Back in the Days, Cause We Got Style, From the Platform, and Bay Area Graffiti, Reviewed

Jamel Shabazz’s books Back in the Days and A Time Before Crack, full of informal street portraits of his fellow New Yorkers in the early and mid 1980s, caught hip-hop’s style and fashion in all its fun and simplicity. The shots from Brooklyn and Uptown high schools, shopping spots and subway cars and platforms show the fun of a fashion sense that was in the process of running world-wide. The Adidas shell toes, Puma Clydes, Cazal eyewear, name belt buckles, and other hip-hop eternals are throughout, as well as the short shorts and men’s mesh shirts that did not last so long. PowerHouse Books has recently released a ten-year anniversary edition (a remix) of Back in the Days featuring a new edit of the original photos in a cloth binding. Across the Atlantic, hip-hop had taken hold by 1984.

Breakdancing and graffiti were springing up from England to Finland, and the fashion sense that accompanied it—sometimes hilariously off from the original New York template—is on display in Swedish publisher Dokument Press‘ Cause We Got Style. Unlike the Shabazz books, Cause We Got Style is a compilation of photos solicited from the graffiti writers and b-boys they depict. They’re more home-spun and rarely professional, but of course, that’s not the point. The fun is in seeing the early days of the European hip-hop movement, one that, at least in terms of graffiti, has given legs to the art form at many times when New York’s was barely holding on. From the 1986 cover image of German graffiti master Can 2 pairing a Cosby sweater with a fur hat, complete with tail, along with Cazals (or reasonable approximation) one can tell that it’s all in good fun. New York – Paris bicontinental kid Bando set the style template for Europe in graffiti, but he’s probably moved on from the fashion he wore in his 1986 portrait, taken in the Stalingrad vacant lot where he made many of his masterworks with others like Mauritius-born Mode 2 (also featured in the book, though looking spot-on.)

Two other new releases reached me recently: Paul Cavalieri’s From the Platform: Subway Graffiti 1983-1989 (Schiffer Books) and SFaustina and Jocelyn Superstar’s Bay Area Graffiti: ’80s-’90s Early Bombing (Mark Batty Publisher). Cavalieri began writing CAVS in the 1980s, and with his brothers KEY and MKAY and neighbor SENTO rode the New York City trains out until they became graffiti-free in 1989. The brothers came from 238th St in the north Bronx, which afforded easy access to the 2 and 5 lines, historically the favorites among the best of the best due to running elevated through much of the Bronx and Brooklyn. CAVS and KEY began to take pictures of the rolling trains as skinny teenagers, often at platforms in tough parts of town like Tremont Avenue. Many graffiti writers took photos of trains, but few were as diligent as CAVS and his brothers. In the years since, it became a part of a pilgrimage to New York for many out-of-town graffiti writers to look up CAVS and hope to get a glimpse at his fifteen albums of painted subway trains. They weren’t professional photographers, but over time they got shots no one else did, and a lot of them. CAVS has now assembled these images in From the Platform, a valuable contribution to graffiti’s history bookshelf.

With its focus across the country, Bay Area Graffiti ’80s-’90s: early bombing attempts a difficult task, a book about the least pretty aspects of graffiti, aspects that rely heavily on ubiquity and location to be effective. Ubiquity and location, of course, are hard to get across in a book. Many of the Bay’s under-the-radar local stars feature prominently, including an interview with Baltimore-Bay Area pioneer CUBA and a tribute to TIE, who was killed in action in 1998.

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