Beginnings of Street and Graffiti Art
Precursors to Contemporary Graffiti and Street Art
Graffiti, defined simply as writing, drawing, or painting on walls or surfaces of a structure, dates back to prehistoric and ancient times, as evidenced by the Lascaux cave paintings in France and other historic findings across the world. Scholars believe that the images of hunting scenes found at these sites were either meant to commemorate past hunting victories, or were used as part of rituals intended to increase hunters' success.
During World War II, it became popular for soldiers to write the phrase "Kilroy was here," along with a simple sketch of a bald figure with a large nose peeking over a ledge, on surfaces along their route. The motivation behind this simple early graffiti was to create a motif of connection for these soldiers during their difficult times, cementing their unique brotherhood amongst foreign land and to make themselves "seen." This was closely aligned with the motivation behind contemporary graffiti, with the writers aiming to assert their existence and to repeat their mark in as many places as possible.
Beginnings of Contemporary Graffiti in the United States
Contemporary (or "hip-hop") graffiti dates to the late 1960s, generally said to have arisen from the Black and Latino neighborhoods of New York City alongside hip-hop music and street subcultures, and catalyzed by the invention of the aerosol spray can. Early graffiti artists were commonly called "writers" or "taggers" (individuals who write simple "tags," or their stylized signatures, with the goal of tagging as many locations as possible.) Indeed, the fundamental underlying principle of graffiti practice was the intention to "get up," to have one's work seen by as many people as possible, in as many places as possible.
The exact geographical location of the first "tagger" is difficult to pinpoint. Some sources identify New York (specifically taggers Julio 204 and Taki 183 of the Washington Heights area), and others identify Philadelphia (with tagger Corn Bread) as the point of origin. Yet, it goes more or less undisputed that New York "is where graffiti culture blossomed, matured, and most clearly distinguished itself from all prior forms of graffiti," as Eric Felisbret, former graffiti artist and lecturer, explains.
Soon after graffiti began appearing on city surfaces, subway cars and trains became major targets for New York City's early graffiti writers and taggers, as these vehicles traveled great distances, allowing the writer's name to be seen by a wider audience. The subway rapidly became the most popular place to write, with many graffiti artists looking down upon those who wrote on walls. Sociologist Richard Lachmann notes how the added element of movement made graffiti a uniquely dynamic art form. He writes, "Much of the best graffiti was meant to be appreciated in motion, as it passed through dark and dingy stations or on elevated tracks. Photos and graffiti canvases cannot convey the energy and aura of giant artwork in motion."
Graffiti on subway cars began as crude, simple tags, but as tagging became increasingly popular, writers had to find new ways to make their names stand out. Over the next few years, new calligraphic styles were developed and tags turned into large, colorful, elaborate pieces, aided by the realization that different spray can nozzles (also referred to as "caps") from other household aerosol products (like oven cleaner) could be used on spray paint cans to create varying effects and line widths. It did not take long for the crude tags to grow in size, and to develop into artistic, colorful pieces that took up the length of entire subway cars.
New York City's Graffiti “Problem”
By the 1980s, the city of New York viewed graffiti's inherent vandalism as a major concern, and a massive amount of resources were poured into the graffiti "problem." As Art Historian Martha Cooper writes, "For [New York City mayor Ed] Koch, graffiti was evidence of a lack of authoritarian order; as such, the presence of graffiti had a psychological effect that made all citizens its victim through a disruption of the visual order, thus promoting a feeling of confusion and fear among people." The New York Police cracked down on writers, often following suspect youth as they left school, searching them for graffiti-related paraphernalia, staking out their houses, or gathering information from informants. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) received a significant increase in their budget in 1982, allowing them to erect more sophisticated fences and to better maintain the train yards and lay-ups that were popular targets for writers (due to the possibility for hitting several cars at once). However, writers saw these measures as a mere challenge, and worked even harder to hit their targets, while also becoming increasingly territorial and aggressive toward other writers and "crews" (groups of writers).
