Jeffrey Byrnes Photographer Fashion + Portraits + Travel

From the Wall

My career as a graffiti writer was short lived but plays a key roll in my photography. I was introduced to graffiti when I was 14-15 by a friend who showed me a legal wall. Painted from top to bottom on an expansive wall, ironically across the street from the police department, there were characters, lines, colors, every single element of a well composed piece by a reputable crew of talented writers. 

At that time I had just finished my first photography class and was already hooked. I made a point to go back and shoot some photos of the painting. Walking in a straight line, left to right, I framed up sections of the painting until I captured the entire piece. Did I mention I did this with an old 35mm film camera and stitched the pano together in camera. When I received the 4x6 prints I taped them down to a piece of cardboard. I still have that photo, 16 years later, sitting in the studio.  

i began documenting the places that had the best paintings. I always went alone, never when anyone was painting. I would photograph the paintings that I admired, by the artists I admired. I started doing research, bought sketchbooks and markets and gave myself a name. In high school I was known for drawing, the graffiti. I always had a camera around and was always drawing graffiti. Occasionally Id scribble on a desk, but mostly in my books. Chicks loved it, so did a few of my friends Id skate with. Graffiti went hand and hand with skateboarding. I introduced the medium to a few friends, some of whom either curse me commend me for getting them hooked because they are still at it.  

Where I grew up was a haven of writers for years. In the backgrounds I would follow the artists by photographing their work. During that time I began painting, developing my style, learning and researching. I once came across a few paintings on website. I searched the interwebs, way before Google was around, and found something beautiful. The paintings always stuck with me. One eventful day I climbed through a fence, walked down an embankment, stepped onto the train tracks and looked at the wall. I was flabbergasted to see the same paintings I adored. I somehow thought these painted existed in some far off place in the world, not anywhere close to me. I began snapping away. I maneuvered around and kept shooting. There were two sets of tracks and a train quickly approaching. I was in awe and hadn't noticed the impending freight train. What seemed like inches away, the train engineer blew the horn, scared the crap out of me so hard I graffitied my underwear and ran for my life. It was a close call, but I caught some amazing paintings. 

For years I followed one group of artists. I was never in their league, not even close. I had a few friends that knew them, but I never met them. I kept my silent distance and photographed their work. Of the group there was one artist in particular that I was inspired by. I admired his work, his style, his bold use of paint. Over the years I heard the rumors of the trouble he got in, the time he did, and that one time a judge let him off by painting a piece right behind the courthouse that had a positive message, "The future is in your hands." It was a beautiful painting of a pair of hands extended from a character the artist made. 

One evening I was with a friend. At times he was a chill kid, other times he was a raging dick. That particular night he was a dick. He told me I should never pick up a can of paint again and that I should just make photographs of the writers and their work. He said the world needed someone to document the work and make the books instead of someone that couldn't paint. Id like to say that I took his advice, however I did not. I was not discouraged in the least. I continued painting and documenting what I saw. It would be a few years before I put the cans down. In full disclosure, I was never one of those offensive artists that would maliciously paint everything I could, racking up a case of vandalism. Graffiti for me, as it has been and always will be, is art. 

Recently I found out from a friend of mine that the artist I idolized for so many years passed away. I was saddened by this news. While I did not know him personally, I took the loss in my own ways, knowing that another talented artist had left this world too soon. The day I found out about his passing, my long time friend, the one who loves to curse me for getting him hooked, was at an undisclosed location painting a mural with a group of friends. The mural was the last piece the artist was working on. They were painting it in his honor. He invited me down, but due to a shoot, I was unable to make it down. This past week I had a shoot in the neighborhood of the wall. I had a few minutes to stop and admire the work, so I did. I snapped a few photos and thought back to all those short years of the smell of Krylon, markers, discovering new paintings by the artists I admired, and that sensation I got from graffiti. It is sad to think that the artist I admired so much will no longer be producing work. There comes a date when we all retire from what drives us, the things we love and the work we love to produce. Enjoy the days you have and the work you make. Keep sharing, you never know who you will inspire. 

The following photos are from the memorial mural.