Hard Hitting Modern Perspective on Hip Hop Graffiti

This article is © copyright 1996 Kevin Element

Since the dawn of early man, public walls have been used as a prime surface for the creation and communication of ideas. Artistic symbols like the ones discovered in the caves of Lascaux, have been used by groups to identify, exemplify and edify philosophy for roughly 15 000 years. These scribbles appear everywhere from prehistoric caves to modern day urban alley ways and are visible in hundreds of different sizes and styles, colours and forms. One of the most exciting genres of wall art hit New York city in the early seventies and has been growing and evolving for the last twenty-five years. Hip hop graffiti and those responsible for upholding the hip hop culture use a vast array of tools (namely the spray can and microphone) to communicate the goals of this movement. Now in the United States, a war has been declared on writers of graffiti and in this time of emergency we are forced to stop and ask some important questions. Where did this hip hop community evolve from and what are they so angry about? Where and who do these artists gain their influences from? How can this form of vandalism be minimized and should it be? It will be the function of this article to define the role of the graffiti artist in a historical perspective and to argue the validity of this new art form in an aesthetic, art minded manner. Through extensive cross examination of both the hip hop sub culture and graffiti, and by making several interviews with those creating graffiti in Toronto, I have come to an understanding that these hip hop artists are yelling out, not as immature youths, but rather as mature modern thinkers during a period of history when artistic dissent and creativity is stifled by an art world filled with dogmatic tradition and a media culture pathetically addicted to the consumption of messages and images designed to propagate the sales of consumer products.

To fully comprehend the agenda of the graffiti artist, it is vital to understand the history hip hop culture and wall art, the key terms used by the artists and the difference between hip hop graffiti and other forms of vandalism. Hip hop is a ghetto concept. It evolved out of the rap music made in New York's Brooklyn and Harlem districts in the late '60s and early '70s. Donald Clarke states that rap music was a reaction to disco which was all the rage in elite, expensive bars throughout the United States (959). Rather than save pennies to attend these dances, ghetto musician choose to use inexpensive means to create a new sound. Rather than performing on stage, these people took to the street corner where they used lyrical rhythms and "beat boxing" to express their feelings towards the condition of ghetto life. Eventually, turn tables were employed for "scratching" (the sound created when a stylus of a record player is repeatedly passed through the grooves of any record), which gave hip hop music an original edge that separated it from traditional forms of lyrical music. Microphones became integral once the sound needed to reach mass groupings, however, it wasn't simply used to amplify the rapper but also symbolized the early hip hop ideology. By 1979, rap music had achieved international acclaim with the Sugar Hill Gang's song, 'Rapper's Delight' topping the charts. Hip hop music has never looked back and has managed to continue growing to what is now a multi million dollar industry world wide. Inner city communities finally had a musical language that spoke a new truth to generations of silenced, over gentrified communities.

Along with the advent of hip hop music, came a new phenomenon in graffiti; a form of visual expression which was by no means new. The term "graffiti" comes from the Italian word "graffito" that means scratching made on a surface. The word is related "both linguistically and in content" (CL 4) to a style of mural painting referred to as 'sgraffito'. Scene of a Dionysiac Mystery Cult, painted in 50 BC in Pompeii is an ancient example of these mural techniques (Janson 250).

In recent times, graffiti has evolved to include any marking made in public and has recently become the source of many property owners anger. Since 1989, graffiti has wound up costing the United States government over 4 000 000 000 dollars per annum and this figure is escalating (Beatty and Cray 1990). How much of this damage can be attributed to members of the hip hop culture is difficult to say, however, there are tell tale signs to identify the graffiti which surrounding the movement. The HHG "writer" (or hip hop graffiti as Donald Brewer kindly refers to them) is very dogmatic in his/her approach to graffiti. Most importantly, the writer will undoubtedly leave a name or "tag" behind to mark his activity (188). The tag is a highly complex, calligraphic symbol that has little to no meaning except to identify the writer. Often a writer will tag a crew name, like AA (Aerosol Alliance) or NES (Northern Eyegasmic Syndicate), which qualifies them as being a member of a larger collective and to boast the large membership of the movement (Chalfant 14). Some might argue that this type of writing would also embrace the marks made by gang members trying to mark territory, however, the mastery and obvious technical ability of the writer shows them to be quite different. Different spray can nozzles and brand names are used to ensure that tags don't drip. A drip is a sign that the writer has not yet mastered his tools; these inexperienced people are commonly called "toys" (Chalfant 13).

