PAMELA DENNANT email@example.com
THAMES VALLEY UNIVERSITY (LONDON)
BA (HONS) HUMANITIES
AMERICAN STUDIES PROJECT 1997
This project seeks to explore the sub-cultural youth phenomenon of hip-hop graffiti (especially subway graffiti) which emerged in New York City. The project will follow graffiti's development from its emergence in the late sixties/early seventies to the present. This project will discuss the history of graffiti within a social-cultural-political whole using various media including personal research. It will explore the 'ghetto expression' of street hip-hop culture, its implications on the urban landscape of New York City, the resistance from the dominant culture, the changing face of graffiti, where graffiti stands now and where it is going. Specifically, the project seeks to ask was graffiti a product or a cause of the urban decay of New York City and did graffiti fulfil its purpose as a form of urban expression.
"For decades, America, all-uncaring, had been blinding its' children with the tall, blank walls, of corporate buildings. These buildings deadened one's mood as one walked by them. The blank walls said: 'you will never know enough to find out what goes on inside. All you know is that we run the world and you don't.' So the children painted their graffiti on the bottom of these blank walls even as an infant will scream when a family silence is too prolonged." Norman Mailer in 'George' 35
"Graffiti writers are the Urban Shamans and the streets are our modern day caves" CRAYONE (Walsh 3)
Graffiti - the term comes from both the Greek term "Graphein" meaning 'to write' and the word 'graffiti' is plural of the Italian word "Graffito" meaning 'scratch' and its history can be dated back to prehistoric cave man wall drawings, it can be seen as a human 'need' for communication - "Graffiti represents man's desire to communicate" (Wechsler vi).
Graffiti has become a prominent force in urban settings in the late 20th century and mention of the word conjures up many different images in people's minds - is it art or is it vandalism? a cause of the urban decay or a product from it? The scope of attitudes towards graffiti is wide and controversial. It should be asserted here that many graffiti writers do not call their work graffiti, but rather writing. Iz the Wiz, a writer explains that "graffiti is some social term that was developed (for the culture) somewhere in the 70's" (Writing From The Style Underground 6). Therefore, throughout this project when I use the term graffiti, it will mean writing.
This project is concerned with a specific genre of graffiti that emerged in the late 1960's/early 1970's in New York City - a phenomenon known as the hip-hop graffiti movement: a complex, highly formulated way of imprinting the urban landscape. Hip-hop, a term encompassing rap, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti emerged as ghetto expression' for the poor, urban youth of the city, which really came into its own in the 1980's. The hip-hop scene is a subculture of our times, and an important one, but in order to complete an in-depth coverage of this subculture, I will focus on the graffiti aspect of it because although graffiti is an inter linking factor to the hip-hop whole, it can also be studied as its own entity, just as rap could. Graffiti emerged as its own force, gradually merging into the hip-hop equation, spreading its wings from its roots in New York City to influence other urban settings in the USA and other parts of the world. Graffiti can be seen as an artistic form of resistance to authority and at the same time a means of expression and connectedness to its own subculture.
I personally became interested in graffiti art in the early 1980's when I first saw the films 'Beat streets' (directed by Stan Lathan), 'Wildstyle (produced & directed by Charlie Ahearn), 'Style Wars' (produced by Tony Silver & Henry Chalfant; directed by Tony Silver - 1983), and 'Turk 182' (directed by Bob Clark 1985). But what led me to more interest in this art form were the books 'Subway Art' (Henry Chalfant & Martha Cooper) and 'Spraycan Art' (Henry Chalfant & James Prigoff). I also grew up near to Ladbroke Grove - the area of London that first adopted and brought the New York style transatlantic and created the British hybrid of the subculture. Also, a few of my friends are former graffiti writers, so as I learnt more about graffiti, the more intrigued I became to delve deeper into the passion behind the writing.
