Literally graffiti means the writing on the wall. It is a way for people to make a public visual expression anonymously. Most often it is an expression that is not endorsed by the authority, and is thrown up without permission. Since the beginning of time, graffiti was meant to send the viewer a message about the artist’s feelings concerning society, art and politics or to mark territorial boundaries. The earliest form of graffiti was created by the cave dwellers in prehistoric times.
However, the first known graffiti artists lived in ancient Rome in Pompeii. There archeologists have found examples of graffiti in the form of words that include, “Once you are dead, you are nothing; Restitutus has deceived many girls; Lucius painted this,” amongst many others.
Urban graffiti the type of graffiti that we associate with today started in the 60’s in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania The graffiti artists who started the first bombings are CORNBREAD and COOL EARL. Their names appeared all over the city, attracting the attention of the community and local press.
Shortly after, graffiti quickly spread to New York City. One of the first recognized urban graffiti artists, “Taki 183” was a Greek youth who came from a working-class family in Washington Heights. As a messenger, Taki, traveled all over New York City throwing up his name tagged with a marker on subway stations and subway cars. A New York Times reporter tracked down and interviewed Taki 183, and published an article titled “Taki 183 Spawns Pen-Pals.” The article had an unexpected effect as hundreds of writers turned to the streets to express their feelings. Tagging exploded all over the city. as graffiti artists tried to upstage each other with their names and styles. As one graffiti writer put it, “How many people can walk through a city and prove they were there? It’s a sign I was here. My hand made this mark. I’m fucking alive!”
Eventually taggers were searching for different ways to gain notoriety. Taggers began embellishing their names with additional designs, some for visual effect and some for relevance. The most famous tag in the culture’s history was STAY HIGH 149. This tagger used a smoking joint as the cross bar for his “H” and a stick figure from the television series The Saint.
Tagging got bigger and more defined. Taggers increased the thickness of their letters and outline them with other colors. They discovered that the caps from spray paint cans increased the width of the spray. This led to the development of the masterpiece a much more involved form of graffiti than the throw up. The first credited masterpieces were to taggers called, SUPER KOOL 223 of the Bronx and WAP of Brooklyn. They used the thick letters and decorated the inside with a variety of designs. Their pieces covered subway cars from top to bottom.
The art of graffiti was gaining recognition so much so that Hugo Martinez, sociology major at City College in New York founded the United Graffiti Artists. This organization picked top subway artists from all over the city and gave them the opportunity to display their work in the venue of an art gallery. The Razor Gallery was very successful Hugo Martinez help many graffiti artists gain fame and recognition. Not everyone agreed with gaining the notice of the art elite. Many artists were against putting graffiti on a white canvas. They didn’t like the idea of people criticizing their work or having it displayed in galleries. They wanted to stick to the origins of their art and felt like they were betraying the art by turning their work into a product that art dealers could buy and sell.
In the mid seventies artists started creating graffiti with scenery, illustrations and cartoon characters surrounding the masterpieces and a new wave of creativity was borne. The creative expression of graffiti artist boomed until the mid 80’s and then the culture declined rapidly. The use of crack cocaine became rampant in the inner city and guns were easily acquired. New laws prevented the sale of paint to minors and merchants had to place spray paint in locked cages. The biggest change was the increase in the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s anti-graffiti budget and the penalties for tagging became harsher. The lack of resources and places to tag caused many graffiti artists to become territorial and aggressive If one artist tagged in another taggers territory they risked being beaten and robbed of their painting supplies. Physical strength and unity as in street gangs became a major part of the Graffiti experience.
The next big resurgence in graffiti came with the explosion of Hip Hop and music videos that depicted New York City street culture of the 80’s. Books like, Subway Art, Spray Can Art, and films like Style Wars, prompted attracted people from all over the world to emulate the street culture style. This was the catalyst for the expansion of aerosol art world-wide. Overseas graffiti artists came to New York to tag and New York artists went to Europe. The New York artists were so sought after that many were given air fare, accommodations, and paint! New places and new things to paint emerged. Graffiti art began appearing on highways, roof tops and walls. Magazines like International Graffiti Times, videos like Video Graf, and websites like Art Crimes also increased the world wide popularity of this art form
An art form that was oncepracticed by low-income urban youth is now popular with an entirely new array of creative youths and adults. Today about one-half of graffiti artists come from white middle and upper-class homes, mostly in suburban areas. Kids from the suburbs connect with the messages that the inner-city kids communicate. They are also trying to break free from the culture of materialism and rejecting and protesting some of the moral values of society. Middle- and upper-class youths in suburbs, have free time and money to do what they wan and are educating themselves to reject the sterile, superficial culture of their surroundings and look for an alternative way of life with more meaning.
Recently, several prominent graffiti artists have turned their creative talents into new business opportunities. They have clothing lines, design for major labels and sneaker manufacturers, and consult with big companies who seek street accreditation for their brands.However, in many graffiti artists minds a conflict arises when graffiti is used for advertising consumer goods. It goes against the original message of graffiti, to stand up against the ruling class and to not be exploited. From this perspective, using graffiti to promote a commercial product is ironic. Graffiti is being used to encourage people to spend their money on products they don’t need.
Whether graffiti has lost its origins and meaning, the attraction for most graffiti fans today may or may not be solely for the social motives.With Shepard Fairy’s, Obama Hope posterwhich was featured in the presidential race,Pixnit’s stenciled store fronts, and Banksy’s Oscar nod for his graffiti based film Exit Through the Gift Shop, graffiti art has absolutely become mainstream and its popularity is flourishing.The creative and original side of graffiti attracts a new generation of artists that are looking for different ways to express themselves. They are also attracted to the fact that graffiti developed outside of the traditional avenues for artistic expression. Recently, the Smithsonian solidified the importance and power of this art form announcing their newest exhibit, “Hip-Hop Won’t Stop: The Beat, The Rhymes, The Life, ” which features the works of many graffiti elite.