Walking down almost any block in any major city, people see large murals, writing on the walls, pieces of art for everyone to see. All over the world these works of art are put on walls, trains, floors, ceilings and anything else that the artists see that would work as a canvas. This is known as graffiti.
Graffiti is not just a modern urban art form that covers the streets. Graffiti has been a part of society for much longer than most people would have expected. Since the beginning of man, paintings and pictographs were created on the cave walls. They were used to tell stories along with many other uses. Moving forward in time to when Alexander the Great was conquering lands left and right, graffiti was already a part of society. It was not being created in the large, intricate ways that modern graffiti is. Alexander the Great would scratch his name into the walls whenever he conquered a city. The graffiti renaissance would not occur until the 1960’s, though in the early 1920’s graffiti would start to appear on box cars.
In the 1960’s, graffiti as we know it in today’s world, started to appear. Political activists and gang members started the “pioneering era” which occurred between 1969 and 1974. In the late 1970’s Philadelphia, PA was the graffiti mecca of the country because graffiti had not been introduced to the mainstream over seas yet. 1980 started the time in which the graffiti focus became New York City. Style and popularity started to evolve once it had reached New York, and the goal of exposure was born. The goal of exposure is when the artist’s try to make sure that they have the most tags around the city. A tag is the artists’ pen name. Since it is considered defacing public property, graffiti artists have to create a different name to use in their art.
After traveling to New York City, graffiti started to evolve faster than anyone had expected. Writers such as TAKI 183
were featured in the New York Times. One of the biggest movements in graffiti was that artists started to tag on the subways and trains. Subway and train graffiti started to become the place to do graffiti because it would travel over the entire city. That meant that everyone would see whatever is painted on the trains. It was really easy to get caught when tagging on a subway because people are always taking the subways…until the transit system shuts down for the night.
That is when the term “bombing” was created. Meaning to go out, and in one night, try to graffiti as many spots as possible. It was around this time that artists started to become more creative with the styles of their letters. The letters became more calligraphic so they would stand out from all of the other tags.
The letters began to increase in thickness and more colors started to appear. Outlines became very popular along with stripes, checkers, and other very simple designs. These were the first “masterpieces” which soon became known as “pieces.” Artist Super Kool 223 is known as the originator of the “piece”. “Top-to-bottoms” were when the piece would cover the subway car from
the top to the bottom. This became popular because it would make sure that no one else could tag on that car.
Although graffiti was and still is considered alternative to the mainstream, the mainstream was noticing the graffiti revolution that was taking place. It was hard not to notice because of how much graffiti there was. The United Graffiti Artists (UGA) was founded in 1972 by Hugo Martinez. It was a group of the countries best graffiti artists with a goal to try and get some graffiti into the gallery setting.
By 1974, graffiti artists had started to use scenery, cartoons and images in their work.The Totally Fabulous Five (TF5) crew was well known because of their pieces. They would create pieces that would take up entire subway cars that featured cartoons. It was also around this time that the competitive side of graffiti was staring to show. Writers were trying to tag and piece in all five boroughs. This was called going “all-city.”
Over the next 15 or so years, pieces were becoming more unique. Styles of graffiti were emerging. Bubble letters, wild style, block letters, throw-ups, stencils, British letters and others were being painted. Along with the new styles, the popularity of graffiti had grown to an incredibly large culture. When the movie Beat Street came out in 1984 graffiti was introduced into the mainstream culture overseas. The movie was a look into the hip-hop culture of New York City. Hip-hop and graffiti had always gone hand in hand so with the release of this movie, graffiti had been taken to a whole new level. The popularity of graffiti increased incredibly.
There is a saying, what goes up must come down. It applies to almost everything; including graffiti. Between 1985 and 1989 there was a major decline in graffiti, especially in New York City. It was more dangerous during this time to roam the streets at night because of the crack epidemic and the police were more aware of graffiti artists roaming around. Art stores that sold spray paint started to keep it locked up because they knew that most artists would steal the spray paint from the stores. Graffiti removal became more affordable which caused pieces to get buffed almost as fast as they were getting painted. Many graffiti artists found it too hard to succesfully tag so most of their work in the streets died out, almost to the point of extinction. But there were still those who found all of these hardships as challenges and a way to make graffiti more exciting.
In the May of 1989, the Clean Train Movement began. The Clean Train Movement was New York City’s attempt to
remove all trains from the transit system that had graffiti on them. The new trains and subway cars eventually were all made of stainless steel and would by buffed daily. Spray painting on the trains became pointless. People who traveled by subway would only see the graffiti for a day and that defeats the whole purpose of why people started to tag the trains. Some artists moved to spray painting pieces on billboards. These artists were Cope2 (to the right), T-Kid, Zephyr and many more. Besides the billboards, many who had painted graffiti started their own galleries and studios.
Graffiti has kept on growing with more styles, paints and the mainstream media’s portrayal of graffiti culture. When the majority of the population looks at graffiti, they think of rebels and criminals who disregard rules and authority. Graffiti is a way for artists who do not have the money to pay for art lessons, to express their artistic nature. Instead of becoming gangsters, they become artists. Painting on someone’s property may not be the right way to do it in some cases, but it is a way to get noticed.
A graffiti artist who’s identity is to remain anonymous once said, “Why did someone carve Mt. Rushmore? Do you think they got a kick out of big faces? Or did they say, ‘These are our founding fathers and they deserve to live forever.’” In our world today, going down any major street in America, you are surrounded by huge advertisements saying “Buy this, Buy that. If you do you will be happier.” It is only a way for making money. No one asked to see those advertisements, but they are there anyway. So instead of putting up a giant ad, graffiti artists want to put up a piece of art for everyone to see. Another anonymous graffiti artist once said, “The streets of LA is the gallery, the streets of New York City is the gallery, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia. It is all one big art show that you don’t have to pay for.”
The graffiti started millions of years ago with the cave men, and has evolved into what it is today. It evolved from cave painting with berries and plants, to huge murals with spray paint, airbrushes and other mediums. The graffiti culture is still evolving and still going strong. Graffiti will always be alive as long as there is a can of spray paint and a blank spot on a wall for the next artist to make their mark.