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James Prigoff '47

Former executive, now photographer, documents spray-can art.
October 15, 2007

John156. Dizney. Blade. These are just a few of the graffiti artists James Prigoff ‘47 counts among his friends. Prigoff is a world-renowned photographer, author, and lecturer on murals and graffiti, or spray-can art. His love of photographing in public spaces began more than 30 years ago, and Spraycan Art, the 1987 book he coauthored, has sold 200,000 copies.

“It’s the art of youth,” Prigoff says of the colorful creations often found on subway trains, urban walls, and overpasses. “No other art forms have been founded by such young people.” Many spray-can artists are just 14 to 16 years old when they start their careers.

Prigoff’s photographs of spray-can art–images exploring abstraction, politics, class, and culture clashes–have appeared in exhibitions from California to West Berlin. His university and museum lecture circuit ranges from Bogotá to Belfast.

“Spray-can art is far more complex than just signature ‘tags’ on walls,” he says. “And it’s worldwide.” He points out that urban murals are increasingly recognized as art in mainstream cultures. “Many of these young people are making a nice living with their art now. The exhibitions give their art stature–and they deserve it.”

Prigoff, who majored in management, credits MIT with teaching him to ask the right questions. As senior vice president for Sara Lee from 1975 to 1981, he helped the corporation double its profits while shedding half of its 76 businesses. He had previously led a similar turnaround as group president of eight apparel-related divisions at U.S. Industries.

“In struggling businesses, it’s as if a room full of competent people has lost their sense of direction and can’t find the door,” he says. “I brought a sense of planning and direction, and helped them locate the exit. Once in the open again, they knew what to do to turn things around.”

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