In 1984, the MTA launched its Clean Car Program, which involved a five-year plan to completely eliminate graffiti on subway cars, operating on the principle that a graffiti-covered subway car could not be put into service until all the graffiti on it had been cleaned off. This program was implemented one subway line at a time, gradually pushing writers outward, and by 1986 many of the city's lines were completely clear of graffiti. Lieutenant Steve Mona recalls one day when the ACC crew hit 130 cars in a yard at Coney Island, assuming that the MTA wouldn't shut down service and that the graffitied trains would run. Yet the MTA opted to not provide service, greatly inconveniencing citizens who had to wait over an hour for a train that morning. That was the day that the MTA's dedication to the eradication of graffiti became apparent.
However graffiti was anything but eradicated. In the past few decades, this practice has spread around the world, often maintaining elements of the American wildstyle, like interlocking letterforms and bold colors, yet also adopting local flare, such as manga-inspired Street Art in Japan.
From Graffiti to Street Art: Greater Variation in Styles, Techniques, and Materials
It is important to note that contemporary graffiti has developed completely apart from traditional, institutionalized art forms. Art critic and curator Johannes Stahl writes that, "We have long since got accustomed to understanding art history as a succession of epochs [...] But at the same time there has always existed something outside of official art history, a unruly and recalcitrant art, which takes place not in the sheltered environs of churches, collections or galleries, but out on the street." Graffiti artists today draw inspiration from Art History at times, but it cannot be said that graffiti grew directly out of any such canon or typology. Modern graffiti did not begin as an art form at all, but rather, as a form of text-based urban communication that developed its own networks. As Lachmann notes, rather than submitting to the criteria of valuation upheld by the institutionalized art world, early graffiti writers developed an entirely new and separate art world, based on their own "qualitative conception of style" and the particular "aesthetic standards" developed within the community for judging writers' content and technique.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, many graffiti writers began to shift away from text-based works to include imagery. Key artists involved in this shift included Jean-Michel Basquiat (who wrote graffiti using the tag SAMO) and Keith Haring, whose simple illuminated figures gave testament to the AIDS epidemic, both of whom were active in New York City. Around the same time, many artists also began experimenting with different techniques and materials, the most popular being stencils and wheat paste posters.
Concepts and Styles
Since the turn of the millennium, this proliferation has continued, with artists using all sorts of materials to complete illegal works in pubic spaces. The myriad approaches have come to be housed under the label of "Street Art" (sometimes also referred to as "Urban Art"), which has expanded its purview beyond graffiti to include these other techniques and styles.
The term "graffiti" comes from the Greek "graphein," meaning "to scratch, draw, or write," and thus a broad definition of the term includes all forms of inscriptions on walls. More specifically, however, the modern, or "hip-hop" graffiti, that has pervaded city spaces since the 1960s and 1970s involves the use of spray paint or paint markers. It is associated with a particular aesthetic, most often utilizing bold color choices, involving highly stylized and abstract lettering known as "wildstyle," and/or including cartoon-like characters.
Photographer and author Nicolas Ganz notes that graffiti and Street Art practices are characterized by differing "sociological elements," writing that graffiti writers continue to be "governed by the desire to spread one's tag and achieve fame" through both quality and quantity of pieces created, while street artists are governed by "fewer rules and [embrace] a much broader range of styles and techniques." Anthropologist and archaeologist Troy Lovata and art historian Elizabeth Olson write that "the rapid proliferation of this aggressive style of writing appearing on the walls of urban centres all over the world has become an international signifier of rebellion," and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard has called it the "symbolic destruction of social relations."
Stencils (also known as stencil graffiti) are usually prepared beforehand out of paper or cardboard and then brought to the site of the work's intended installation, attached to the wall with tape, and then spray painted over, resulting in the image or text being left behind once the stencil is removed. Many street artists favor the use of stencils as opposed to freehand graffiti because they allow for an image or text to be installed very easily in a matter of seconds, minimizing the chance of run-ins with the authorities. Stencils are also preferable as they are infinitely re-useable and repeatable. Sometimes artists use multiple layers of stencils on the same image to add colors, details, and the illusion of depth. Brighton-based artist Hutch explains that he prefers to stencil because "it can produce a very clean and graphic style, which is what I like when creating realistic human figures. Also, the effect on the viewer is instant, you don't need to wait for it to sink in."
