What do you get when you give thirteen graffiti artists from all around the world (Aroe, C.B.S, Dumbo, Honet, Kegr, O’Clock, Os Cururus, Rate, Remio, Rocky, Scan, Smash, The E.R.S) a Polaroid camera and ten packs of film? The answer is Like Lipstick Traces (published by Dokument Press) and it’s far from being a graffiti book as you may expect. I’m sure that this could be one of the reasons that it’s managed to creep under the graffiti-news radar since its official release in June this year. It’s been compiled as an unofficial addition to Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, where Greil investigates the Protest Culture that lead to many of the 20th Century’s artistic movements. Graffiti wasn’t included in his book so that’s where Like Lipstick Traces jumps in to smuggle in and extra chapter.
Now, I’ve not read Greil Marcus’s book but what is instantly recognisable is the human, and outsider nature of Like Lipstick Traces; It plays out very much like a collection of family photo albums. These aren’t like the kind that you grandma shows you when you go around though… not unless you nan’s a graffiti writer that is! One thing that these images do have in common with your grandma’s photo album though is that the images have that old feel about them; lovely Polaroids. Muted colours and all a little under-exposed and soft focuses rule the day and because these photos have been taken by writers (it’s easier to call them this rather than photographers) from all around the world, there’s little to actually put a cultural date-stamp on them, which is really great.
What’s also noticeable is that these images are not like any that you’re likely to have seen in a book published by a highly respected publisher before. Now, I hope this doesn’t come across as disrespectful to the writers but I don’t feel that the majority of images included in this book to have been taken to be artistic images; at least, not in the orthodox photography sense. What I mean is that photos in a photography book are normally artistic for the photographs’ sake and these images are more like snapshots and are purely as documents of events that have passed by the writers’ lenses. That’s why it feels easier to say that the writers took them rather than the photographers. However, there are some beautifully artistic moments in the book and if you get a copy yourself you’ll know exactly what I mean as you stumble across them.
Because of their snapshot nature, you are forced to look at them in a completely new way than what you are used to – well, new compared to looking in other photography books. I’m almost tempted to stop thinking of Like Lipstick Traces in this way actually – although I can’t think of a good alternative! What I can say is that it’s more or less impossible to tell you about the photos in this book because every single one is different from the last. There are family photos (writers’ kids to their extended families), friends, architecture, trains, guns, cuts, partying, sun, the sea, the city, parks, bedrooms, bikes, cars, vans, food, drink, signs, religious iconography, dogs, chickens, skulls, money, tattoos, shadows, silhouettes, girls, tramps, paint and much more… there’s even some graffiti! It’s a massive collection of ingredients but altogether equals something fairly simple really; friendship. I hate to cheapen it by an over-simplification but if you look though my photos you see things and not people. In these photos, there’s a real emphasis on people, which makes each of these collections very warm.
And in a way, you learn a lot about the individuals and this helps with understanding the lives, goals and aspirations. You see, they aren’t like the rest of us, no matter how outside most of us outsiders consider ourselves to be. Writers are a unique breed. What they do forces themselves into places that the rest of would consider corners. For the writers though, there’s always an exit, even if it means creating one or forcing your way through it. So, the places that the writers frequent and the things that they do aren’t always the same as that of the rest of us. Just the nature of being a writer means that many of them are travellers. Un-written codes mean that where the rest of would struggle to just turn up in another country and find somewhere to stay, a writer may be privileged to many a floor to crash on and this is another aspect that makes the photos from individual photographers interesting. They are not all necessarily taken from the same old places because when they travel, the camera travels with them.
The last thing of note, for me, is that even though these writers were given cameras and film for photo to be used specifically for this book, you never really get the impression that they followed through on this task. It’s best this way I think. They are freer than they would have been for those invisible restraints and could well have ended up with a much more sterile presentation. In seeing life through the lenses of the writers’ Polaroid cameras we are privileged to see their lives, albeit the parts of it that they would like to share but an intimate collection nonetheless. Like Lipstick Traces weighs in at 226 beautifully lo-fi pages and is a hardcover edition of just 2000 capies. Get a copy direct from Dokument or from all the usual places including AmazonUK