I have visited New York City on numerous occasions and have been lucky enough to see the creations made in the graffiti writers 'Hall of Fame' on 106st, between Park and Madison Aves. In October 1996, I attended a symposium on New York City graffiti at The Museum of the City of New York, in conjunction with United Urban Artists (see appendix 3 for programme). Also while online, in the New York city chat rooms, I spoke to a writer, Omar (A.K.A. Swatch 1) from New York City. I subsequently met him and he provided a wealth of information from the emergence of graffiti in New York City to the present. I also discovered that there are over 2000 graffiti web sites on the internet. As the readers of this project will discover, New York City conceived graffiti and it will always be the "capital and cultural centre of graffiti" (Chalfant & Prigoff 7).
In chapter 1, the focus will be specifically on the emergence of Ne w York City graffiti - so basically, the history of hip-hop graffiti and the major role of the subway - how it emerged and evolved. The reader will now become familiar with some of graffiti's terms (a glossary is provided in appendix 1 for quick reference).
Chapter 2 addresses the question: what is the larger cultural and social framework that graffiti exists, and how did the cultural climate of New York City in the 1970s foster and contribute to graffiti. This chapter will examine the social/cultural climate of the graffiti subculture in relation to the larger hip-hop culture within which it grew. So, where chapter 1 looks at the history - the surface of the movement, chapter 2 explores the core of the movement, the subconscious - so to speak.
Chapter 3 will explore the urban resistance to graffiti - of the police, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and basically authority in general. Specifically the "buff" (train cleaning) system, which some say changed the face of hip-hop graffiti forever by denying the youth their recognition around the city via the subway, which was basically, a public gallery on rails.
Chapter 4 will be more specific and examine women and graffiti - as with the whole of the hip-hop subculture, males dominate. There are various reasons behind this and this chapter will explore the women who broke the mould, like 'Lady Pink' (one of the original females of the sub-culture) who I was lucky enough to see in spraying action in 1993.
Chapter 5 will look at the changing faces and the fragmentation of graffiti in the move from underground to the art mainstream.
The final chapter, 6, will look at graffiti in the 1990's and address the question...is it the end of an urban phenomenon? This is an important chapter, as the reader will see how the phenomenon has evolved right up to the present day.
The conclusion will bring this whole phenomenon together, and decide whether graffiti did come about as a result of the society in which these youths lived or did the youths create and add to the urban decay surrounding them. Also, did graffiti fulfil its purpose as a form of expression for these youths. The answers to these questions and to others like it, will become apparent throughout this project. Depending on the reader's perspective or point of view, graffiti will be viewed as either an artistic form of expression for the urban underclass or egotistic vandalism.
This project will be visually stimulating using photographs, and strengthened throughout by empirical findings, as well as secondary textual sources from books, newspapers, journals, magazines and the World Wide Web. Appendix 5 will contain an interview with Omar, the New York City writer, which was conducted in person in January 1997. I consider this a major breakthrough in my dissertation research and a crucial aspect of the project because although books like 'Subway Art' are considered the graffiti 'Bibles' throughout the world, it has become evident that writing is not all about subways and not always as melodramatic as it seemed. I intend to provide a much more critical analysis and inquiry, in as much as 10,000-12,000 words will allow me. Having not being in New York City when graffiti emerged, obviously a lot of my research has to be from secondary sources. However, meeting Omar provided me with a different angle to work on, and it also keeps it 'real'. My aim is to enable the reader to be brought into the urban wildstyle of New York City graffiti and give it the justice and respect it so rightly deserves.
Pamela Dennant - New York City & London - 1997.
"How many people can walk through a city and prove they were there? It's a sign I was here. My hand made this mark. I'm fucking alive! " OMAR, NEW YORK (Walsh 34-35).
The start of New York City graffiti is a concise one and can be traced back to the late 1960's, when a youth, Julio, who apparently lived on 204th street (borough of the city unknown), began to write his "tag" (nickname; pseudonym) Julio 204 on the subway system. By 1968, his tag could be found all over the city. But the phenomenon of writing graffiti actually took hold in a big way when a seventeen year old Greek youth, called Demitrios, from the Washington Heights area x of Manhattan, 'tagged' Taki 183 all over the New York City, and especially the subway. In 1971, eager to determine the meaning in the message, a 'New York Times' reporter found and interviewed Taki 183. The article, entitled 'Taki 183 spawns pen pals' was the first of its kind.
