The On the Run Artists Series, Reviewed

Posted inDesign Books

Before graffiti found its way onto the Internet, it made its way around the global community via fanzines and old-fashioned pen-pal photo swaps, and On the Run was one of the first. It was based in Germany but always had an international bent; by the 1990s, the publication had shifted focus to create single-artist paperback books of artists like Copenhagen’s BATES, Germany’s JEPSY, and New York City’s SEEN—all now out of print and quite expensive.

It may not seem like that novel of a concept, but at that time, you could fit every book about graffiti ever printed into a small backpack—and all of those books were surveys. These early monographs were a necessary step: Graffiti is of course made by individuals with their own styles and aesthetics, just like any other art form. But it’s a bit of a closed system, and getting to that level of understanding is tough, even for curious outsiders, who may only have an idea that they like or don’t like graffiti in general. Or they may only know the work of particular artists when they drop lettering as the focus of their work and cross over into more outsider-friendly output, as in the case of someone like Banksy.

The current incarnation of the On the Run series expands from artist monographs to include graffiti sketchbooks, tattooists, and artist-driven projects, but the monographs—including those from artists PART, SENTO, JEPSY, SMASH 137, SABE, GHOST, LOGAN, and with FAITH 47 and the MOAS crew still to come—still feel to me like the most special and important of the series. First off is PART, a quiet East Harlem legend who is one of the most important and under-appreciated writers from the 1970s, and who made the move to painting walls in the 1980s and has never stopped. When you see a big, colorful piece in the street with wild and complex lettering, there’s a good chance that it owes a tip of the hat to PART, who largely shaped what we now come to think of as “graffiti style” lettering.

At a time when only a very few adults with spiffy cameras were documenting the rolling subway murals, subway writers documented what they saw with inexpensive point and shoots of the day, and the collection of images assembled here in PART’s book is no small feat of research—finding a single image of a certain PART piece might entail visiting an old-timer far on the other side of town who had a single 3×5 print of a piece from the 1970s, shot on an old Instamatic with expired, shoplifted film, processed in a stand in a parking lot—and somehow survived in an old shoebox until today. The On the Run series isn’t a high-budget or high-design affair, but it’s such important work in digging up and assembling the works of people like PART that it doesn’t really matter. Seeing all of the man’s work together is a rare treat, and there’s nowhere else you can do it.

Another star in the series is the Bronx’s SENTO, who got his start in graffiti in the early 1980s, ten years after PART. Graffiti writers in the know, however, heap superlatives on this guy, and with good reason. He is notoriously quiet and elusive—he hadn’t really ever given an interview beyond a few quotes prior to this book—and his work is scattered throughout the world. One of SENTO’s international painting partners, Copenhagen’s SABE, is a more recent On the Run release. A writer who got rolling in the late 1980s, SABE has an incredible versatility and output that makes him one of the great writers of the past twenty years, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down, either.

Upcoming On the Run books will feature South African artist FAITH 47, who makes poignant, accessible work addressing broad social issues in Cape Town and beyond, and Copenhagen’s MOAS (MONSTERS OF ART) crew, a self-described gang-like crew of train painters who have kept Copehagen’s train system painted for decades. I’m looking forward to both.