The Henry Chalfant Interview Part 2
by Blake Reznik
How do you feel about your pioneering role of bringing graffiti art into the media and public eye?
My excitement in doing it was in part being able to show people something interesting, something new, something amazing happening and unfolding before our eyes. That was a major part of the excitement of doing it initially. Of course what happens is you become a part of the process that has an impact on the phenomenon youâ€™re watching in itself. The process of taking pictures of it, making films about it, doing a book on it, changed it. It changed it one by bringing it to people around the world, and spreading the culture around the world, but it also changed it from within. Peopleâ€™s motivation for doing it became different, it was being made available to people like art gallery people, through photography it was made available to the art world. Then people started painting canvases, it became something the art world could participate in, and that was a big change. You know, doing it for money, for a career or a profession was a very different way from the reasons writers were doing it, which was a more pure thing, not for the outside world, and not for money. It was all wrapped up in the adventure of it and the excitement and danger, and the fact that it was illegal; the aggressive sort of in-your-face quality of graffiti in its original form was changed when it became an art gallery thing. The whole culture which once really thrived or really lived around the whole process of watching what you did, hanging out watching the trains, learning by going bombing with an older writer, comparing notes, and critiquing what you saw, that all changed when photography allowed people to sit down and study it, and copy it. And when graffiti was no longer on the trains, photography completely replaced it. So to the extent that the impact of what I did was, I see as both positive and negative, in the sense that it was part of a process that ushered out the old way.
In relation to the hip-hop culture as a whole, what do you feel the cultural significance of these projects is?
These projects are mainly dealing with the graffiti aspect of it, of course there is breaking in Style Wars, we didnâ€™t deal with the music all that much. These projects provide an important look at the visual aspect of the movement. I think Style Wars was important for showing the Spirit of Hip-Hop, through the breaking scenes, through the striving of the writers, through the battle with the city. That recreates the kind of rebellious aspect of writing, which I see as one of the most important aspects of hip-hop. If you look at the battle scenes at (club) U.S.A. that really gives you a tremendous sense of the power of hip-hop in its original form, which was so competitive and was so much involved in a kind of battle between crews and individuals.
After you began the book, and writers realized that you were going to publish their artwork, did it become a problem for kids latching their hopes onto you?
Yes, that became a problem because people had expectations that werenâ€™t always met, and that caused some anger. The truth is itâ€™s very difficult to make a selection to do a book or a film, you do your best and make the selections, then the publisher comes along and says sorry youâ€™ve only got so many pages, so youâ€™re gonna have to cut half the photos out. So, that was really tough, and the result was a lot of people got left out and that did create some problems. I remember we had a screening of Style Wars when it first came out, and â€œWASPâ€ came up to me, and heâ€™s in the film, and he said â€œI donâ€™t like the way I was portrayed.â€ I said what do you mean, and he said, â€œyou know what I mean, I wonâ€™t do anything here in front of your friends, but if I catch you alone, Iâ€™m gonna fuck you up.â€ So naturally, I was nervous about that, Iâ€™d reached the age of 40 without ever having to defend myself, so I didnâ€™t know what to do. I knew I couldnâ€™t limit my freedom of movement expecting to be jumped by â€œWaspâ€ at any event, so I began studying Karate and I did that for 12 years, eventually achieving a black belt.
In what capacity are you still involved with graffiti?
Iâ€™m involved with the archive, the archive is something I make available to people who are doing projects and need to have photos. The last couple of years I was involved in several shows. We had a show at the Whitney Museum where we had a screening of Style Wars and a panel; I was also invited to display graffiti photographs, probably a first time showing of graffiti trains in a major museum. I was also involved in a show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. In addition we did a show at the Experience Music Museum in Seattle, they have quite a good selection of hip-hop history and memorabilia, lots of photos and videotapes of what was going on.
Do you think that graffiti today is as culturally viable as compared to when you initially undertook your work?
I think thatâ€™s in the eyes of the doer. I think whatâ€™s happened is that people have become jaded and rather used to it, so theyâ€™re in a position of not really seeing it anymore. But to the people who are still doing it and are into it it continues to evolve, itâ€™s still significant.
As someone who lives in New York City would you say thereâ€™s just as much graffiti today as there was say 20 years ago?
Thereâ€™s certainly as much street bombing, and thereâ€™s also the whole window-scratching scene. But to me thatâ€™s not as interesting because thereâ€™s no aesthetic component. Thatâ€™s what made the subway art so compelling, it was interesting and beautiful. You canâ€™t say the same for window-scratching. And I think street bombing in general thereâ€™s too much emphasis on just getting up, though there is some very interesting stuff too.
What is your overall opinion of graffiti today, as far as its evolution or style?
Well, I think that graffiti style as an International style is highly evolved from where it was before, a lot of it has lost the soul that I think it had in New York when it was rougher and perhaps not technologically so accomplished. Europe, Australia and California, places like that, have gone great lengths to take it to another level technically, but some of it leaves me very cold.
Did you ever consider the prospect of doing another book after Spraycan Art?
For a long time the publisher didnâ€™t want to do another book, and we didnâ€™t really see another way of doing it. At one time we did have the publisher interested in doing a â€œhow toâ€ book which we were going to work on with â€œLee.â€ However, the publisher got cold feet because they were getting flack for having produced the first two books, because they had caused a massive (graffiti) attack on England, so they took some of the blame for that, and the board of directors was against doing anything more. I may be interested in doing a memoir of my own work. But as far as doing books, everybodyâ€™s doing it, and thatâ€™s great at least the stuff is being documented.
What are you up to these days in relation to your own artwork?
Iâ€™m more involved in documentary and video. Right now, Iâ€™m working on a project that touches upon hip-hop; itâ€™s sort of a social history of the South Bronx through music, from the 1940â€™s through the 1970â€™s. Itâ€™s called â€œFrom Mambo to Hip-Hop.â€ Itâ€™s interesting that this area sort of nurtured both styles of music.
50 years from now, what would you want people to remember about your work?
I think that Iâ€™d like to have people see that itâ€™s a kind of praise to the human spirit, that in conditions which were the miserable conditions of urban America in the early 70â€™s, people were able to rise up and create something so incredible. As graffiti and the hip-hop movement as it was, as it became, I think that itâ€™s an amazing story, that out of the ashes of a ruined city and all the neglect, people were able to create something new and beautiful and in the process create a whole culture and create new paths of creativity for individual lives, which certainly didnâ€™t exist then.