Within a year of the emergence of Taki 183 - and the subsequent 'Times' article - the phenomenon of hundreds of youth seeking to express themselves via the subway system was spawned and the movement that was later to be termed hip-hop graffiti.
The history of graffiti was asserted at this point, and has been laid down many times in various media. However, as it progressed and became a major aspect of popular culture, the narrative disperses. As Haze explains:
"there is no one history of graffiti. It depends what borough you lived in, what year you were born in, what lines you rode...the best you will ever get is a personal history of graffiti" (Molotov Cocktail 4).
Writers and trains have an almost spiritual connection to one another as this is where hip hop graffiti was first conceived.The subway system was seen as a network system for graffiti, it was an icon for graffiti writers to get their work displayed to the public and especially to other 'writers'. As Smith stated:
"Other writers - that's the only thing that matters".(Chalfant & Prigoff 28).
Phase 2 expands on this and affirms that:
"Ours was a world where acknowledgement from one's peers was the singularly ultimate gratification. Never has there been an urgency to be accepted by the public or anyone else" (Phase 2 in rap pages 55).
Therefore, it can be suggested that graffiti writing creates "an alternative system of public communication for kids who otherwise have little access to avenues of urban information" (Ferrell 83).
Writers had particular lines that they preferred, depending on the surface of the train and its route. The greatest writers of the city have always seen the "twos 'n fives" (number 5 Lexington Avenue Express and the number 2) as the superior trains to create their work on, as they span vast areas of the city. This leads to greater recognition and "fame". (see appendix 2 for NYC subway map). The perils of the subway - the danger of the "3rd rail" (the live rail), being arrested, and other hazards all S added to the adrenalin rush of 'getting up'.
Graffiti was also produced on walls and buildings, etc but the subway had huge advantages to it that could not be rivalled - "High visibility, the huge potential audience and the link with other like-minded kids throughout the city" (Chalfant & Prigoff 8). The subway also signifies movement and direction - which is very hard to achieve on walls:
"Yes, the graffiti not only the feel and all the superpowered whoosh and impact of all the bubble letters in all the mad comic strips, but the zoom, the aghr, and the ahhr, of screeching rails, the fast motion of subways roaring into stations, the comic strips come to life" (Mailer).
There are 7 fundamental forms of graffiti and although there are many, over a hundred, different styles, the forms are consistently recognisable among graffiti writers. The forms are characterised by their complexities, placements and their size. The seven forms will now be described to assert to the reader the vast array of graffiti and the hierarchial order of graffiti form. (Photographic examples of the different forms are provided in the appendices 7 - 9).
TAGS - as already mentioned tags are the graffiti writer's nickname, a pseudonym signature, and they are the simplest form of graffiti. Tags are used to "get up" (put on display) the writers' name as much as possible in order to gain recognition and, hopefully, 'fame'. Although to many the tags may look the same, to an insider of the subculture, the tag is like a fingerprint - a unique blending of various elements of the writer. As Futura 2000 states:
"The name and the tag are one, that's what graffiti means: it's about identification, about a personal icon. It's a way of presenting yourself to the world, something like: 'here I am'" (Wagstaff).
A writer will "bomb" (tag as much as possible), but if a writer only experiments with tags, and uses no other form, they will carry little scope, and therefore, the writer will be ranked low among other graffiti writers. They may subsequently be labelled as a "toy" (inferior or inexperienced) by other writers.
THROW-UPS - a throw-up is the evolved tag, they are usually sprayed quickly with a spraycan on the outside of trains, or walls, etc. The writer will usually use bubble letters to throw up their 2-3 letter name. Usually 2 colours are used, one for the outline and the other as a rough fill-in. They are the quickest way to create a large piece of work.
