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Remembering James Prigoff Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

3 May 2021

James Prigoff, who had documented public murals since the 1970s, died April 21 at home in Sacramento, Calif., at the age of 93.

The public murals he documented, however, were graffiti that was considered vandalism at the time. But with Henry Chalfant, Prigoff published Spraycan Art in 1987 to argue otherwise. The book included 200 of his photographs of graffiti art in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Barcelona, London, Vienna and other cities along with interviews with the artists.

"'Vandalism' may be a matter of point of view, but it is clearly art," Prigoff reflected in 2007. "Museums and collectors buy it, corporations co-opt it and it matches all the dictionary definitions of art."

Graffiti art also had a social significance, he argued.

In the preface to Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride: African American Murals, he wrote, "Given limited access to the more formal art venues, African-American artists chose the streets and other public places to create images that challenged negative messages."

In the early 1970s he had become intrigued by the emergence of subway graffiti appearing above ground in New York and Philadelphia.

He was born in Queens to a mechanical engineer and a mother who had graduated from Syracuse Law School. They raised him in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he graduated from New Rochelle High School at 16 before studying industrial engineering at MIT, graduating in 1947.

He married his high school sweetheart Arline Prigoff. They would eventually have two sons and two daughters who, in turn, would give them 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Dr. Prigoff predeceased him in 2018 after 72 years of marriage.

After graduation, he worked for Shawmut Inc. in Stoughton, Mass., before moving to New York City where he became president of his division. He jumped to Rosenaus Bros. as an executive vice president, moving to Philadelphia, and in 1970 became president of the Sportco division of U.S. Industries. In 1975, he became senior vice president of Sara Lee in Chicago. Five years later, he joined Levi Strauss in San Francisco as a division president.

His specialty was restoring profitability to companies bought by conglomerates with no expertise in the industries they had entered with the acquisition.

He also took up squash when he entered the corporate world, becoming the national champion of Squash Tennis seven times in the 1960s.

In the early 1970s he had become intrigued by the emergence of subway graffiti appearing above ground in New York and Philadelphia. He recruited his friend Chalfant to help him document the movement around the world. That enventually led to the publication of Spraycan Art.

In 2004 Prigoff took a photo of the Rainbow Swash, a gas storage tank near Boston that had been painted with a mural. That prompted private security guards at the facility to file a suspicious activity report. FBI agents interviewed him subsequently in Sacramento and asked his neighbors about him.

In 2014 Prigoff joined a lawsuit against the Department of Justice challenging its broad definition of "suspicious activity." While the suit was ultimately unsuccessful, he never questioned the importance of bringing it.

"I lived through the McCarthy era," he wrote of the lawsuit, "so I know how false accusations, surveillance and keeping files on innocent people can destroy their careers and lives."

In addition to several books featuring his photographs of street murals, he also exhibited internationally and lectured on the topic of public murals, graffiti, and spraycan art. He has donated thousands of his photographs to historic archives.

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