama Hope poster, it goes to show just how robust and wide-reaching Fairey's work had been almost 15 years ago.
It would be hard to make a list of graffiti and street art books and not include the artist who basically sewed all the genres, ideas, innovations and categories into one monumental career. Barry McGee is an enigma in that he transformed what graffiti looked like in a gallery, but also what graffiti books and zines and catalogs would look like, too. Raw, unfettered and full of life, this is the essential Barry McGee monograph.
And... of course...
The All In One Graffiti Book
This graffiti book is the perfect all in one street art book that contains an extensive collection of graffiti artists and their pieces of work. With beautifully illustrated graffiti art designs, this street art book has some of the best graffiti artists in New York and Los Angeles.
BEYOND THE STREETS Companion Catalog compiled by Roger Gastman
Our 600+ page graffiti book catalog, spanning both our Los Angeles and Brooklyn exhibitions in 2018 and 19, respectively, is a comprehensive collection of interviews, photographs, essays and artwork that spans the 50 plus years of graffiti and street art. From Takashi Murakami to the Beastie Boys, Guerrilla Girls to skateboarding, and subway cars and railway yards, this is an essential piece of the ever-growing and evolving world borne from the history of graffiti art. Get it here.
The Impact of Graffiti History
It is without a doubt that over the years, the history of graffiti has greatly impacted artists from all around the world. People have taken the works of graffiti and street art to embark on their own journey of self expression and creativity. Luckily these pieces of art have been documented throughout time, hence, our collection of top 15 graffiti books.
Today, graffiti art consists of a compilation of numerous inspirations and artistry taken throughout the history of graffiti art. In order to appreciate these street art books and the inventiveness of graffiti, we must first appreciate the starters of it all, and all the artists along the way that have paved the road for new artists to come to light.
For more graffiti and street art books, head to our BEYOND THE STREETS shop for more titles.