One of the earliest known street artists to use stencils was John Fekner, who started using the technique in 1968 to stencil purely textual messages onto walls. Other well-known stencil artists include French artists Ernest Pignon-Ernest and Blek le Rat, British artists Nick Walker and Banksy, and American artists Shepard Fairey and Above.
Wheat Paste Posters
Wheat paste (also known as flour paste) is a gel or liquid adhesive made from combining wheat flour or starch with water. Many street artists use wheat paste to adhere paper posters to walls. Much like stencils, wheat paste posters are preferable for street artists as it allows them to do most of the preparation at home or in the studio, with only a few moments needed at the site of installation, pasting the poster to the desired surface. This is crucial for artists installing works in unsanctioned locations, as it lowers the risk of apprehension and arrest. Some street artists who use the wheat paste method include Italian duo Sten and Lex, French artists JR and Ludo, and American artist Swoon.
Sculptural Street Art Interventions
Some street artists create three-dimensional sculptural interventions, which can be installed surreptitiously in public spaces, usually under the cover of darkness. This type of work differs from Public Art in that it is rebellious in nature and completed illegally, while Public Art is officially sanctioned/commissioned (and thus more palatable to a general audience). Unsanctioned Street Art interventions usually aim to shock viewers by presenting a visually realistic, yet simultaneously unbelievable situation. For instance, in his Third Man Series (2006), artist Dan Witz installs gloves on sewer grates to give the impression that a person is inside the sewer attempting to escape. Works like these often cause passers-by to do a "double-take."
Reverse graffiti (also known as clean tagging, dust tagging, grime writing, clean graffiti, green graffiti, or clean advertising) is a method by which artists create images on walls or other surfaces by removing dirt from a surface. According to British reverse graffiti artist Moose, "Once you do this, you make people confront whether or not they like people cleaning walls or if they really have a problem with personal expression." This sort of work calls attention to environmental concerns in urban spaces, such as pollution.
There are street artists who experiment with other media, such as Invader (Paris), who adheres ceramic tiles to city surfaces, recreating images from the popular Space Invaders video game of 1978. Invader says that tile is "a perfect material because it is permanent. Even after years of being outside the colors don't fade."
Many other artists use simple stickers, which they post on surfaces around the city. Often, these stickers are printed with the artist's tag or a simple graphic. Others invite participation from the audience, like Ji Lee who pastes empty comic speech-bubbles onto advertisements, allowing passers-by to write in their own captions.
Others still use natural materials to beautify urban spaces. For instance, in 2005, Shannon Spanhake planted flowers in various potholes of the streets in Tijuana, Mexico. She says of the project, "Adorning the streets of Tijuana are potholes, open wounds that mark the failure of man's Promethean Project to tame nature, and somehow surviving in the margins are abandoned buildings, entropic monuments celebrating a hyperrealistic vision of a modernist utopia linked to capitalist expansion gone awry."
There are also artists who create Street Art interventions through the use of clay, chalk, charcoal, knitting, and projected photo/video. The possibilities for Street Art media are endless.
Later Developments - After Street and Graffiti Art
Street Art continues to be a popular category of art all over the world, with many of its practitioners rising to fame and mainstream success (such as Bristol's Banksy, Paris' ZEVS, and L.A.'s Shepard Fairey). Street artists who experience commercial success are often criticized by their peers for "selling out" and becoming part of the system that they had formerly rebelled against by creating illegal public works. Communications professor Tracey Bowen sees the act of creating graffiti as both a "celebration of existence" and "a declaration of resistance." Similarly, Slovenian Feminist author Tea Hvala views graffiti as "the most accessible medium of resistance" for oppressed people to use against dominant culture due to its tactical (non-institutional, decentralized) qualities. For both Bowen and Hvala these unique positive attributes of graffiti are heavily reliant on its location in urban public spaces. Art critic and curator Johannes Stahl argues that the public context is crucial for Street Art to be political, because "it happens in places that are accessible to all [and] it employs a means of expression that is not controlled by the government." Street artist BOOKSIIII holds an opinion not uncommon of many of today's street artists, that it is not inherently wrong for young artists to try to make money from galleries and corporations for their works, "as long as they do their job honestly, sell work, and represent careers," yet at the same time he notes that "graffiti does not stay the same when transferred to the gallery from the street. A tag on canvas will never hold the same power as the exact same tag on the street."
