Graffiti holds special significance as one of the elements of hip hop culture. Graffiti as an urban art form has existed since at least the 1950s, but began developing in earnest in the late 1960s, and flourished during the 1970s. Graffiti first came to public attention in the late 1960s, mostly in New York City. It came out of a movement for Black and Hispanic identity and empowerment. In the 1970s and 80s it became part of the hip-hop style. The tag was a stylized logo that allowed an artist to paint subway cars yet remain anonymous. Graffiti writers used tags to compete for public space and attention.
Graffiti artists sometimes choose nicknames for them as an artist. These names are chosen for one of many reasons. Artists want tags to be quick to write so they are often from 3 to 5 characters in length. The name is chosen to reflect personal qualities and characteristics, or because of the way the word sounds and looks. Such names are 2Shae, Page3, 2Cold, In1.
Initial groundwork for graffiti began around the late 1960s. Around this time, graffiti was mainly a form of expression by political activists. It was considered a cheap and easy way to make a statement, with minimal risk to the artist, often at the time a hippie. As the foundations of graffiti began, gang graffiti also began to arise, used largely by gangs to mark territory. Some gangs that made use of graffiti during this era included the Savage Skulls, La Familia, and Savage Nomads. Towards the end of the 1960s the modern culture began to form in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The two graffiti artists considered to be responsible for the first true bombing are “Cool Earl” and “Cornbread”. They gained much attention from the Philadelphia press and the community itself by leaving their tags written everywhere. Around 1970-71, the center of graffiti innovation moved from Philadelphia to New York City. Once the initial foundation was laid, graffiti “pioneers” began inventing newer and more creative ways to write.
Between the years of 1969-1974 the “pioneering era” took place. During this time graffiti underwent a change in styles and popularity. Soon after the migration to NYC, the city produced the first graffiti artists to gain media attention – TAKI 183, Stay High 149, Hondo 1, Phase2, Stitch 1, Joe 136, Junior 161 and Cay 161.
Barbara 62 and Eva 62 were also important early graffiti artists in New York, and are the first known females to write graffiti. Also taking place during this era was the movement from outside on the city streets to the subways. Artists began to break into subway yards in order to hit as many trains as they could with a lower risk, often creating larger elaborate pieces of art along the subway car sides. This is when the act of bombing was said to be officially established.
Graffiti also saw its first seeds of competition around this time. The goal of most artists at this point was called “getting up” and involved having as many tags and bombs in as many places as possible.
The late 1970s and early 1980s brought a new wave of creativity to the scene. As the influence of graffiti grew, a graffiti movement began in Brooklyn as well with prominent artist Friendly Freddie. Fab Five Freddy (Fred Brathwaite) is another popular graffiti figure of this time, often credited with helping to spread the influence of graffiti and rap music beyond its early foundations in the Bronx. It was also, however, the last wave of true bombing before the Transit Authority made graffiti eradication a priority. The MTA (Metro Transit Authority) began to repair yard fences, and remove graffiti consistently, battling the surge of graffiti artists. With the MTA combatting the artists by removing their work it often led many artists to quit in frustration, as their work was constantly being removed. It was also around this time that the established art world started becoming receptive to the graffiti culture for the first time since Hugo Martinez’s Razor Gallery in the early 1970s. In 1979, graffiti artist Lee Quinones, and Fab Five Freddy were given a gallery opening in Rome by art dealer Claudio Bruni. Slowly, European art dealers became more interested in the new art form. For many outside of New York, it was the first time ever being exposed to the art form. During the 1980s the cultural aspect of graffiti was said to be deteriorating almost to the point of extinction. The rapid decline in writing was due to several factors. The streets became more dangerous due to the burgeoning crack epidemic, legislation was underway to make penalties for graffiti artists more severe, and restrictions on paint sale and display made racking (stealing) materials difficult. Above all, the MTA greatly increased their anti-graffiti budget. Many favored painting sites became heavily guarded, yards were patrolled, newer and better fences were erected, and buffing of pieces was strong, heavy, and consistent.
Many graffiti artists, however, chose to see the new problems as a challenge rather than a reason to quit. A downside to these challenges was that the artists became very territorial of good writing spots, and strength and unity in numbers became increasingly important. This was probably the most violent era in graffiti history – Artists who chose to go out alone were often beaten and robbed of their supplies. Some of the mentionable graffiti artists from this era were Skeme, Spade, BG 183, and Flight. This was stated to be the end for the casual NYC subway graffiti artists, and the years to follow would be populated by only what some consider the most “die hard” artists. People often found that graffiting around their local areas was an easy way to get caught so they travelled to different areas.
The years between 1985 and 1989 became known as the “die hard” era. A last shot for the graffiti artists of this time was in the form of subway cars destined for the scrap yard. With the increased security, the culture had taken a step back. The previous elaborate “burners” on the outside of cars were now marred with simplistic marker tags which often soaked through the paint.
The current era in graffiti is characterized by a majority of graffiti artists moving from subway cars to “street galleries.” The Clean Train Movement started in May, 1989, when New York attempted to remove all of the subway cars found with graffiti on them out of the transit system. Because of this, many graffiti artists had to resort to new ways to express themselves.
During this period many graffiti artists have taken to displaying their works in galleries and owning their own studios. This practice started in the early 1980s with artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, who started out tagging locations with his signature SOS (Same Old Shit), and Keith Haring, who was also able to take his art into studio spaces.
In some cases, graffiti artists have achieved such elaborate graffiti (especially those done in memory of a deceased person) on storefront gates that shopkeepers have hesitated to cover them up. In the Bronx after the death of rapper Big Pun, several murals dedicated to his life appeared virtually overnight; similar outpourings occurred after the deaths of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. Princess Diana and Mother Teresa were also memorialised this way in New York City.
The first forms of subway graffiti were quick spray-painted or marker signatures (“tags”), which quickly evolved into large elaborate calligraphy, complete with colour effects, shading, and more. As time went by, graffiti artistically developed and began to greatly define the aesthetic of urban areas. Many hip hop crews have made a name for themselves through their graffiti such as Afrika Bambaataa’s Black Spades. By 1976, graffiti artists like Lee Quinones began painting entire murals using advanced techniques.
Graffiti has long been villianized by those in authority and allegedly associated with gangs, violence, drug culture and street crime. In most jurisdictions, creating graffiti art on public property without permission is a criminal offense punishable by fines and incarceration.
So, graffiti is considered one of the four elements of hip hop (along with emceeing, DJing, and B-Boying). These were the four major forms of creative expression that came from the Bronx, NY and spread to the rest of the world. Graffiti represented the visual, emceeing and DJ produced the music, and B-Boying was the dance. In the early days of hip-hop, all of these elements were deeply intertwined. Graf artists were very often B-boys and emcees and DJs as well. At the hottest parties, you might see a writer doing his thing on a wall while the DJ spins and scratches, the emcee revs up the crowd, and the B-boy battling each other on the dance floor.
-Writers’ corners developed around graffiti. They were spaces where artists from all over the city could meet and come up with collective standards for judging the quality of each other’s work.