The City Beneath


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A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti

Susan A. Phillips

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A sweeping history of Los Angeles told through the lens of the many marginalized groups—from hobos to taggers—that have used the city’s walls as a channel for communication

Graffiti written in storm drain tunnels, on neighborhood walls, and under bridges tells an underground and, until now, untold history of Los Angeles. Drawing on extensive research within the city’s urban landscape, Susan A. Phillips traces the hidden language of marginalized groups over the past century—from the early twentieth-century markings of hobos, soldiers, and Japanese internees to the later inscriptions of surfers, cholos, and punks. Whether describing daredevil kids, bored workers, or clandestine lovers, Phillips profiles the experiences of people who remain underrepresented in conventional histories, revealing the powerful role of graffiti as a venue for cultural expression.

Graffiti aficionados might be surprised to learn that the earliest documented graffiti bubble letters appear not in 1970s New York but in 1920s Los Angeles. Or that the negative letterforms first carved at the turn of the century are still spray painted on walls today. With discussions of characters like Leon Ray Livingston (a.k.a. “A-No. 1”), credited with consolidating the entire system of hobo communication in the 1910s, and Kathy Zuckerman, better known as the surf icon “Gidget,” this lavishly illustrated book tells stories of small moments that collectively build into broad statements about power, memory, landscape, and history itself.

Susan A. Phillips is professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College. She is the author of Wallbangin’: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A. (1999) and Operation Fly Trap: Gangs, Drugs, and Law (2012).

The City Beneath . . . tells a rich story of another L.A., left behind in the sometimes hidden and coded “I was here” of hoboes, surfers, soldiers, gay outcasts and striking students -- graffiti that, like many of the people who made them, have often gone unseen by the rest of us.”—Patt Morrison, Los Angeles Times

  “The alternative history of L.A. you didn’t know you needed.”—PureWow

“An important addition to graffiti studies and. . . a resource for those interested in graffiti for years to come. . . . The City Beneath is a beautiful book.”—John F. Lennon, Visual Inquiry

The City Beneath takes the mandate to write history from below to new heights, offering a radically inclusive account of a city known too well from the top down.”—Eric Avila, Western Historical Quarterly

“An astonishing book and a revelation, from first to last. I learned from every single page and from the sheer exuberance of Phillips’s long journey into these places, spaces, histories, and inscriptions.”—William Deverell, Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West

“Susan Phillips insightfully shows how the study of graffiti can provide evidence for the changing nature of the city itself.”—Rafael Schacter, author of The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti

“Crack open the canon and make room at the top for The City Beneath. Deeply researched and consistently breathtaking, this book will change the way you see and understand Los Angeles.”—Josh Kun, author of The Autograph Book of L.A.

“A fascinating investigation into graffiti as visual history, highlighting the inherent desire we have to leave our mark or message on a place.”—Roger Gastman, graffiti historian

“Susan A. Phillips’s wonderfully researched book is truly unique in the study of graffiti. Not only has she examined the cultural origins of mark-making, but she also re-defines the geographical narrative, stealing the crown from New York and placing it on the head of the West Coast as the cultural epicenter of the birth of American graffiti.”—Aaron Rose, Beautiful Losers

2021 Jane Jacobs Urban Communication Book Award winner, sponsored by the Urban Communication Foundation
ISBN: 9780300246032
Publication Date: November 26, 2019
320 pages, 8 x 10
139 color + 56 b/w illus.