Over decades, Graffiti has evolved from a means of vandalism into a legitimate artistic expression. Illegal in many countries, its practitioners have been forced to seek anonymity.
And yet despite its nefarious origins, today’s pieces of work can reach prices of hundreds of thousands even million of dollars! Most modern graffiti has a political theme, usually one that rages against state repression and the elite. Despite its new artistic aspirations, graffiti remains the urban voice of rebellion.
Jean-Michel Basquiat “Dustheads” Price: $48.4 million. Known for his graffiti works in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan back in the 70s, Jean Michael Basquiat had the privilege of meeting Andy Warhol, one of the greats in modern art. Credits FinancesOnline
The origins of Graffiti
It can be argued graffiti goes back to the times of Ancient Greece and Rome. Citizens would scratch popular quotes of the day and political slogans onto public walls.
In fact the word graffiti comes from the Italian word graffiato, meaning ‘scratched.’ With spray cans and marker pens unavailable in ancient times, using a piece of rock or bone to scratch a message onto a stone wall was the only option.
What we might call modern graffiti originated in the 1960s in Philadelphia, USA and spread throughout that decade to New York City.
The commercial introduction of aerosol paint cans gave street gangs a means to mark their territories.
It became almost a game for some graffiti writers to tag their alias as many times as they could around New York City. This pursuit really took off in 1971 when the New York Times ran an article on the notorious TAKI183. Shortly after it was hard to find a subway train in New York which wasn’t covered with graffiti art. Most today remember carriages scrawled in the distinctive colorful style known as bubble writing.
The Graffiti leader Taki 183. TAKI 183 is the “tag” of a Greek graffiti writer who was active during the late 1960s and early 1970s in New York City.The writer, whose surname is Dimitrios, has never revealed his full name. streetartnyc, wsimag
In 1972, Hugo Martinez formed United Graffiti Artists and graffiti at last began to be recognized as works of art and exhibited in galleries.
Graffiti art began to spread outside New York and at the end of the decade, The Fabulous 5, a Brooklyn graffiti group, exhibited their work in Rome!
The 1980s saw the hip-hop music scene break out into the public consciousness. Drawn from the 1970s inner city rap music of African Americans, hip-hop developed ever more complex styles during the 1980s. It was only natural, given its roots, that hip-hop would also embrace street graffiti art and increase its visibility.
Outside the USA, the burgeoning UK punk scene in the late 70s and early 80s used graffiti to help promote its anarchist message. While many East Europeans also took up the graffiti sword as the USSR began to crumble apart.
Spray It, Don’t Say It
Initially graffiti was used to mark the territories of street gangs.
But it soon became the medium of choice for young, disaffected urban dwellers who wanted to put their political point across.
The spray can became the tool of choice, and marking names, words and slogans on public architecture meant that in a way it became a part of the city’s skin. No part of the urban infrastructure went untouched. Post-boxes, phone boxes, tunnels, buses and later subway trains all fell victim to the rebel artist’s aerosol.
Today, graffiti is legal on certain surfaces in certain cities. But back in the day your typical graffiti artist had to take precautions if he didn’t want to catch some jail time. When subway trains were targeted, graffitists would hit the inside of the carriages, even during New York City rush hour.
They knew they had at best only a few minutes to create their masterpiece. Often they would move from carriage to carriage, bombing their designs as quickly as possible. Later, these same guys learnt how to break into trains while they were parked at night in the yard. This afforded them more time to create even better masterpieces, with far less risk of getting caught by the authorities. This night-time artistry only boosted the notoriety of graffiti artists, elevating them to the same status as cat burglars.
Bombing the Trains, Train yard. Image Credits The Grifters
The most prominent graffiti artists protected their anonymity by giving themselves unique tags, such as Joe 136 and Julio 204. The number in each tag was usually a street number. Graffiti artists endeavored to outdo each other on the number of places their tag was displayed. But even this wasn’t enough. To achieve even greater fame among a steadily increasing number of graffiti artists, many were led to develop their own styles.
Some adopted flourishes, crowns and stars to set themselves apart. Others simply went large, assuming that the bigger their art the more notice it would draw, and the more notoriety they would achieve. Choosing a larger nozzle – or cap – on an aerosol gave you a thicker paint line.
Wildstyle is a complicated and intricate form of graffiti. Due to its complexity, it is often very hard to read by people who are not familiar with it. Usually, this form of graffiti incorporates interwoven and overlapping letters and shapes. Image Vimeo
Bigger letters in turn led to hatching designs within the letters, such as checkerboards, stars and dots. A greater visual effect could also be achieved by outlining letters in a separate color. Letters would also be sprayed joined up in a sans-serif script style. Most graffiti artists endeavored to hallmark themselves with a particular calligraphic font. This ensured them a higher notoriety.
From Street Tagging To High Art
With graffiti artists developing their unique styles, graffiti began to develop as a significant art form. Like any art form which becomes mainstream, there are always a few artists at the tip of the pyramid who achieve real fame and wealth. The most famous of course is Banksy, whose pieces of graffiti art are collected worldwide and reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Banksy retains his anonymity even today and there are suggestions whether Banksy represents one or a group of artists. Banksy has developed his own distinctive technique of stencil art. Image Daily Mail
Shepard Fairey is another graffitist whose work, like Banksy’s, is exhibited at some of the world’s top art galleries. And Blek le Rat is a French graffiti artist famous for stenciling the image of a large rat all over Paris in the early 1980s.
Over the last four decades graffiti has developed from a raw form of urban protest to a sophisticated, legitimate art model.
It has become a mainstream art form, combining mystery and political defiance with bold, arresting visuals. Despite its numerous past run-ins with the law, graffiti is definitely here to stay.
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Feature Image graffiti.ee
How Old Is Graffiti? – wonderopolis.org
20th Century Graffiti – The Rise of Graffiti Art, by Steve Gray, March 19, 2015
History of Graffiti Pt 1, by Eric aka DEAL CIA and SPAR ONE TFP of At149st.com, 1998