Size and complexity is another way to determine if graffiti was made by an HHG artist. In the early 1970's, a writer by the name of TAKI 183 appeared in New York and began to scribble his tag everywhere. This began the war to get "up" or to have your tag and crew name written on as many surfaces at once as possible. Soon the letters became bigger than life as writers began using markers, shoe polish, home made pens, grease pencils, paint sticks and spray cans (Brewer 188). The simple tag evolved to become what is referred to as a "throw up". A throw up is a bicolour tag written in bubble or block letters which are filled in with one colour and outlined in another. This is by far the fastest way to achieve large scale work. The next logical step in the evolution of hip hop graffiti was the "piece", a highly composed mural depicting a word or words, background, characters, quotes and messages (Brewer and Miller 1990). These murals have come under a lot of critical scrutiny since their invention in the mid '70's.

Twenty years later, HHG has been communicated to all major cities in the U.S, Canada, Britain, Europe and the world. Now, government officials and sociologists are faced with a very serious issue: can graffiti be controlled and if so how? Devon D. Brewer, a sociologist and ethnographer has spent years researching the problem of inter city graffiti and has determined that the motives of these artists are an important consideration. Brewer would argue that there are "four major values in the HHG culture: fame, artistic expression, power and rebellion" (188). Fame, embodies the recognition and respect that all writers works for. A writer may receive this praise from his/her community and crew, and is always a result of the "quantity, exposure, and quality of a writer's work" (188). Brewer goes on to state that:

Another primary concern for writer's is artistic expression, since style and aesthetics are not only means to fame, but also ends in themselves. Writers' perceptions of themselves and their work are permeated with artistic references and themes. (188)

Power, as a secondary consideration, is secured when a writer or crew gain symbolic ownership over geography, like a transit line or neighbourhood. This would be achieved by tagging or piecing the location thoroughly. By making such a profound impact upon their surroundings, graffiti artists can allow power to permeate into the collective and help bond and unify the group. Lastly, Brewer states that "writer's also demonstrate rebellion and protest against conventional norms" (188). It is in this author's opinion that Brewer's consideration of rebellion was treated too lightly and that the two most important factors mentioned by him are artistic expression and protest.

In his book, Varieties of Visual Expression, Edmund Feldmond considers the social function of art and expression. He states that "all works of art perform a social function, since they are created for an audience" (48). The desire for attention may be unspoken, however, it does exist for all artists. This is especially true for the HHG writer, who spends ample amounts of time and money expressing a vision which is always put forth to the public eye and is rarely hidden. In regards to the grand scale of his work, TheSieR, an American writer says, "people want their art seen! They make sure of it...they want big bold phatcap pieces" (Farrell 7). (NB Phatcap refers to a large spray can nozzle, and often is used to describe the size of a mural). Feldman continues to argue that artistic expression performs a social function when:

(1) it influences the collective behaviour of people; (2) it is created to be seen or used in primarily in public situations; (3) it expresses or describes collective aspects of existence as opposed to individual and personal kinds of experience. (48)

The work of Brewer as described in the previous paragraph covers Feldman's first two social functions, but what of the third? As we already know, graffiti evolved out of the ghetto at a time when lower class citizens had little voice. Similarly, the hippies of the San Francisco Bay area during the '60s realized the power of artistic expression and subsequently used poster art as means for political dissent.

Poster art has been deemed to be one of the most powerful forms of communication ever. The modern poster is described to be "an amalgam of visual images and words designed to evoke an immediate response" (Johnson 2). Often the desired response can be as simple as purchasing a product or going see a movie and can be as life altering as enlisting in the army. In 1914 the American government began using the media as a way to recruit soldiers, however, the posters made at that time are said to have stifled the form (3). By WWII, artists like Moholy-Nagy, Matter and Kauffer were available as American artists and their skills were used more successfully to gain army recruits. By the mid '40s, the work of Toulouse-Latrec, Cheret and Bonnard included extremely stylized figures and lettering that would define poster making from then on. By the '60s, poster art had evolved through a humorous phase and it was time for the media for underground purposes. Messages like Ted Shane's "Tune In & Drop Out", began to be seen on posters all throughout Haight Ashbury and the United States. Much like HHG, protest was a main factor for the creation of these posters. Suddenly, psychedelic posters were seen popping up everywhere as a statement against the condition of war, poverty and hunger. The hippies, much like the hip hop artist, realized the power of the written word and the influence that visual images can have on a collective group.

