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INTERVIEWS
Herbert Lottman
Interview by Prof. Gerald Early
GINGKO BOOKS:
Jean Holabird
Interview by Donna Wiemann
GINGKO BOOKS:
Jim & Karla Murray
Interview by Donna Wiemann
GINGKO BOOKS:
Kit Williams
Interview by Donna Wiemann
GINGKO BOOKS:
Rudy VanderLans
Interview by Antje Dohmann
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James & Karla Murray interieved by Donna Wiemann (page 1)
Murray: Broken Windows 1 DW: How did you first become interested in documenting graffiti and what was it that inspired the book Broken Windows?

KARLA: Photography is our life. We’re always shooting something. One day Jim showed a friend a photo we had taken of a piece of New York graffiti and he (the friend) was blown away. We were so taken aback by his response that we thought: Hey, we should photograph more of this! And we did. In the process we came to know many of the artists and they all liked the idea that we were photographing their work. Eventually we had enough material and a book seemed an obvious next step.

JIM: One of the most important drivers behind the book of course is preservation. By nature graffiti is a transitory art form, not only because it’s constantly changing and evolving but because it’s exposed to the elements and always under threat of removal. It’s crazy to think that probably around 80% of the works featured in Broken Windows no longer exist.

DW: 80% have been removed?

JIM: Unfortunately yes. Either removed officially or painted over by rivals but that’s just something that goes with the territory. Sometimes they are even painted over by the artists themselves.

DW: How did you arrive at the title, ‘Broken Windows?’

KARLA: ‘Broken Windows’ is the name given to a theory that was part of the Giuliani administration’s crackdown on graffiti and it has been taken over by Bloomberg. It was developed by a Harvard criminologist and is based on the idea, or belief, that one broken window in a building makes the building appear neglected and leads to more windows being broken. Those who subscribe to this theory believe that if graffiti is tolerated it indicates that people do not care about the community and leads to an increase in all forms of crime and ultimately to urban decay. Although to some people it may sound ironic, to convey our message that graffiti is an art form worthy of recognition and preservation, Broken Windows seemed to us the perfect title.

DW: So the ‘Broken Windows’ theory asserts that graffiti is vandalism, and not art?

JIM: Yes, categorically. In the book you'll find quotes from members of NYPD’s anti-graffiti scandal squad such as, “We don’t see graffiti as art, just property defacement.” Or, “I view the tag, throw-up and masterpiece as all one and the same...vandalism pure and simple...” What this means is that even though most opposition to graffiti is a reaction to unsightly tags and obscenities, true graffiti art falls victim as well.

KARLA: The penalty for those arrested used to be somewhere between $25 and $50. Now writing graffiti is by law a felony, so you can go to jail for it. What we want to show in the book is that many of these people, who are relentlessly chased and arrested by police, are artists driven by the passion to create. They want to create art for art’s sake.

Murray: Broken Windows 2 DW: What about the legal sites that have been established in New York?

JIM: They have a purpose but they will never replace illegal graff. Firstly, there simply aren’t enough of them; secondly most of the graff artists really believe that to keep their talent honed they have to work illegally. In order to create they need the rush of adrenalin and the risk.

DW: The Freedom Tunnel, which was closed to people by Amtrak in 1996, has become a chapter in graffiti folklore. What was its significance?

KARLA: Its significance was there were lots of long sections with good lighting coming from the grates overhead and many really excellent pieces were created down there. The most famous was probably the Coca Cola piece done by Freedom, who the tunnel was named after.

JIM: The tunnel was of social significance too. Many of the artists spent time there, not only painting, but talking with and making friends of the homeless people who had taken up residence down there. Some of these stories are told in the book. One of the artists who, together with Freedom, spent a lot of time down there was Sane. When Sane died in 1996 at the age of about 20, his brother Smith gave half of Sane’s ashes to Freedom. Freedom ultimately scattered them in front of what was probably the last mural painted down there.

DW: The text of Broken Windows delves deeply into the psyche of the graff artists who agreed to be interviewed for it. Given that they are probably quite a tight group how did you manage to get close to them?

KARLA: It took time. Graffiti culture is underground and secretive so we knew our approach had to be one of time, patience and building trust. We thought that the best way to succeed would be to meet with the artists in their own surroundings, deal with them on their own turf. At first we’d take a photo of a particular piece, seek out the artist, and show what we had done. Most were impressed, the word passed around and before long artists were approaching us and inviting us to photograph their work.

DW: So they are interested in having their work preserved.

JIM: Well, as mentioned earlier graffiti art falls victim not only to the authorities, but also to rival crews, particularly if the site is considered hot. Some works vanish within days of their creation. If an artist gets the word that a rival crew is planning to paint over his or her latest piece it’s not unusual for us to get a call asking that we photograph the work immediately, before it’s gone forever.

Murray: Broken Windows 3 DW: Speaking of sites how do you think the evolution of New York graffiti has been affected by the conversion of the subway trains to stainless steel which makes them no longer a suitable canvas for graff artists?

JIM: There’s no doubt that train painting was instrumental in graffiti art’s development. Some artists will tell you that conversion of the trains was devastating because the work they had been creating was meant to move. A few stopped writing altogether. The rest simply turned their talents to the streets and started to create bigger, more complex pieces on sites difficult to access and on the police beat.

KARLA: The trains may not be there anymore, or at least in terms of graffiti they’re not, but I think the edge and the rawness still exist, particularly in bombing. And there will always be bombing. To ‘get up’ an artist has to become known for bombing, tagging, throw-ups and piecing.

DW: Could you explain those terms?

