Art History  •  Famous faces

Graffiti in America: A Brief History of Modern Graffiti

Graffiti art is when text and images are drawn or spray painted onto walls and surfaces, usually in urban, public places and normally without permission. The notion of drawing words and images on to walls is not a modern one and can be dated back to Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. But Graffiti art as we know it was born in 1970s New York, when people started to use the medium of spray paints to leave their unique signature on public spaces of every kind. Graffiti has many forms, from the stylised graphic imagery known as wildstyle to boldly aesthetic ciphers, commonly known as as tags and unique to each artist.

Style, Characteristics and Limitations

Street Art and Graffiti are two terms that often go hand in hand. Both art forms happen in the public arena. However, Street art, as a category of artistic production, is a much broader identifier in regards to its lack of characteristic limitations on style and medium. Comparatively, contemporary Graffiti art is fairly narrow in its identification, centering on the concept of tagging and emphasizing a text-based aesthetic. Street art, meanwhile, extends to a wide range of media, from stencils to video projections.

Although somewhat confined in terms of categorization, contemporary Graffiti is created in a huge range of styles and techniques. The primary Graffiti form is the tag. Tags, put simple, are names of individual artists spray painted or stenciled onto public surfaces in a highly stylised manner. Associated with tags and tagging is the Throw-Up, an elaborated tag that usually features more colour variance and complicated design.

Since tagging is most often executed on property that does not belong to the artist, it is sometimes considered vandalism. However, the art of taking up space that is technically ‘off-limits’ is a means by which to explore concepts of hierarchy, ownership, and creative freedom. It is unsurprising, then, that contemporary Graffiti is most often associated with the disenfranchised black urban populations of America.

Graffiti in the U.S.

Contemporary Graffiti began, ostensibly, in Philadelphia at the dawn of the 1960s. Historians often cite the death of acclaimed American jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker as a catalyst for the spread of contemporary Graffiti is the U.S. Parker, nicknamed “Yardbird” or “Bird” passed away in 1955. The same year, Graffiti began appearing around New York City bearing the words “Bird Lives”. This trend is regarded as the first iteration of organized categorical Graffiti in New York. However, it was not for another decade that Graffiti started to flourish on the streets of NYC.

Graffiti on a New York City subway car, circa 1970s.
Large-scale design n a New York City subway car, circa 1970s.

Around 1970-71 the center of Graffiti culture shifted from Philadelphia to New York City. In predominantly black neighborhoods like Washington Heights, Graffiti artists began making a name and building artist collective. Artists like TAKI 183 and Tracy 168 started to gain notoriety for their frequent illegal tagging. Using a tagging convention in which their moniker combined their street address with their nickname, these artists “bombed” subway trains with their mark, letting the train dissipate their work across the city. During the 1970s, the New York City scene was dominated by a legendary crew with over 500 members that included names such as Blade, Cope 2, T Kid 170, Cap, Juice 177, and Dan Plasma.

Developments in New York

As the art form grew, it came to transcend lettering and incorporated abstract and figurative compositions to accompany the text, something which has a role to play in its eventual commercial success. Wildstyle and Bubble are terms used to describe more complex aerosol paintings that were more difficult to read and resembled abstract compositions of interlocking forms and letters. Occasionally, artists will choose to work with brushes in order to add more detail to the imagery. Abstract art became increasingly influential in the Graffiti scene throughout the 1980s, perhaps due to the growing commercial success of artists like Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michele Basquiat, the latter combining elements of street and abstract art in his neo-expressionist paintings. With the integration of the abstract, artists focused primarily on the pure aestheticism of the piece, combining color, shape and line to create a visually balanced composition.

Wildstyle Graffiti in New York by artist Swet.
Wildstyle design in New York by artist Swet.

By the 1990s, Graffiti became a world popular subculture. Artists like Banksy and Blek le Rat reached global recognition with their stencil style art pieces. Graffiti had officially hit the mainstream. But with popularization came commercialization. In 2001, for example, tech giant IBM launched an advertising campaign in Chicago and San Francisco that commissioned artists to spray branded content across the city. In 2005, Sony launched a similar ad campaign in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami. The campaign marketed Sony’s new handheld PSP gaming system.

Graffiti and the Traditionalism of the Art World

Graffiti in its truest form is very rarely exhibited within the walls of traditional art institutions although the style, tags and graphic motifs have inspired many modern and contemporary artists. The canvases of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, which hang in some of the world’s most prestigious museums such as the MoMA, are indebted to the world of street art. However, the commercialization of their work did not take full effect until after the 1990s when Graffiti had reached the mainstream. In more recent years, with the popularity and intrigue for Graffiti art growing, a number of Street artists, including Banksy, have presented their work in commercial gallery settings.

Graffiti inspired work by Jean‐Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Pollo Frito) (1982). Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Jean‐Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Pollo Frito) (1982). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The increase in the popularity of Graffiti and urban artistic culture more broadly has spurred many traditional Graffiti artists to combine their street style and techniques with more traditional, studio-based practices. Graffiti, especially in the past twenty years, has managed to shake off its association with vandalism and public defacement and has entered the realm of high art. While some of the original New York Graffiti artists of the 70s such as Lady Pink, Crash and Daze were able to cross into the commercial gallery scene, it is only now that this combination of street and studio style is becoming common practice.

Love street art? See similar work by contemporary artists on Singulart.