For this list of top 10 street art books, "Writing on the Wall" defers to Professor Street Art, G. James Daichendt, author of Shepard Fairey Inc. Artist/Professional/Vandal and Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art. Thinking beyond books that came out in 2013, in this guest editorial, Daichendt's selections date back to 1973.
By G. James Daichendt
The explosion of street art books is certainly a good indicator of the popularity of the movement, but it also speaks to the importance of documentation, scholarship, and the relevance of this phenomenon. Since the initial introduction of the term "street art" in 1985 -- when Allan Schwartzman's used it in his text "Street Art (New York: Doubleday)," to describe a new type of graffiti -- there have been hundreds of publications that address this art form, from picture books to academic accounts. Each serves a role by peeling back a few layers of this genre for better understanding and appreciation.
In "The Art Prophets" (2011, Other Press), Richard Polsky reminds us that initially, in the 1970s and '80s, street artists were considered just a passing fad. It was Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat who borrowed a particular graffiti aesthetic in creating what is now considered the earliest examples of street art. Each wrestled with commercialism and the role of the professional art world in relation to their art. When Haring (1990) and Basquiat (1988) died, many thought street art would as well.
To the contrary, it has flourished with a new generation of artists.
From impressive newcomers like Rafael Schacter's "The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti" (2013) to classics like "Spraycan Art" (1987) by Henry Chafant and James Prigoff, the development of street art, as a distinct genre of art with a rich history of literature, is the inspiration for this list. There are a lot great books, and it's a tough list to create. As an academic and writer, my view is slanted, but the following ten books should make a welcome addition to any street art aficionado's bookshelf this holiday season.
10. Bomb the Suburbs by William Upski Wimsatt (1994, Soft Skull Press)
Wimsatt's small text was recommended while I was researching my own book "Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art." Addressing the early culture of hip-hop and graffiti and how it's viewed and misunderstood by different races, the author does an excellent job with these cultural happenings, along with juicy topics like the suburban view of the "ghetto." Not your typical art book, it is mainly text and the assortment of essays are politically charged, which gives a lot of food for thought about a movement that is centralized in urban areas.
9. Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography by John Gruen (1992, Fireside)
As a high school student, this was the first book that I read on this subject of street art. Although I had no idea what this movement meant, it immediately stuck me as something incredibly relevant and accessible. Gruen's take is essentially a collection of first person accounts that weave together Haring's story as a young man, until his eventual death at the age of 31. The text is equally inspiring and heartbreaking, an intimate view that was helpful to me as a writer, but also enjoyable as a fan.
8. Wall and Piece by Banksy (2007, Random House)
It's hard not to list the book that has become a mascot for the retail giant Urban Outfitters. The wit of the UK street artist is evident in the sparse text, but is pretty shallow when it comes to any real conceptual depth. But isn't that what we expect from street art? Banksy's coy humor constantly has you guessing, which makes this picture book, featuring some of his most memorable work, worthy of a top ten list.
7. OBEY Supply and Demand: The Art of Shepard Fairey (2006, Gingko Press)
A huge and menacing compilation dedicated to Shepard Fairey, it's the largest collection of images that focus on this artist. For the more enthusiastic posse member, there is a selection of articles curated by Fairey that are useful for understanding his views on appropriation and the history of his imagery. A must for Obey fans -- the price tag is a bit high but the content is very good.
6. Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution by Cedar Lewisohn (2008, Abrams)
Published in conjunction with Britain's Tate Museum, the mix of interviews and analysis provides a solid basis for providing some context for the origins of street art. From cave paintings to today's streets, this text is an excellent primer for the movement.
5. Art in the Streets by Jeffrey Deitch, Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose (2011, Rizzoli)
The catalog, named after the blockbuster exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is perhaps Jeffrey Deitch's greatest contribution in his short tenure as director. A menagerie of text, images, and layouts, the organization is not the best, but the content introduces major players, and a New York-centric history that is quite strong -- even if it doesn't correspond well with the experience of the original museum show.
4. Beautiful Losers by Aaron Rose (2005, D.A.P./Iconoclast)
Part of the culture that influenced and permeates street art is based in skateboarding, D.I.Y. aesthetics, and punk rock. The counterculture dialogue and story is represented in Beautiful Losers, which is also the name of a corresponding documentary and exhibition. Essentially the story of how outsiders became insiders, it's refreshing and surprising that the new normal includes so many of the artists featured.
3. The Faith of Graffiti by Norman Mailer (It Books, 1973)
One of the books that started it all, it's an early look at the birth of graffiti. While it may not be street art officially, the honest look at this new art form by Mailer is inspiring. Liking graffiti artists to the history of art, the naïve but iconic reflection is a quick read and functions like a time capsule from the early 1970s.
2. Adventures of Darius and Downey by Leon Reid and Brad Downey (Thames and Hudson, 2008)
A narrative romp from Leon Reid IV and Brad Downey's roles as graffiti writers to full blown street artists, this book offers story after story of broken relationships, politics, and incredible risks. The text (with few images) offers a realistic and harsh view of the streets, for artists that aim to climb the mountain of respect that is all too common in this field. Filled with Darius and Downey's most memorable adventures, it's as close as you can get as a spectator to the subversive tactics of these artists.
1. Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant (1984, Holt Paperbacks)
While it's not street art per se, this is constantly cited as the most significant text for those involved in graffiti and street art. The photography steals the show, and it's complemented by some facts and history. The importance of this text, on so many involved with graffiti and street art, speaks volumes for its place in history. While it may not be at the top of the list for the causal fan, it's a way to turn the clock back and view of the genre's origins.
Top: "The Adventures of Darius and Downey" by Thames and Hudson. Photo: eko/Flickr/Creative Commons.