This movement from the street to the gallery also indicates a growing acceptance of graffiti and Street Art within the mainstream art world and art history. Some apply the label "post-graffiti" to the work of street artists that also participate in the mainstream art world, although this is somewhat of a misnomer, as many such artists continue to execute illegal public interventions at the same time as they participate in sanctioned exhibitions in galleries and museums. This phenomenon also presents difficulties for art historians, as the sheer number of street artists, as well as their tendency to maintain anonymity, makes it hard to engage with individual artists in any sort of profound way. Moreover, it is difficult to insert Street Art into the art historical canon, as it did not develop from any progression of artistic movements, but rather began independently, with early graffiti and street artists developing their own unique techniques and aesthetic styles. Today, street artists both inspire and are inspired by many other artistic movements and styles, with many artists' works bearing elements of wide-ranging movements, from Pop Art to Renaissance Art.
Street Art's status as vandalism often eclipses its status as art. More recently, as mentioned above, many artists are finding more opportunities to create artworks in sanctioned situations, by showing in galleries and museums, or by partnering with organizations that offer outdoor public spaces in which street artists are permitted to execute works. However, many others continue to focus on unsanctioned illegal works. Part of the allure of working illegally has to do with the adrenaline rush that artists get from successfully executing a piece without being apprehended by the authorities. Moreover, carrying out illegal/unsanctioned attacks on privately owned surfaces (such as a billboard being rented out by an advertising agency, or a politically-charged surface such as border walls), serves as a direct confrontation with the owner of that space (be it a marketing firm, or a political entity).
Technology and the Internet
With the advent of the Internet and the development of various graphic software and technologies, street artists now have a multitude of tools at their fingertips to assist in the creation and dissemination of their works. Specialized computer programs allow artists (like San Francisco-born MOMO) to better plan for their graffiti pieces and prepare their stencils and wheat paste posters, while digital photography used in conjunction with the Internet and social media allows Street Art works to be documented, shared, and thus immortalized where previously, most pieces tended to disappear when they were removed by city authorities or painted over by other artists.
- Banksy is a contemporary British Street/Graffiti artist who in recent years has received enormous attention for his politicized and guerilla-style wall murals and large installations. Banksy's style is characterized by its dark humor and an iconic stenciling technique.
- Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American painter who rose to fame in the 1980s, and was the first African-American artist to gain international acclaim. His emotionally-charged paintings gave rise to graffiti art and the Neo-Expressionist movement, and are still considered among the most avant-garde artworks of the late twentieth century.
- Keith Haring was a crucial part of the 1980s New York City art, performance and street scenes, creating graffiti-inspired works and drawings, often in public places such as the subway.
- Daniel Buren is a French conceptual artist best known for his provocative public art pieces and use of contrasting, colored stripes.
- Felix Gonzalez-Torres was an American, Cuban-born visual artist known for his minimal installations and sculptures. Using materials such as strings of lightbulbs, clocks, stacks of paper, or packaged hard candies, his work is sometimes considered a reflection of his experience with AIDS and living at the time of the outbreak of that disease.
- The Guerrilla Girls are a radical feminist activist group that agitates for women's equality in museums and the art world. Originating in the 1980s and active to this day, they are famous for their poster designs and the gorilla masks their members wear as disguises.
Do Not Miss
- Institutional Critique is the practice of systematic inquiry into the workings of art institutions and their connections to the development of art. Institutional Critique focuses on the relationships between the viewer, language, process, the consumption of art.
- Installation art is a genre of contemporary art-making in which two- and three-dimensional materials are used to transform a particular site into an immersive space for the visitor. Installations may include sculptural, found, sound-based, and performance elements, and can be permanent or ephemeral.
- Street photography captures the moments of everyday life in public places. Photographers rely on framing and timing to immortalize a candid, sometimes called "decisive" moment. Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, and Walker Evans were innovators of the movement.
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
First published on 17 Apr 2019. Updated and modified regularly