Exclusive Interview: Caleb Neelon Pt 2 – The 12ozProphet Years
This post is the second of a three-part interview with Caleb Neelon. The first part is about him as an artist and the second and third parts are about him as an author.
Artist Caleb Neelon, co-author of The History of American Graffiti and many other books on graffiti, has a solo show up now just north of Boston in Beverly, Massachusetts. In the nineties, he went by the tag Sonik and wrote the text for the later influential issues of 12ozProphet when it was a magazine.
His solo show, Victory Garden, is on display in the Center for the Arts at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts from January 20th through March 16th. The show was hung and the doors opened mid-January, but they decided to save the festivities for Tuesday, March 6th, which will coincide with the unveiling of his installation and a lecture he will be giving. The installation is being painted and built on site during his residency at the college from February 27th through March 6th. If you are near the Boston area in the next two weeks, definitely drop by to be immersed in the unique world of Caleb Neelon. If not, check out the works from the show and more in the 12ozProphet exclusive preview of the installation, or Caleb’s website and Facebook page.
Caleb is one of my top favorite “writers” in both meanings of the word. As a graffiti writer he has a primitive, child-like style that is raw and brave, developed in the nineties within a sub-culture of slick letterforms and tight illustration. As an author he is a precise and visionary word-craftsman, who can channel the idiosyncratic language, feelings and personality of whoever he is working with or the subject he is researching. He has painted so many great pieces with so many great artists and written so many great books, it’s a breathtaking landscape of images and words. He is an important figure now and also in the history of graffiti. This three-part interview is a good introduction if you don’t know much about him yet.
Like painting, Caleb was also encouraged and supported by his family to explore writing. Both his parents were writers, so an appreciation of the written word permeated his daily life. As he grew up, literature and writing became the focus of his education and was acceptable as a viable way to make a living. Painting, on the other hand, developed almost as a form of “Outsider Art” without extended, concentrated academic study. It’s almost as if these two creative trajectories, which developed concurrently throughout his life, were two different parts of one personality. Writing became a refined, polished, professional voice for his highly educated critical and theoretical instinct and intellect, whereas painting remained a child-like, poetic, personal voice.
So, writing developed as a rational tool for that part of him which was becoming a professional adult, who had to answer to the strenuous and exacting demands placed on him by the ivy league academic institutions he attended; Whereas painting reveled in an untethered freedom that remained unrestrained and uncontrolled developing outside of conventions that most artists aspire to. Luckily, he also focused those skills as an author within the graffiti community becoming a proponent of the cause. He seemed to be born with an ability to channel and express the id of the culture in text, as well as telling it’s history in the form of well researched and clearly written tomes.
Beginning in high school, Caleb wrote for the school magazine and read a lot of printed matter, including graffiti magazines such as International Graffiti Times (IGT) and Skills. After high school he spent a year at NYU in 1994-95, but then at age nineteen transferred to Brown University in Rhode Island where he studied literature. Concurrently with his studies at NYU and Brown, Caleb was also developing his style as a graffiti writer and painter in an idiosyncratic manner, so he had continued to read graff mags, including a new one called 12ozProphet. Fortuitously, the founder, Allen Benedikt was studying at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which was just blocks away from Brown. While in school, Allen had begun 12oz as a side project with the intent to raise the bar for the content and design of graffiti publications. Allen was another visionary with eyes on the crystal ball. Like an oracle, he always seems to have a sense of what is intrinsically important in and for the culture. In the near future, we will be posting an in depth history of Allen and 12ozProphet.
One day in March of 1996, during Caleb’s first semester at Brown, he was walking up a hill in town, when he spotted a guy wearing a sweatshirt with collegiate-style letters on it walking towards him. Being a college town it was not uncommon to see a jersey with letters in that style, but as he got closer he noticed that it was hand-made and that the letters spelled the word “prophet.” Caleb realized that this was not a school-related jersey, so as they got within speaking distance, he asked if it was a 12ozProphet sweatshirt. The guy was very surprised, said yes and that he was the person who made the magazine. Allen was six years older, which sometimes can make a difference at that age, and also in his last semester at RISD, but they still hit it off immediately because of their shared obsession with graffiti and printed matter.
At the point when they met, Allen had already done two issues of 12oz and had started to gather content for the third issue. Caleb respected Allen’s beautiful, high-end design and Allen had laughed that he would rather slit his wrists than write text, so it seemed like they might make a good team. Allen had just done a substantial interview with Twist, but it still needed an introduction. Twist was one of Caleb’s favorite writers, so he was excited to transcribe it from the cassette to study the interview in order to write the introduction. It turned out to be eight thousand words, which is huge considering that an average story in a magazine may be two thousand and a blog post may be just a few hundred. After all the hard work, Allen loved it and the Twist issue was a huge success. This cemented their relationship, proving that their temperaments and interests not only complimented each other, but also amplified their creative product.
The interview continues on the next page…
One of the things Caleb talks about being very important to both of them was finding the authentic voice of the graffiti community and the individuals they were listening to. There was a real sense that the community needed to hear things in their own voice, not just the commentary in the media from outsiders who were trying to understand the culture at best or demonizing it at the worst. There literally were no publications out there had nailed it, except for Espo’s On The Go magazine and Phase2’s International Graffiti Times (IGT). So Allen and Caleb became intent on listening for that voice and creating something that was a true expression of it with the design and text.
Nowadays we take for granted that we have immediate access to artists and their visual and verbal vocabularies. Fifteen years ago, there was less access to artists, less published materials, and slower distribution. You had to physically meet with someone, create and print a publication, and then distribute it, which was all very time consuming and expensive. So frequently there were only zines being developed and distributed by hand or a low end magazine being printed in a small run with copies only going to small stores. So when Allen and Caleb were granted interviews with these writers who they respected so much, they really sat down and listened to them. They wanted to capture something that spoke from the community’s spirit. It was this kind of focused attention and understanding of the culture that made 12ozProphet and their future projects under the Also Known As brand so great.
After Allen graduated in the summer of 1996, he moved back to Miami. Since the internet had just become a viable file transfer tool, Caleb and Allen were easily able to continue to work together for the next two years, putting out four more issues by 1998. From that third issue on, Caleb became an integral part of 12ozProphet team. He traveled, researched and wrote some of the most extensive and intellectual features in the later issues, such as the last issue in 1998 which focused on Brazil and ultimately introduced Os Gemeos to the world. He also wrote essays on video technology and the internet and how they were effecting the culture. But after a total of six issues, at the end of the nineties with the rise of the internet, things were changing for the magazine market, so 12ozProphet as a magazine came to an end.
At this time, Allen created another business entity, which he called Also Known As. It still functions to this day as a design and development company, publishing magazines and books, designing products like t-shirts, doing photo shoots of products and models, and managing artists such as Os Gemeos. He also ended up turning 12ozProphet into a very successful website with a front page news blog; artist blogs with some of the most prestigious names in graffiti history, such as Martha Cooper, Haze, WestOne, Greg Lamarche and Mare139; and community boards called The Writers Forum, which became one of the most popular places for hardcore writers to share photos and have discussions.
But the forums are basically just long threads of photos and comments with no tags to search by or organize the information. During the interview, while discussing how this made the forums a difficult research tool because there was no way for anyone to search for information, Caleb made the comment that “People have said that journalism is the first draft of history; I would add that the forums can be the first draft of journalism.” It’s an interesting insight and also exemplifies Caleb’s ability to “turn a phrase,” as Jay Edlin aka Jayson/Terror161, the author of the book Graffiti 365, has said about him.
The interview continues on the next page…