Start watching
Tending Nature show poster

Tending Nature

Start watching

Southland Sessions

Start watching

Earth Focus

Start watching

Reporter Roundup

Start watching

City Rising

Start watching

Lost LA

Start watching
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement and Special Events teams.

A Mural Chat with an 'Urban Legend'

"I love the HOW/NOSM in the Arts District. Unbelievable work with a spray can" Said Prigoff | © Jim Prigoff 2011

James Prigoff is the prolific author, photographer, and lecturer on murals, whose work began in the 1960s and then included graffiti during its early stages in the 1970s. As co-author of "Spray Can Art" (1987) with Henry Chalfant, "Painting the Towns: Murals of California" (1997) with Robin Dunitz, and "Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride: History of African American Murals" (2000) with Robin Dunitz, Floyd Coleman, and Michael Harris, his documentation is credited in influencing the global graffiti movement. He along with Judy Baca and Kent Twitchell has been bestowed by the Estria Foundation with the award of "Urban Legend" in 2012, citing that he is "considered one of the major forces in giving dignity and credibility to an art form that once was considered to be vandalism."

Ed Fuentes: As an observer of traditional murals and graffiti in Los Angeles, what changes have you seen since 1984's Olympics Art Program?

James Prigoff: The '70s and '80s were years of mural painting in L.A. with strong social content. As the city cut back on its funding and respect for public art production, fewer murals were produced. Mainly unfunded graffiti artists filled the gap. Their art was a political statement by its very nature, but content fell far short. Artists like Hector Ponce continued to be the voice of the people but were often silenced by the city fathers.

Other than being exhibited in a gallery specific to graffiti art, the last decade has seen more fine art galleries exhibit aerosol art. Which brings me to the question, can a mural, whichever style is used, be fine art if it's funded by corporate sponsorship?

However you describe "fine art," I doubt that the quality has anything to do with who sponsors it. Chances are that it would not be so classified. Is "fine art" defined by being something one would pay a lot of money for?

Remember that The Impressionists didn't paint "well enough" to show in the big Paris shows and had to have shows of their own down the street. How did their work become "fine art"?

Let me elaborate a bit. The term "fine art" probably comes from the Renaissance when the artists of the time wanted to distinguish themselves from the crafts people. Rather than creating repetitive crafts, they sought to define their work in terms of individual creativity, harkening back perhaps to the great Roman and Greek sculptures.

Are Malaquias Montoya's great political screen prints "fine art?" They are just fine for me. So for me the goal is not to achieve the status of "fine artist," but to create art that which is meaningful, attractive, challenging, etcetera.

Spraycan portrait of James Prigoff by Dizney, aka Brett Cook
Spraycan portrait of James Prigoff by Dizney, aka Brett Cook

Would it help graffiti reach a more mature artistic stage?

I would take exception to that: "Reach a more artistic stage," your opinion, not mine. They are pretty mature.

Then what can Los Angeles teach the mural, street art, and graffiti world?

Los Angeles has always been at the center of the public art world. At one time it rightfully could call itself the "mural capital of the world," having some 1,500 or more murals. That title has long since moved to Philadelphia with over 3,000 major murals to their credit.

But L.A. always had a core of outstanding muralists and graffiti artists, whose work mentored artists from all over the planet. It has always been a place to paint and a place to visit. SPARC, in Venice, is probably the most unique public art center that exists in the country. Its high standards and ethics have allowed it to be a champion of social and political responsibility.

''This is the BLADE N.Y. wall at Art in the Streets, his great musical notes train from the 1970s'' says Prigoff in this 2011 photo with BLADE and his wife Portia | © Jim Prigoff 2011
''This is the BLADE N.Y. wall at Art in the Streets, his great musical notes train from the 1970s'' says Prigoff in this 2011 photo with BLADE and his wife Portia | © Jim Prigoff 2011

And what can Los Angeles learn from the global reach from all forms of street art, otherwise known as Urban Art?

History is composed of many different forms of art interpretation. The most important art movement of the last 40 years is the graffiti art movement, founded by mostly untrained youth. It starts as tags, moves to throw-ups and bubble letters, morphs into pieces with color, elaborate name and character structure, and becomes labeled as street art. And its imagery changes and artists begin to travel around the world.

