LIFE.com Graffiti Legends: Faces Behind Tags

cuba

Cuba - Baltimore circa 1985

The Pioneers of Graffiti: Yesterday and Today

In the eyes of the law, they were simply vandals, their nicknames writ large and garish across train cars, on lampposts, over tantalizingly bare walls. But in the past few years, as the form has morphed into the increasingly popular style known as street art (think Banksy and Shepard Fairey), the original graffiti writers — some of them deep into their 40s and looking more like your cool uncle than the scrappy city kids they once were — are coming into the spotlight as respected forefathers. Many of them make appearances in the April 2011 book The History of American Graffiti by Roger Gastman, who also recently curated a wildly successful, three-and-a-half-month exhibit, Art in the Streets, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Coinciding with the book and the museum show, LIFE.com editor-at-large Jeff Vespa — who spent some of his own youth tagging up Baltimore (see last slide) — caught up with “TAKI 183,” “Risk,” “Cuba,” “Mike 171,” and other graffiti pioneers. In this gallery, LIFE.com presents rare images of their tags from the ’70s and ’80s, plus Vespa’s new portraits of the artists today. Pictured: work by Cuba, who, Gastman says, brought a New York City-style of writing to San Francisco in the early 1980s. Check out the full gallery on LIFE.com