His Life

Early life

Prigoff was born in New York City, and graduated high school in 1944 at age 16, was an Honorable Mention Westinghouse Science Talent Search Winner, and was accepted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was an honor student all eight terms and an outstanding athlete in Track and Field. He received a "STRAIGHT T", the school’s highest athletic award. Graduating MIT in 1947, Prigoff moved into the business world and also took up squash, achieving many National rankings. He was National Champion of Squash Tennis seven times in the 1960s. Prigoff was elected to the Explorer's Club in New York City in 1967. In 1975 his name was included in a listing of 250 outstanding graduates of M.I.T. In the late 1970s, he worked with Mark Rogovin and Marjorie Benton, founders of the Peace Museum in Chicago and was an original Board Member for many years.

Corporate Career

In 1947 Prigoff was employed in the factories of Shawmut Inc. in Stoughton, Massachusetts. He moved into sales in New York City, and later become President of his division, which was sold to Genesco. He was employed by Genesco for two years before being recruited as Executive Vice-President of Rosenau Bros. in Philadelphia. In 1970, he was recruited to be President of the Sportco Division of US Industries, and in 1975, he was recruited to become Senior Vice President of the Sara Lee Corporation in Chicago. At both USI and Sara Lee, his challenge was to restore profitability to companies purchased by conglomerates that had little experience in the businesses they had purchased. After five successful years with Sara Lee, Prigoff was recruited to join Levi Strauss in San Francisco as President of one of their divisions. The task was the same: To bring profitability and stability to a division that had grown too fast. After three years with Levi’s, Prigoff retired in 1984 at the age of 57.

Historian, author, photography career

In the early 1970s, Prigoff became interested in documenting public murals. He was intrigued by the community nature of the murals, their artistic merit, and their ability to address issues that were not normally found in newspapers, television, and other media. He travelled extensively amassing one of the largest documentations of this art form photographed by a single individual. Along the way, he could not help but notice the appearance of graffiti in New York City and Philadelphia. He began to document that as well.

Prigoff noted the emergence of subway graffiti appearing "above ground", and was interested to see how it had spread across the country, and eventually worldwide. He wrote to his friend Henry Chalfant and suggested that Henry join Prigoff in tracking the art form around the world. Together they produced Spraycan Art,[1] published in 1987. The book sold well over 250,000 copies and is now considered one of the seminal books in the study of modern-day graffiti. Many graffiti writers learned about the art form from reading Spraycan Art, and initially perfected their skills by studying styles found in the book.

Prigoff later co-authored two books on traditional mural art with Robin Dunitz: Painting the Towns – Murals of California,[2] and Walls of Heritage – Walls of Pride – History of African American Murals.[3]

Prigoff has written forewords and assisted in the publication of several books on the subject of graffiti art.[4] He also has written articles for many publications,[5] and his photographs appear in numerous publications and catalogues.[6] Of note, The History of American Graffiti features 48 of Prigoff’s photos including its frontispiece.[7]

In 2011, Jeffrey Deitch, Director at the Geffen LAMOCA, curated the ground breaking and record attendance show, "ART IN THE STREETS" with the help of Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose. Prigoff was one of a few photographers included in the show alongside the eminent graffiti artists. Many of his photographs appeared in the catalogue.[8]

In April 2012, the Estria Foundation honored Prigoff, along with Judy Baca and Kent Twitchell, with the award of "Urban Legend"[9] Estria was quoted as saying "James is considered one of the major forces in giving dignity and credibility to an art form that once was considered to be vandalism".

Over the years Prigoff has exhibited his photographs in many cities and has lectured around the world on the topic of public murals, graffiti, and spraycan art. He has also donated thousands of his photographs to historic archives.


  • War and Peace, West Berlin
  • Art Against Racism, Vancouver
  • Black Power – Black Art – 20 years of African American Murals, California State University, San Francisco
  • Made in California – 1900-2000, Los Angeles Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 2000
  • Painting and Politics, Social Political Art Resource Center, Venice, California
  • Hip Hop Nation, Yerba Buena Art Center, San Francisco, California
2001 - 2011
  • Walls of Heritage – Walls of Pride – traveling Museum art show at the Smithsonian, Washington D.C. and six other venues – co curator and photographer.
  • Cambridge Arts Council (CAC)- May5 - June 30
  • San Francisco Graffiti Retrospective, I AM Gallery, San Francisco
  • Art in the Streets – LAMOCA, Los Angeles
  • James Prigoff - Loyola University, Chicago
  • James Prigoff - Art and Design Museum, Los Angeles
  • Tate Modern, London - Soul of a Nation - 14 photographs
  • Beyond the Streets – NYC – store front photographs
  • The Broad, Los Angeles, CA - Soul of a Nation
  • de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA - Soul of a Nation
  • Museum of Graffiti, Wynwood, FL
  • Leave Your Mark - Solo Show - Sacramento, CA
  • 1 AM Gallery, San Francisco, CA - From Tags To Riches - Solo Show