The news about Phil America’s new book (‘Above The Law: Graffiti On Passanger Tains’) has been circulating for weeks now. As we mentioned previously, it’s an editorial venture that gathers unpublished photographs of train and metro activity, that were taken between 2005 and 2015. A decade – and it rolls off the tongue quick – of adventures summarized in one book. We’ve decided to take a deeper look into the subject and interviewed Phil America to discuss this project, as well as to talk about himself and his view on graffiti. To accompany the feature, the American photographer has provided us with a handful of exclusive photos too. What more can you ask for?
Let’s take this opportunity to mention his collaboration with 4608 Vandalism in Vandal Week #8: until Sunday the 13th, Phil is taking over the @4608vandalism Instagram to post whatever images he feels like.
-Photographer, artist, adventurer, vandal voyeur… how could we define the character that is Phil America?
Definitions, labels and categories somehow add more limits and end up being detrimental to the larger vision I’m trying to have. All the things I’m doing, be it publishing a book or photography or performance art or installations in a museum, all have one point of intersection for me. At that point lies the character that is Phil America(philamerica.com).
-We know that you’ve been traveling so much that it’s difficult to pinpoint your place of residence. After having lived in so many different places, what does it mean to you to be an American?
I take pride in where I am from. My country, like every other country, makes horrible mistakes within politics but inside the country there is so many incredible things. I try to carry that with me everywhere I go.
-Do you consider yourself American even though the majority of people who are American probably have nothing to do with you?
I often times don’t feel American because I’m so different from anyone in the US but that’s what makes American special. It’s an immigrant country and there’s so many different types of people here. That said, I try to not let it define me and force myself to look past the idea of nationalities and borders that effect so many around the world.
-A lot of things that Phil America does (the sneaker sculpture, the experience as a homeless person, etc) generate debates about the American way of life. But in this most recent book, it seems like the majority of images have been taken in Europe. May we assume this reflects some sort of idea related to this topic?
The newest book is focused on the graffiti culture on passenger trains. I followed around a lot of the most prolific writers I have met over the years such as Taps and Moses, Utah and Ether, Same, Luce, Banos, MOAS, etc. While there is a lot of people painting outside of Europe, the culture exists primarily within Europe. So the concept wasn’t really to make a statement but rather capture a glimpse of the culture as accurately as I can. But don’t worry, there is a lot of America inside.
-What does Europe mean to Phil America?
I lived in Europe over 5 years. Europe means a lot to me. Friends. Family. Moments. Memories.
-How can you explain the phenomenon of train writing? What future does this type of graffiti await?
I don’t know what the future holds for it. To explain it I would say it’s one of the movements within art with the longest history and it’s continuing to grow. Yet, there is still a huge divide between art in an institutional sense and the graffiti scene. With the book I tried to explain graffiti to people coming from the arts.
-You’re not the first photographer to dedicate a book to train graffiti. What does ‘Above The Law’ bring to the table that’s different?
I think there has been some good books focused on graffiti on trains with amazing photos. The point where I feel a lot of those books fall short is they fail to have universal appeal. My mother or brother could not pick them up and understand what the book is about. Most of them are made for graffiti writers, by graffiti writers. With Above The Law there is a lot of text that speaks to a broader crowd but still comes with all the photos that the writers want to see. For me, everything I create I want to transcend the scene it is shown within.
-Its clear design was an important point in the production of the book. Who designed it?
It’s done by a design studio based out of Sweden called Public Service. They are doing amazing stuff! I’ve worked with them on a number of projects outside the graffiti world but they have done some other stuff within graffiti, such as Wolume 1 and some other projects.
-Is there a big difference between the way that graffiti is experienced in the US to the way it’s experienced in Europe? What things would you highlight about both places?
Every place is different, even within Europe. Spain is different than German, for example, so it’s hard to generalize. I think one main difference is that the consequences are often much harsher in the US. Also, there is not as many people painting trains in the US as there is in Europe, for better and for worse.
-Tell us a memorable story that you’ve lived out while taking the photos for this book.
I feel like every photo has a story. Every photo grabs hold of a moment that is passing and tells a tale, an honest tale, that otherwise would have been lost. Some stories are full of angst and acrimony, others achievement and accolades.
-Can you tell us just one??
I guess one funny story was when I was in Rome. We were in the famous yard there, Magliana, and I was with some locals. This yard is known for having security that is very violent but one of my friends had taken the schedule of the security so we had a good idea of when they wouldn’t be around. Towards the end of the action the drivers arrived and one of the locals, Poison, acted as if he had carte blanche. He went straight to the driver of the train he was painting and followed him into the driver cabin and asked him not to leave until he was done. To my surprise, the driver waiting and he was able to continue the piece. Afterwards I asked my friend how that’s possible and he summed it up in one word: Italy.
Above The Law is a series so there will be more of those coming out through No Flags. The future books with this title will most likely not be with graffiti on trains but will be focused on different topics. I have some museum shows coming up, working on a project with DJ Pain 1 who has produced for everyone from Rick Ross to Public Enemy. A zine with Trespass Press. Always projects with Public Delivery. New stuff with my tea company Misty Peak. Forever new things on the horizon and constantly pushing to write history.