Quick Lesson In Graffiti History -
The term graffiti originally
referred to the inscriptions and markings found on the
walls of ancient ruins, such as in the civilizations of
Greece and Rome. Graffiti was done by the ancient Egyptians,
the Vikings and even the Mayans. These people communicated
with each other about daily life, current events, etc.,
offering us a direct look into their ancient street life.
It is a tradition of communication.
Even before this, there
were caves in France where prehistoric man left markings
on the walls to let us know who was there. And over the
centuries, those caves evolved into the tunnels of New
York subway system, and today onto your computer desktop.
So you can go back in time
and find that certain Renaissance artists explored the
ideas of painting their names on walls as forms of decoration.
French soldiers carved their names on monuments during
the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800's. There are also
many examples of graffiti occurring in American history.
It is part of our timeless quest for self-identity and
So, how did this markamking
end up where it is today? Those same stylized markings
can be found on clothes, in graphic design and as a basis
for fine art in galleries around the world. Even the word
"graffiti" has evolved over time to include any type of
markings inscribed onto any surface, what some regard as
From the womb to the tomb,
we as human beings have had the need to create and to mark
our territory. We need to let the rest of the world know
we are here. This is the true foundation for graff writing.
The beginning of what we call modern graffiti was
laid out in Philadelphia in the late 1960's. Two writers
named CORNBREAD and COOL EARL are credited with the first
early efforts. They gained a lot of attention from the Philadelphia
press and the community by leaving their signatures everywhere.
Then, somehow, for reasons unknown, this concept traveled
from Philly to New York around 1971.
Soon after that migration,
New York produced one of the first writers to get even
more media attention- TAKI 183. After an interview with
him was published, hundreds of kids began to write their
names all over New York. This was the start of getting
fame, when writers used their signatures to become heroes
in their own communities.
As graffiti became more
and more popular and more visible, writers, created new
styles and thought of new ways to write their names and
make their tags unique. Writers created many new script
and calligraphy styles and enhanced their tags with flourishes
and symbols. Some symbols were strictly for visual impact
while others had meaning, such as crowns, which writers
used to proclaim themselves kings. They used arrows to
show movement and underlining to show importance. Quotation
marks and exclamation points became essential design elements.
This time, let's say between 1969 and 1974, is referred
to as the "pioneering era" when graffiti experienced a
surge in styles and popularity. But it was still strictly
Emergence of the Piece
The next major development was scale. In addition
to the growing complexity and creativity, tags grew larger
as writers increased letter size and line thickness and outlined
their work. This was the beginning of the piece, short for
masterpiece. It is difficult to be certain who did the first
true piece, but it is a commonly credited to SUPER KOOL 223.
The thicker letters provided the opportunity for writers
to further enhance the name and to color the interiors of
the letters with patterns and designs.
Around 1974, writers like
TRACY 168 and BLADE created works that had serious
backgrounds, incorporating characters, scenery, and other
illustrations on subway cars. This formed the basis for
the mural whole car, called the burner, which led to top-to-bottoms,
works that span the entire height of a subway car, and
the end-to-end burner, when the entire car is covered.
By the end of 1974, the
foundations were laid, allowing styles to develop that
departed from tag-styled pieces. This was a turning point
in graff history, when graffiti made the leap from tagging
to style-driven pieces. Soon arrows, curls, connections
and twists ran all through the letters. These additions
became the basis for semi-wildstyle and unreadable wildstyle
Writers such as RIFF 170
took ideas from other writers and improved upon them, helping
the competitive atmosphere, which is a necessary aspect
of graffiti. Other writers, including FLINT 707 and CASE
2, made major contributions in the development of three-dimensional
lettering by adding depth to the piece, which became the
The spread of graffiti worldwide happened during the
'80's with the explosion of the hip hop subculture. Fueled
by music videos and films, images of New York street culture
were channeled around the world. Almost overnight, everyone
wanted to be a New York City B-boy. Modern graffiti is often
seen as being mixed with hip hop culture. However, let's
be clear: Modern graffiti predates hip hop by at least a
decade. Graff was here before hip hop, graff will be here
after hip hop, and if it wasn't for graff, there would be
no hip hop.
That said, hip hop and
graff reached Europe together. European writers spent years
studying letters, styles, and New York street culture.
They copied the early styles, then expanded upon them.
Graffiti magazines documented early movements across Europe.
And the printed media proved to be an additional catalyst
for the expansion of graffiti art worldwide.
Also during the early 1980's,
American writers began touring Europe via art galleries
in cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Stuttgart.
There was one major difference: European writers were focused
on painting walls, not trains, which led to different styles.
Europeans also wanted to
paint in the birthplace of modern graffiti, so many Americans
hosted them in what were called pilgrimages to Mecca. American
writers went to Europe to paint and European writers came
to America to paint. By the late '80's the European graffiti
scene was in full swing.
It's All About Style
Graffiti art is a uniquely
American Art form. Today, it is inluencing the work of creative
individuals worldwide in areas as diverse as graphic design,
photgraphy, advertising, fine art, and even multimedia and
Why are we attracted to
graffiti? I believe that part of it has to do with what
I call the psychology of self-affirmation. There is something
inside of us that wants to take up space and proclaim our
existence. Graffiti has always been about rebellion, style,
When you do your thing
today, you will influence the people of tomorrow, and the
observations they create will influence the next generation
after that. And the pursuit of styles becomes a never ending
quest. We must all think about improving, about getting
better, because history will be watching.
I believe everyone- taggers,
bombers, and piecers- needs to take his or her own style
to the absolute limit, and then do it all over again. Moving
forward, we are concerned with style.