The current stage is now termed Urban Art. Within all these frameworks, there still exists each of the phases just mentioned. Understanding this conceptually would help L.A. its approach to public art.

I see contemporary street art, wheat-pastes and such, stunning abstractions. Does that carry merit in the mural tradition, or does it miss something by not having social narrative, as seen in traditional murals, as was done by SPARC?

What you describe runs the gamut of experience. Social context is very important to me, but not for everyone. As a very political person, I was first attracted to documenting murals, and then graffiti, because it was a relevant response to the time we lived in. I have served on the board of SPARC since the early 1980s, specifically because of what their name stands for: Social and Political Art Resource Center, aka S.P.A.R.C.

Is seeing a mural in person a complete experience for you?

Looking at a piece of art is rarely a one-time experience. Having a photograph enables one to look at the image many times.

So seeing it as a photograph adds layers of meaning?

I have actually found things in complex murals that I had not noticed when I took the picture 20 years previously. In the case of graffiti art, most of the images came and went rapidly. The only evidence that it existed is the photograph.

Is there a mural that is gone, or whitewashed, that you consider a great loss?

Kent Twitchell's grandmother on the 101 Freeway. Another was outside of Los Angeles, the mural that started the modern art movement, "The Wall of Respect" in Chicago.

Since you are on the SPARC board, how does one resolve graffiti artists, specifically taggers, marking up works by Judy Baca, SPARC, and others?

SPARC was very supportive of the graff artists. Note their parking lot, which had many version of images, and the support of some very large walls mainly painted by Nuke and Duke.

Tagging over murals and attractive graff pieces is just part of the culture. Put your tag on a piece done by a known writer and when pictures are taken, your name rides along in the photo. Not a happy part of the scene, but one that SPARC had to deal with like anyone else. A good example was Judy [Baca]'s 101 Freeway Woman's Mural, that was badly tagged, as well as the Kent Twitchell murals.

Another thought. There is a category called "Human Beings." Hardly monolithic. Immediately one can separate men and woman roughly dividing the species in half. Then there are endless ways to break the species down. Economic, educational, ad infinitum. Then there is political persuasion; those that belong to skin head or patriot groups; those who spend their lives in the struggle for Peace and Social Justice. So it is evident that you don't want to lump everyone on earth into just one category. Same with graffiti. There are destructive bombers, ordinary taggers, neophyte writers, proficient artists, Kings and Queens of the art form, and superstars.

What do you hope the mural policy can do to increase graffiti works?

I don't have an answer to that.

One area where LA has taken a leadership role is in the refurbishing of important murals. Outdoor murals have a limited life depending on many factors. An important one is wind and sun exposure. LA, through the Mural Conservancy and SPARC, have responded to the need to help to save many important art pieces.

ARYZ from London and David Choe from L.A. combined to create this image<br /> at 7th and Mateo | © Jim Prigoff 2013
ARYZ from London and David Choe from L.A. combined to create this image at 7th and Mateo | © Jim Prigoff 2013
''Around East Third Street is a major L.A. mural center'' says Prigoff | © Jim Prigoff 2011
''Around East Third Street is a major L.A. mural center'' says Prigoff | © Jim Prigoff 2011

Support Provided By
Support Provided By
Read More
Chiqui Diaz at work advocating to end social isolation | Courtesy of Chiqui Diaz

Youth Leaders Making a Difference Honored by The California Endowment

The Youth Awards was created in 2018 to recognize the impact youth voices have in creating change throughout California. Learn more about the positive work they're accomplishing throughout the state.
A 2011 crime scene in Tulare County, where one of Jose Martinez's victims was found. | Courtesy of Marion County Sherff’s Office via FOIA/Buzzfeed

California's Unincorporated Places Can Be Poor, Powerless — and the Perfect Place to Commit Murder

It's time to do better by communities that don’t even have local police to call, let alone defund.
Protesters confront police outside the 3rd Police Precinct on May 27, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota after the George Floyd killing | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In California, A History of Young, Powerful Voices in Journalism Emerge

In the Golden State, the youth have a long history of storytelling that uncovers little-heard narratives.