The History of Graffiti
Writing on the walls has been a constant in human history ever since we lived in caves and cooked around the fireplace. Since then, writing on the wall has been evolving, and today we mostly associate text on walls with the word; graffiti.
THE STORY STARTS HERE
Since the beginning of the hip-hop movement in the 70’s, the graffiti community has grown worldwide. New words such as Toys, Crews, Tags, Pieces, Throw ups, Bombing, Outline and going All City. B boys and B girls popped up in every young person’s vocabulary, and every telephone post and wall were scribbled upon – especially in the city where it all really started; New York. All train systems had graffiti on them, carrying the graffiti writer’s artwork all the way from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Graffiti was all about getting up, having your art seen, being more, being cool, being the best. Graffiti were all about being the best writer, doing the largest and most colorful pieces, executing the cleanest throw up in the least amount of time, having respect and giving respect. And the beauty of it is that still is all about that, that is what the graffiti community is all about. Graffiti and the hip-hop movement grew from the economic crisis in New York and other American larger cities were facing in the start 70’s.
It became a voice of the people who had been let down by a system. It became a language only they could read, and they were proud of it.
The graffiti community exploded
In the beginning of the 80’s the graffiti community exploded in a positive way. Legendary writers such as BLADE, SEEN, DONDI, LEE and PHASE 2 dominated the scene, making some of the best burners in the world, and thus laying the foundation for what we call graffiti today. Graffiti was everywhere in music videos and commercials being shown all over the world; movies, magazines, and professional exhibitions in Amsterdam. The movie Wild Style was shown on television in 1982 and later the movie Style Wars and the subway art book came to the surface of the world. These movies, magazines, commercials, and books made graffiti go international, and the styles were set free all around the world to be developed by the future generations. Today, the internet has brought us all together, making it possible to see what styles that are practiced in New Zealand, LA, Copenhagen and South Africa making it possible to be inspired be each other.
THE MASTERPIECE ERA
When writers discovered the location of the parked subway trains, it had a dramatic effect on the evolution of the graffiti art form and led to the creation of letters on a much larger scale than ever before. The writers credited for being the first to push the envelope and enlarge their names beyond the signature were El Marko and CLIFF159 who were, early on, painting their names in enlarged outlines with one color.
By the summer of 1971, the graffiti writer EVILED took it a step further by deciding to fill in the inside of his outlined letters thus standing out from all other writers at the time. This was a necessary step for the young movement to forge ahead toward grander works.
According to PHASE2, a pioneering writer from the Bronx, a “masterpiece” had to possess three qualitie a large scale, outline letters and decoration within the outline letters. He credited the first color masterpiece on a train as being painted by SUPERKOOL223 – who in the summer of 1972 painted his name with filled in color and added polka dots as a design element. The impact of the innovation was immediately evident as teenagers far and wide began to enlarge their names on the sides of trains and train station walls, adding color and design as well. Another early pioneer, TRACY168, believes that the first wall masterpiece was created by LIONEL168, BARBARA62 and EVA62 working together in the Bronx.
By late 1972, painting the train exteriors was common among the writers who competed to achieve the trifecta of high visibility, innovative style, and originality. During these early years, it was Brooklyn writers with bold names like PISTOL1, KILLER, MICO and SAVAGE whose names stood out as well as Bronx writers ALLJIVE161, ROX, and HONDO1. Each added an element of innovation with their early works – HONDO1’s candy cane letters, as an example, were duplicated by many. By this time the activity on the trains was ferocious and the young writers copied one another making it difficult to identify where the innovations originated from.
With trains sitting in yards for the entire weekend, writers continued to push the limits of their creativity as well as scale. By 1973, artists such as STAFF161, KING2, TRACY168, and LSD Om were creating and modifying styles and were established names among their teenage peers.
During these early years, design innovations such as the 3D effect in both the KING2 piece from 1973 and the MICO piece from the same year, were adopted, copied and modified by the young writers. By 1974, artists like PHASE2, RIFF170, TRACY168, PEL139 and others were creating masterpieces that covered the entire sides of trains from top to bottom and end to end.
1975 saw the emergence of the artists BLADE (Bronx) and CLIFF159 (Manhattan) as the two most prolific train writers in the City and in direct competition to create the most elaborate works which often contained cartoon characters and highly stylized letters. These artists paved the way for the artist LEE TF5 (Lee Quiñones) to eventually become the most respected of the train writers. This was a result of painting over one hundred murals on the sides of the trains with themes ranging from war protest, to dance, to the Christmas theme which writers would use for years to come.
Graffiti is about having fun
In our perspective, graffiti should be all about having fun. Graffiti is about making letters dance, putting characteristic into these dancing letters by giving them “personalities”. You can always tell what kind of a person a graffiti writer is just by looking at his letter styles. Are they aggressive? Are they funky? Are they bubbly and light or heavy and dark? All these things make you know a lot of that writer without even having spoken a word with them.
Painting graffiti should be like when a jazz pianist improvises. The musician makes a note that leads him to another note, and another note until he has a chord. This chord can now be the basis for the song he is about to compose. Now he must add the right amount of extra style here and there, go back and forth some time, turn it around. Work on it. Work on it some more until it’s finally done. Painting graffiti is kind of the same thing; you make a line that has a flow that will turn into a block. You make another block, turn and twist that around and now you have the letter P. This P needs some friends, so you must make some for it until you have a word. You try some different letters – putting them in, taking them out, flipping it around and at some point, you will have it, it just feels right, you have your first tag.
Want to learn more about graffiti?
Check out our graffiti glossary which covers a wide range of terms used by graffiti artists around the world.