It is nearly impossible these days to get from point A to point B with out seeing some sort of graffiti on a variety of surfaces. As graffiti continues to cause disagreement between city officials, civilians, and art enthusiasts, one thing is certain, graffiti isn’t going away.
As an art enthusiast myself, I love seeing graffiti. Murals, political statements, slogans, declarations of love, the mixing of colors, etc. it excites me and inspires me, but the one thing I am most fascinated about is how this desire to communicate artistically on walls and surfaces started over 2 million years ago… Let’s rewind back to the Paleolithic era (A.K.A. “The Old Stone Era”).
The Old Stone Age (2.5 million years ago):
During the Paleolithic Period, the human impulse to graffiti or “scratch” designs into the walls to either communicate, self-express, or simply pass the time (let’s all keep in mind they had no television, iPhones, Youtube, nada!). By using animal bones or tools they created from… You guessed it, stone, they depicted pictures of animals and abstract shapes into their cave walls. With most art, their meanings are up for debate.
Petroglyphs (Founded in Africa, Asia, Europe, Central and South America, Caribbean, North America, and Australia):
Our next finding of graffiti takes us to petroglyphs, better known as a “rock carving”. What’s interesting about this is that everywhere except Greece, these carvings were either doodles or notes in regards to astronomy, hunting, or simply just observations. The difference with Greece is that these petroglyphs were the first recorded advertisements ever. One of the most ancient being directions to a brothel. Two thousand years ago we found our first take at “modern-style graffiti”. Fascinating, right?!
Modern- Style Graffiti:
In Ancient Rome, during the 8th century BC, the graffiti differed, we found political statements, poetry, declarations of love, or the marking territory, literally.
In Pompeii, after the destruction caused by Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, historians found graffiti which included expressing their love for someone, quotes from literature, Italian curse words, and thoughts and opinions.
Jerusalem, Egypt, Turkey, and Sri Lanka all have evidence of ancient graffiti. This human impulse to self express publicly has been around since as far as we can trace back mankind.
The Early Pioneers:
It wasn’t until 1960 where we began to read about graffiti. The first credited writer of graffiti is none other
than Darryl “Cornbread” McCray (Philadelphia). After professing his love and tagging his name all over the city of North Philadelphia, he got his “hood fame” after being incorrectly reported that he was dead. To make astatement and prove he was in fact alive, he broke into the zoo and tagged his name on an elephant. He and his best friend Cool Earl were the leading pioneers of graffiti writing.
From there we head to New York City. After being credited in the New York Times, Taki 183’s graffiti reign took off. With his nickname Taki and living on 183rd St. in Washington Heights, he inspired kids like him to tag their names with their street number as well, ultimately giving the New York Times their Headline “Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals”. This brought on the graffiti writers known as Julio 124 and Cay161. From here the emergence of graffiti art on subway cars came about which led us to the Phase 2, who can be noted for his distinctive bubble lettering and Blade, who was responsible for covering entire carriages.
The early 1970’s introduced graffiti artists to the possibility of commissioned gallery pieces as well. Not only were they able to produce their art outdoors, but they could showcase their art in galleries as well. By the end of this decade Lee Quiñones and Fab 5 Freddie were given the opportunity to display their art at an exhibition in Rome.
We also saw the emergence of stencil art with John Fekner within 1968 and Blek le Rat in 1981. This type of graffiti would inspire artists such as Banksy, C215, Dolk, and more.
Public Art Films:
In 1983, the world was hit with the infamous documentary Style Wars. This documentary had a large focus on graffiti, but it also intersected the relationship with the hip hop culture, bboying, and rapping. Featured in this documentary:
Demon, Se3, Spank, Dez, Skeme, Ces 157, Min 1 (NE), Iz the Wiz, Quik, Sach, Dondi, Seen, Kase2, DUSTER UA, Zephyr, Revolt, Wasp 1, Noc, Kase, D-5, Kosco, Trap, Butch, Zone, Kid 167, rafael 666, Cap, Shy 147, Seen TC5, Mare 139, Daze, Crash, Paze, Cey, Futura, Fred, Duro, and Taki 183.
Crazy Legs and Frosty Freeze
20th and 21st Century:
As the hip hop scene materialized in the 80’s, graffiti began to correlate with its come up. With artists being mentioned in songs, featured in music videos, or just gaining more media attention, graffiti art began to play a huge roll in what we would see today.
To further the segue between outdoor art and gallery art, artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring took a different approach with their art to allow it to be seen in gallery settings.
Now, like anything else, graffiti has had its fair share of being commercialized. With Justin Bieber trying to make his mark, and brands making their inspired attempts, the art form is becoming an oversaturated market of guerrilla marketing. Unlike anything else in this world, the true roots and culture behind its beginnings lose focus and we are left with marketing tactics, and ways to seem “cool”. With graffiti workshops, how-to classes, and global firms getting cheap illustrations, the real artists can’t flourish.
Artists such as: Jean-Michael Basquiat, Futura, Zephyr, Lady Pink, Dondi, King Robbo, and Rammellzee, to name a few, all deserve the much needed praise and credit for pushing the envelope and defining their craft, in addition to the pioneers who got us to where we are today.