Inside Southwest

The following is the second in a series of articles written by photographer Tom Stoye about a variety of aspects of his experiences and observations while documenting graffiti art in Detroit.

By Tom Stoye

The graffiti writer’s black book is similar in outward appearance to an artist’s sketchbook. Both come off the shelves of a local art supply store, and both contain empty white pages ready to be filled with whatever medium the artist see’s fit. However, similarities dim when considering the social significance of the black book, because of its undeniable connection to an art movement that many perceive as an unwanted public nuisance.

Both the graffiti writer and the artist use their (black/sketch) book as a template for future endeavors. But, for the graffiti writer, the transition is a greater leap of faith weighted by the performance of painting illegally: a deliberate action working in stark opposition to the gallery/museum system where the artist’s creation is a commodity.

The blueprint for a painted wall often begins with a black book sketch or drawing. Disciplined writers work out problems ahead of time by experimenting with style and letterforms. Once perfected, they are better prepared to execute a piece, when they paint for real in the middle of the night, where time and efficiency are paramount to getting in and out of a spot as quickly as possible.

Black book drawings are also an important component of the social fabric that exists between writers who hang out together (aka graffiti crews). Central to their gatherings are “black book sessions” where groups of writers congregate in order to draw together. Look at any writer’s black book, and you’ll likely see a collection of tags and drawings from a multitude of talented writers, co-existing with personal sketches from the original owner. Some are so well travelled, the original owner loses track of their whereabouts. Serious graffiti writers will often set aside a personal black book not meant for communal use, but this is usually the exception to the rule. Almost any black book, no matter how personal, has a smattering of tags and sketches from other writers.

In contrast, the creative process of conventional art is usually carried out in solitude. Like-minded artists might open up their sketchbooks for other artists to look at, or draw with artists who hang out in their social circles, but seldom do they offer up their sketchbooks for community use. This is not to say that it doesn’t take place, but it's not as deeply rooted in the culture as it is in graffiti circles.

When writers shift their creative energies from the black book page to the street, a completely different mindset is required in order to make the change from marker pen to paint can. The congenial atmosphere associated with black book art is replaced by the fearless bravado reserved for “getting up.” For some, the transformation from one to the other is a balancing act that doesn’t always equate to universal success in both disciplines. For writers completely dedicated to attaining “king” status as a graffiti writer, mastering both is the ultimate end game.

While it is a well guarded, and highly personal possession for any writer dedicated to his or her craft, it also serves as a bridge between the delicate egos of individual writers. Considering the overall territorial and competitive nature of street art, the black book is a welcome reprieve from the complexities and negative attributes often associated with graffiti art.

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