Is graffiti a vibrant urban art form or senseless vandalism? When did graffiti first become popular? Read this article to find out about the history of street art and hear from both sides of the debate.
The history of graffiti
The first drawings on walls appeared in caves thousands of years ago. Later the Ancient Romans and Greeks wrote their names and protest poems on buildings. Modern graffiti seems to have appeared in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, and by the late sixties, it had reached New York. The new art form really took off in the 1970s, when people began writing their names, or ‘tags’, on buildings all over the city. In the mid-seventies, it was sometimes hard to see out of a subway car window because the trains were completely covered in spray paintings known as ‘masterpieces’.
In the early days, the ‘taggers’ were part of street gangs who were concerned with marking their territory. They worked in groups called ‘crews’, and called what they did ‘writing’ – the term ‘graffiti’ was first used by The New York Times and the novelist Norman Mailer. Art galleries in New York began buying graffiti in the early seventies. But at the same time that it began to be regarded as an art form, John Lindsay, the then-mayor of New York, declared the first war on graffiti. By the 1980s it became much harder to write on subway trains without being caught, and instead many of the more established graffiti artists began using roofs of buildings or canvases.
The debate over whether graffiti is art or vandalism is still going on. Peter Vallone, a New York city councilor, thinks that graffiti done with permission can be art, but if it is on someone else’s property it becomes a crime. ‘I have a message for the graffiti vandals out there,’ he said recently. ‘Your freedom of expression ends where my property begins.’ On the other hand, Felix, a member of the Berlin-based group Reclaim Your City, says that artists are reclaiming cities for the public from advertisers, and that graffiti represents freedom and makes cities more vibrant.
For decades graffiti has been a springboard to international fame for a few. Jean-Michel Basquiat began spraying on the street in the 1970s before becoming a respected artist in the ’80s. The Frenchman Blek le Rat and the British artist Banksy have achieved international fame by producing complex works with stencils, often making political or humorous points. Works by Banksy have been sold for over £100,000. Graffiti is now sometimes big business.
Graffiti history – a topic rich in subject matter with colorful characters and even more colorful artworks
Where to begin when looking for 10 important moments from graffiti history? Everyone will have their own point of view when it comes to graffiti history, but there are some defining moments that most people will agree on, such as Cornbread being responsible for the birth of the graffiti scene and all that has followed since evolving into the flourishing urban and street art scene we are now witnessing to.
Widewalls has recently been looking at graffiti history in a number of feature articles, 20th Century & the Rise of Graffiti looked into the origins of graffiti and how it developed in the last century. Street Art & Music: Who Likes What? took a look at the relationships between street artists and music while the Food, Sleep, Sex & Revenge article took a brief look at how street art vandalism has transformed into an acceptable art form.
Picking 10 important moments from graffiti history is no easy task, but here we present a selection for you to muse over and argue about, a brief reminder of some of the important steps that graffiti has made since Cornbread scrawled his name all over Philadelphia, through to David Choe becoming the richest graffiti artist in modern times.
Here they are!
Cornbread and The Start of Modern Graffiti History
What would graffiti history be without the name Cornbread? It is quite possible that there would be no graffiti history as we know it, for Darryl McCray, who was given the nickname Cornbread while in a juvenile corrections facility, is widely regarded as the father of modern-day graffiti. The story goes that the young Cornbread developed a crush on a girl named Cynthia Customs upon leaving the correctional facility, he wrote Cornbread Loves Cynthia all over the local area to win her affections. Finding he enjoyed this, he continued to tag Philadelphia with his name, including the jet plane that belonged to the Jackson 5 and on an elephant in the local zoo which resulted in an arrest!
TAKI 183 & Tagging
TAKI 183 engraved his name in graffiti history when The New York Times ran an article about him on July 21st, 1971. Prior to this, TAKI 183, which comes from the Greek version of his first name, Demetraki, and his address, had been regularly tagging around New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The article, titled TAKI 183 Spawns Pen Pals, gave birth to a whole legion of kids who decided to copy him and tag their own names across the city. The tagging of names became highly competitive, with those who tagged more becoming better known in the graffiti community. TAKI 183 was not the first graffiti artist to tag in New York but he certainly got the most attention.
Phase 2 & Bubble Writing
Phase 2 is regarded in graffiti history as the man that developed the popular style of graffiti, bubble writing, that has often been copied. The graffiti writing style that became known as softies, was developed by Phase 2 in New York City during the 1970s and became a big influence on hip-hop culture, something the graffiti artist was heavily involved with during the 1980s. Phase 2 was a b-boy, sometimes DJ at hip-hop events, and even went on to release a couple of rap singles, while he himself has often been referenced in songs. The influence of his distinctive bubble style writing can still be seen today in the works of graffiti artists such as OG Slick.
Style Wars Graffiti Documentary
1983 saw the release of the Style Wars documentary film, a definitive slice of graffiti history at that point. The film directed by Tony Silver and produced in collaboration with Henry Chalfant was about hip-hop with a heavy focus on the graffiti scene. The acclaimed film featured a host of names synonymous with the graffiti scene of the time, including legends such as Futura, Dondi, Seen, Kase2, Zephyr, TAKI 183 among the many names. Style Wars captured the graffiti artists expressing themselves through their street art along with opposing views on the subject of graffiti. A true piece of graffiti history!
Jean-Michel Basquiat & SAMO
1977 to 1980 marks the point in graffiti history that the legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat first came to the public attention with his SAMO graffiti on the streets. Though associated just with Basquiat, it was actually developed along with high school friends Al Diaz and Shannon Dawson for a comic.
Pronounced same-oh, the saying is said to have come from a stoned talk and calling their marijuana the same old shit, later shortened to same old, then eventually SAMO. The graffiti took the form of short phrases, usually poetic or sarcastic, and was created in the Manhattan area of New York City. The graffiti started to get noticed, but Diaz wanted to remain anonymous while Basquiat enjoyed the attention, even meeting Keith Haring in 1979 because he had noticed SAMO. Basquiat killed off the graffiti with a final SAMO IS DEAD in 1980 as his career in the art world began to take off.