As much as you’ll hear some graffiti writers and street artists going on about how it’s great that their work is ephemeral, the fact is that many of those same people love to document what they do, so photographs are important. While the very first generation of graffiti writers did not photograph their work and it was professional photographers Jon Naar, Martha Cooper, and Henry Chalfant whose photographs of graffiti first spread the art around the globe, graffiti writers and street artists who had access to cameras were taking photos of their work since at least the 1970’s.
Unfortunately for so many writers, Cooper and Chalfant could only document so many trains. The only way to really guarantee that a writer’s work would be seen after it was buffed was for the writer to take a picture. While today it seems that practically every writer has a digital camera, writers during the train era did not. Many of those writers had to plan to paint their best pieces around when they occasionally had access to a camera, often stolen, and film.
Eventually, particularly after disposable cameras were introduced in the mid-1980’s, many writers began to amass large collections of photos of their work and the work of others. Even if the train had been buffed, the pieces lived on through photographs stored in shoeboxes under beds. But, for many writers, those photos were more than just a private stash documenting their own accomplishments. Graffiti writers have been trading “flicks” with one another since at least the 1980’s.
Through flick trading, writers could communicate with one another and show off their work in a more organized fashion than just hoping that everyone would spot the latest cool train. Writers who traded flicks could spread the word about pieces that were already buffed, running in parts of the city that the other writers they knew might not see regularly, or even running in entirely different cities from the writers with whom they might be trading. Particularly as graffiti spread around the country and the world, flick trading was an early way for writers to see what might be happening with graffiti outside of their home city without having to travel. Besides the occasional major graffiti publications like Subway Art and Spraycan Art, flick trading was perhaps the best (if not the only) early way for graffiti writers to gain fame among peers who could not see their work in person.
Flick trading was not a perfect way for artists to distribute their work, but it was a start. The networks that were built around flick trading and the basic ideas behind it would evolve and become much more powerful by the 1990’s, when writers and graffiti fans gained access to a better means of publishing their work.