KARLA: A tag is simply a writer’s name or signature; a throw-up is a quickly executed letter outline that is either block or bubble shaped; and bombing involves covering large amounts of illegal or risky territory with tags or throw-ups. Pieces on the other hand are large multicolor works that incorporate various techniques and styles — they offer more quality and innovation but they require precision timing and a lot of pre-planning.

JIM: Getting up is what all graff artists want to achieve. It means that your work is recognized and your name is established.

DW: Is graffiti art something that can be taught?

JIM: To a degree it is. Take the TATS CRU in the Bronx for example. The members are a group of friends who were bombing trains in the 80s but are now doing graff legally. They teach graffiti mural art at the Point Community Development Center a couple of times a month and they usually have around 20 to 30 kids attend. TATS CRU supply markers and paper and work with the kids on lettering and sketching

KARLA: TATS CRU have exhibited their work all over the world They’ve been commissioned by Coca Cola and have created memorial walls for rap artists — they are making a legal living out of the skills and talents they developed as illegal graffiti artists.

DW: Succeeding against the odds.

JIM: It certainly is, particularly if you consider that for a very long time their work met nothing but resistance.

Murray: Broken Windows 4 DW: I understand you had a lot of difficulty photographing some of the pieces featured in Broken Windows.

KARLA: We sure did. Because we wanted to present the works with seamless, clean shots but the best vantage-points always seemed to be obstructed by things like fire hydrants, parking meters, and parked cars. In some cases we went to pretty extreme lengths to get what we wanted — but it paid off.

DW: I guess the bigger walls posed the biggest challenges.

JIM: For the bigger walls we had to use composites made up of as many as 12 separate shots. It was a huge amount of work.

DW: How did the graffiti artists react to September 11?

JIM: Oh, they were very sensitive about it. A lot of walls were painted as memorials and with great reverence for the victims. They told us that because so much had been taken away they wanted to try and give something back.

KARLA: Apparently a lot of people stopped to comment as the artists worked on the 9/11 pieces and encouraged them to do more of them.

DW: Do you think it’s possible to convince the public to see graffiti as a positive art form?

KARLA: The purpose of this book is to show people graffiti’s awesome strength and to help them understand its underlying messages. Throughout history free forms of art have always had trouble being accepted. This gives me hope.

DW: What does the future hold?

JIM: It’s impossible to say. There is no doubt that graffiti has had a strong influence on other art forms and the media and it will continue to do so. Hip-hop borrows from graff all the time. Whatever the future holds I’m convinced graff’s place in art history is already well-established

KARLA: I think graffiti will continue to exist, but whether it will flourish or not, that remains to be seen. In Broken Windows a few of the artists have given us their views on the future. Perhaps therein lies the answer.

Interviewed by Donna Wiemann

Donna Wiemann is a freelance writer, translator and editor based in Sydney Australia. She has worked with Gingko Press for over twenty years and collaborated on projects that include Man Ray: Photography and its Double, Yiddishland, the Yesterday series, and most recently Urban Illustration Berlin. For Gingko Press she has interviewed Jim & Karla Murray, Jean Holabird and Kit Williams.

From 1995-1998 she headed SBS Telelvision’s (Australia’s multi cultural television channel) Subtitling and Translation Services division.

About the Authors/Photographers:
James & Karla Murray
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James & Karla Murray
James and Karla Murray are professional photographers and authors. Their bestselling and critically acclaimed book Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York as well as their graffiti publications Broken Windows, Burning New York, and Miami Graffiti have set the standard for urban documentation.
James and Karla Murray have lectured extensively on the plight of New York City’s mom and pop stores at venues including The New York Public Library, The Brooklyn Historical Society, The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Their Store Front photography has appeared in global publications including Saveur, Rolling Stone (Germany), Print Magazine, Stern, Lufthansa, Die Zeit, and Der Spiegel. They have exhibited their photographs at the New York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Historical Society, and their work is included in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the New York Public Library, and the Brooklyn Historical Society. They are represented by Clic Gallery in New York City, East Hampton NY, Cannes and St. Barthel­emy, FWI. They are also represented by Fotogalerie Im Blauen Haus in Munich, Germany. James and Karla live in New York City and Miami with their dog Hudson.
See also:

New York Nights NEW
New York Nights
James and Karla Murray have taken vivid photographs of an outstanding selection of bars & pubs, restaurants and cafes, music venues, and shops, all with historical significance and enduring after-dark aesthetics. more...

Mom & Popism NEW
Mom & Popism
New York City store fronts have never looked better. Photographers James and Karla Murray reinterpret the shops from their bestselling book Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York with the help of top street and graffiti artists. more...

Broken Windows: Graffiti NYC
Broken Windows: Graffiti NYC
The book documents the flowering of the graffiti movement of the post-train era. This newly revised 2010 edition has been completely redesigned with 70 more pages and many new photo­graphs from the era. more...

Burning New York
Burning New York
A companion volume to Broken Win­dows, Burning New York showcases the best large-scale graffiti pieces documented over a five year period from 2001 – 2006. more...

Store Front (mini Edition): The Disappearing Face of New York
Store Front (Mini Ed.): The Disappearing Face of New York
The Murrays’ brilliant documentation of New York’s irreplaceable, gen­er­a­tions-old storefronts has made head­lines all over the world. In the wake of gentrification, vital facets of New York’s cultural heritage are dis­ap­pear­ing at an alarming rate. more...

Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York
Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York
A visual guide to New York’s timeworn storefronts, a collection of powerful images that capture the neighborhood spirit. As the Murray’s stunning, large format photographs make patently clear, the face of New York is etched in their facades. more...