Letâ€™s face itâ€”the urban art world is co-opted more each day, with graffiti writers and street artists creating work for advertisements, participating in massive art fairs, and getting gallery representation. On one hand, books showcasing this scene can be viewed as part of the commercialization effort, making an illegal form acceptable to a wider population (for better or worse, depending who you ask). Yet they also serve as historical documents of this naturally ephemeral work, preserving rad outdoor art for future generations.
The past few years have seen a serious increase in the number of books covering urban art, providing a slew of ogle-worthy inspiration sources for aspiring artists and writers. In trying to piece together this top 10 list, I wanted to spotlight books dealing with really specific subjects in innovative ways. I also tried to give shine to a wide variety of publishers. Here they are in no particular order, since I was always bad at playing favorites:
Reproduce & Revolt: A Graphic Toolbox for the 21st Century Activist edited by Josh MacPhee and Faviana Rodriguez (Soft Skull)
This book not only provides a history of activist graphics and posters, it offers reproducible images readers can post up within their communities to spread political and social messages (no worries, copyright aficionadosâ€”all the artists have given permission). The work included covers issues from immigration to racism to globalization, and is especially relevant in the wake of the highly design-conscious Presidential election.
Keith Haring by Jeffrey Deitch and Julia Gruen; edited by Suzanne Geiss, with contributions by Kenny Scharf and George Condo (Rizzoli)
Published in conjunction with the Ten Commandments exhibition of Haringâ€™s interpretive paintings at Deitch Studios in New York, this ginormous monograph is surely the most comprehensive source of information on the artist to date. Photos of his early subway drawings are a major highlightâ€”they provide some historical context for contemporary street artists working underground like Poster Boy.
The Adventures of Darius and Downey & Other True Tales of Street Art as Told to Ed Zipco by Leon Reid IV, Brad Downey, and Ed Zipco, with an introduction by Swoon (Thames & Hudson)
This is a first (I think): a street art novel, chronicling the life and work of inimitable NYC duo Darius and Downey. Sure, it includes some cool images of the guys installing their signature pregnant stop signs, metal flowers and altered lampposts, but itâ€™s Ed Zipcoâ€™s firsthand account of their trials and tribulations that really slams it home. My personal favorite parts are their prolific trip to Europe, friendship with Swoon, and a description of their decaying Brooklyn apartment (damn Big Apple landlords).
Neo Utopia: The Art and Work of SuperBlast by Manuel Osterholt (Publikat/Gingko)
In this book, German graffitist-turned-graphic designer SuperBlast showcases his diverse work, which has appeared everywhere from the streets to Sony PSPs to t-shirts (for the likes of Upper Playground and Ecko). He started writing intricate graffiti under the name Komet in the late â€˜80s, and later began painting cryptic blue characters inspired by psychedelia and religious iconography on city walls. Also included are fonts he has created, a skill picked up after studying with master typographer Lucas de Groot (creator of the Thesis and Calibri font families, for all you nerds out there).
Written on the City: Graffiti Messages Worldwide by Axel Albin and Josh Kamler (How)
Peppered with wise adages like â€œless mortgage and more dance club,â€ this book focuses on actual writing that appears on streets all over the world, both beautiful and unsightly, profound and perverse. While not always the most aesthetically appealing, it is sometimes these raw messages that can pack the biggest punch.
Graffiti Coloring Book edited by Uzi (Dokument)
Ah, what a great way to give the kids an early start. This coloring book provides a sweet opportunity to better understand the exactitude of line and form that goes into putting graf pieces together, training new jacks in the ancient (and many would say, somewhat lost) art of the handstyle.
Urban Guerrilla Protest by Ake Rudolf (Mark Batty)
This book focuses on some of the worldâ€™s most clever and inspiring culture jammers. Covering the years 1995-2005, it includes everything from the Billboard Liberation Frontâ€™s hacked roadside signs to Reverend Billyâ€™s anti-consumerist street theater to the Institute for Applied Autonomyâ€™s graffiti writing robots. The authorâ€™s background as a graphic designer results in an unconventional and thoroughly awesome DIY-style layout.
Calma: The Art of Stephan Doitschinoff by Stephan Doitschinoff, edited by Robert Klanten and Hendrik Hellige (Gestalten)
Spending most of his life in large metropolises, Brazilian painter Stephan Doitschinoff decided to escape to the rural Bahia region and paint a ton of murals on walls and houses. This monograph truly does his intricate work justice, delving into his inspirations rooted in the convergence of religion and death, and printed on thick, tinted paper stock that is a perfect stylistic match.
Vandal Squad: Inside the New York City Transit Police Department, 1984-2004 by Joseph Rivera (powerHouse/Miss Rosen Editions)
Written by a former Vandal Squad officer, this book takes a look at NYCâ€™s tagger witch hunt over a ten year period. Riveraâ€™s spine-chilling tales of searching out prolific graf writers read like a real life game of cat and mouse. Also included are pieces by some of the most notorious taggers he chased after, as well as photos of scrawlings dissing the Squad.
Piecebook: The Secret Drawings of Graffiti Writers by Sacha Jenkins and David â€œChinoâ€ Villorente (Prestel)
Yep, Iâ€™m aware how tacky it is to include a book published by the company I work for on this list, but I honestly think itâ€™s that good. Piecebook is a collection of drawings from iconic NYC graf writersâ€™ blackbooks from the 1970s and 80s, which expose artistsâ€™ planning processes for getting up big on walls. The authors lovingly trudged across the 5 boroughs to gather images from the likes of Lady Pink, Daze and T-Kid, and the designers captured the authentic blackbook look via thick paper stock and a faux taped-up spine. Also, blank pages in the back allow readers to practice their own skills and trade tags with friends.
Founded in 1924, Prestel Publishing is one of the world’s leading publishers in the fields of art, architecture, photography, design, cultural history, and ethnography. In 2005 they began producing titles focused on urban art, including Brooklyn Street Art, Paris Street Art, The Birth of Graffiti, Brighton Graffiti and more. This Spring will see the publication of two new such titles, Miami Graffiti and San Francisco Street Art. The company is based in Munich and has offices in London and New York.
Ali Gitlow is Prestelâ€™s Publicist for the U.S.; she also writes about blippy electronic music and street art for XLR8R, BPM and Flavorpill.