James Prigoff, born October 29, 1927, was an American photographer, author, lecturer, and well-known for his documentation of public murals, graffiti, and spray can art. He traveled extensively throughout the world documenting these forms of art, and his personal archive of 100,000 slides may well be the most comprehensive of any individual mural and graffiti documentarian.
Prigoff first photographed murals during his travels in Europe and Mexico in the sixties. It wasn’t until the early eighties Prigoff seriously recorded spray-can art. Some of Prigoff’s most important photos appear in the book he co-authored with photographer Henry Chalfant called Spraycan Art (Thames and Hudson, 1987).
James developed a sense of social consciousness early on in his life. He was a gifted child. At age 16, he was an Honorable Mention Westinghouse Science Talent Search Winner and was accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He wasn’t just a regular honor student, but he also took the time to do sports. He was an excellent track and field athlete, even receiving a “STRAIGHT T,” aware in his high school, which was the highest athletic award.
During his time in high school, he made it his life mission to work for world peace and social justice.
This fueled him into becoming the man that he is now. After graduating college, James worked in the corporate world for a while, and he became an excellent employee. Genesco employed him for two years before being recruited as Executive Vice-President of Rosenau Bros. He was later recruited to be President of the Sportco Division of US Industries in the 1970s. And in 1975, he was recruited to become Senior Vice President of the Sara Lee Corporation in Chicago. It seems he was an exceptional person all-around with a promising career in whichever industry he chooses.
His interest in public murals and graffiti started when he attended a slideshow of mural art in the 1970s. The slideshow intrigued him, which jump-started his journey on documenting graffiti art all over the world. Over the past decades, he dedicated his time and effort to documenting the “Graffiti Art Movement,” which was the most important art development in the past 50 years.
The Graffiti Art Movement started by youth with no formal training, intrigued James more.
James found outdoor murals very compelling as they are fleeting art; there is no guarantee how long it will be there. Therefore, photographs of street art and graffiti are important in preserving these types of art forms.
His work has become vital for researchers in examining the roots and evolution of the art. The photographs he took became an important reference in this study.
Photographing and documenting street art became a huge part of his career and his life. He was intrigued by how graffiti constantly evolves over the years. He observed how subway art started to appear “above ground” and wanted to see how it had spread across the country.
Included in Prigoff’s vast collection are significant works by artists LEE Quinones (NYC), SEEN (NYC), MODE 2 (France), BANDO (France), SHOE and DELTA (Amsterdam), DZINE (Chicago), TWIST (San Francisco), Rough, STYLO, and PART 2 (England), LOOMIT (Germany), DREAM (RIP-Oakland), HEX and SLICK (Los Angeles) and DIZNEY (San Francisco and Harlem, NYC) and many others.
James documented, studied, and lectured people about public murals, graffiti, and spray paint art throughout his life. His photographs have been exhibited countless times.
Due to his increasing interest in studying the development of graffiti art, James contacted his longtime friend Henry Chalfant and asked him to join him in his journey of tracking the art form across the world. In 1987, the duo produced the book “Spraycan Art” which sold over 250,000 copies and is now considered one of the seminal books in the study of modern-day graffiti.
Later on in his life, James was also able to contribute and co-author several books involving graffiti, such as “Painting the Towns – Murals of California” and “Walls of Heritage – Walls of Pride – History of African American Murals.”
James’ contribution to the graffiti community became a major force in giving dignity and credibility to an art form that was considered “vandalism,” and the Estria Foundation recognized his achievement. In April 2012, the Estria Foundation honored Prigoff, along with Judy Baca and Kent Twitchell, with “Urban Legend.”
Conclusion: Food For Thought
James Prigoff signed all of his emails with one word in Spanish: “Paz.” which means “Peace.”
It was deliberate, intentional, and with that one word, he created a tag for himself that spoke to his commitment to peace on the street and across the world. Looking over his decades of dedication to exploring and documenting, one sees a sincere commitment to understanding and identifying with other cultures and embracing others as brothers and sisters.