So what then is the HHG artist so upset about? In the second issue of Xylene, a graffiti 'zine out of Vancouver, a manifesto was published by an anonymous author. It states:

[The major meeting in New York in the year 2000 is] to bring [writers] out of stagnation and figure out how to bring [HHG] art to the next level and stay true to the game. Elimination of negative ideas by reeducating writers who teach hate, racial segregation and self-ideologies... In the next 20 to 30 years the people who had fucked us up... will be slotted into power and they think graffiti art is cool?... The spray can is a symbol of our generation. It is an icon... [Hip hop art] is an art form with so much soul and integrity that it will crush the art world into early retirement and that the art on the streets are the real life galleries. The art galleries with deep connections with the art mafia, have been slaving you for the past 50 years of your precious life... Art is very, very powerful and should be for the masses not the elitist...[so] we have a situation here where the blind (society) has been leading the blind (graffiti). We must break from the art world and create our own separate identity. So fuck this post-modernism, bullshit-fuckcrap! [Graffiti] will be on every surface except your television. (Xylene 18)

I have selectively chosen what I felt was the most significant for my writing due to the excessive use of dogmatic information which applies only to the writers and their community.

In a proverbial nut shell, most of what HHG is striving for is summed up in the manifesto. They refer to their work as a game, one that when won will exclude graffiti from the annals of art history and push the scene further. They hope to keep the graffiti out of the hands of an artistic community which has become perverted and over commercialized in the last fifty years. By keeping this work true to their goals the graffiti artist envisions a world where art is made for the people and not an advertising agency ready to sell out to television and other mass media. The goal then is to liberate those with a voice much quieter than others and keep art true to human exploration and expression. As Robert Colombo, a writer and ethnologist, once stated: "After reading kilometres of walls one realizes that, whatever it's meaning, here is what it means to be human" (9).

At a time when political dissent and artistic endeavour is controlled by those with power, it is not hard to see why those stifled by the system might choose to use graffiti to express themselves. Since Pompeii, the written word has been seen in public places to describe the discomfort of an individual or group. Now, at the advent of the twenty-first century, it is not alarming to see these messages brought forth in full colour, highly complex murals. The HHG artist has an agenda, one which those in government would like to stamp out with a make believe "war on graffiti". Sure research is being done by sociologists like Devon Brewer to cut down on the scarring of public surfaces, but one last question comes to mind when thinking on this issue: should it be? HHG artists ask for no money, no permission and no respect from the greater art community. They have found a new voice, one which sings of freedom, rebellion and original thought. Should this be stopped? I think not. The graffiti artist is the last breed of artist, the one that has made the full cyclical return to what was the advent of visual creation, the cave artists. As once stated in Xylene, "This is the alpha and omega in chaotic theory...the graffiti artists are the urban shamans and the streets are our modern day caves". (Xylene 18).


anonymous. "Major Writer's Meeting in New York City in the Year 2000." Xylene. 2 (1995): 18.

Beaty, J. and D. Gray. "Zap! You've Been Tagged." Time, September 10 (1990): 43.

Brewer, Devon D. "Hip Hop Graffiti Writers' Evaluation of Strategies to Control Illegal Graffiti." Human Organization 2 (1992): 188- 9.

Brewer, Devon D. and Marc L. Miller. "Bombing and Burning: The Social Organization and Values of Hip Hop Graffiti Writers." Deviant Behaviour 11:345-369

Clarke, Donald. The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Popular Music. New York, New York: Penguin Group. 1989: 959.

Colombo, Robert. Rene Levesque Buys Canada Savings Bonds and Other Great Canadian Graffiti. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishing Ltd. 1983.

Chalfant, Henry. Spraycan Art. New York, New York: Thames and Hudson Inc. 1987: 13-14.

Feldman, Edmund Burke. Varieties of Visual Experience. N.J., New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1967.

Janson, H.W.. History of Art. 4th edition, New York: Prentice-Hall. 1991.

Johnson, J. Stewart. The Modern American Poster. New York, New York: National Museum of Modern Art Press, 1983: 1-4.

CL. "A Modern Perspective on Graffiti." Art Crimes. Toronto: URL http://www.graffiti.org/faq/cl.html, 1995

Articles and Interviews

Art Crimes Front Page