PIECES - 'pieces is the term used for masterpieces. Pieces are considered the most eminent development of hip-hop graffiti. Pieces usually use more letters than throw-ups and are more elaborate. Super Kool 223 is credited with creating the first masterpiece in 1972, this was helped by the technology of the 'fat cap'. Super Kool realised that replacing the spraycan cap with that of a fat cap from spray foam/starch he could cover a large are pa quickly and smoothly. Technological innovations have always been a subsidiary in the metamorphosis of graffiti into a more worldly wise form of art. When on the side of a subway car, a piece that extends more than the length of the car and covers windows, becomes another form:
TOP TO BOTTOMS - This term refers to pieces that cover the top to the bottom of the subway car but not its length.
END TO ENDS - as the name implies, these are creations that cover one end of a subway car to another, but not the entire car.
WHOLE CARS - This is the whole subway car - end to end, top to bottom (including the windows). The first whole car was painted in 1973 by Flint 707, it was doubly amazing because it was also a 3-D piece. The whole car is extensive coverage, it is 20 feet long and 12 feet high, maybe using 20 spraycans, and takes 8 hour or more. So the work would often be shared by groups or 'crews'. Who paints what part of the piece would be divided according to the skill and hierarchial ranking of the writer. The design (outline and colours) would be planned out in advance in writers' "black books" (artists sketch pads; carried everywhere). Because of the vast amount of spray paint needed, the writers would often "rack" (steal) the paint needed to create their artwork.
Writers who did whole cars were well respected among other writers, especially when the whole car also had good style. By the mid 1970's whole car murals truly had become graffiti masterpieces on the sides of trains, with caricatures, backgrounds, messages (some involving social criticism, such as, Lee's piece "Stop the Bomb" in 1972), scenes and well-known cartoon characters taken from American popular culture. The underground comic artist, Vaughn Bode (1941-1975), was a great influence to many writers who used his characters in their pieces.
WHOLE TRAINS - Before the first whole train "the freedom train" was painted on July 4th 1976 by Caine, Mad 103 and Flame One, the whole car was considered by most to be the most superior form of graffiti that could be achieved. The Freedom Train's life was short lived - it was taken out of regular service and repainted just one day after it was painted. Lee, of 'the Fabulous Five' crew suggested that this move by authority was "...stupid. They did something for the United States and somebody dropped a dime (informed) on them and they busted them." (Castleman 36). The second whole train created was "The Christmas Train" in 1977 by members of The Fabulous Five, Lee, Mono, Doc and Slave. Lee, describes the exhilaration of seeing "The Christmas Train" on public display in an interview with Craig Castleman:
"... All the writers were there...So the whole side of the station was packed and I know that it was a shock to all these Wall Street Journals with their classy suits...they saw the whole train a and everybody's going like 'oh shit!'...They probably didn't know it was graffiti; they probably thought the city was doing something good for a change. They probably thought they paid some muralist to do it." (castleman 10-12).
However,the whole trains were rare, mostly 2-car murals (known as "worms") were the main focus of the writers' creative efforts in their search for fame.
As more and more youth began getting their tags up, it was necessary to develop a unique style, different sizes and colours that would stand out and distinguish one piece of work from another's work. Vulcan expresses that:
"Style is the most important thing! It defines who you are. (Writing From The Style Underground 5).
By the mid 1970's, extreme styles of lettering became the main focus of writers - this became especially relevant after a Philadelphia writer, T 9op Cat 126 arrived in Manhattan, bringing with him the prolific letter styles he had adopted from another writer, the legendary Cornbread. In competition, many of Manhattan's writers subsequently adopted this style of "long, thin, closely packed letters that stood on little platforms...dubbing it 'Broadway Elegant'" (castleman 55).
The other boroughs of New York City, also developed their own styles, that could determine to a keen eyed writer where the artist was from in the city.
Other writers preferred to create their own styles, giving them elaborate names. If Super Kool 223 created the first master piece as a form, then it was Phase II who developed it beyond its basic confines to create different styles with his "bubble letters" (which he called "softie letters") and subsequent names for the variations he designed. ie/ "Phasemagorical phantastic" (with stars), "bubble cloud" (with clouds), etc.
Phase II says of his constant creations in his "Guide to Reality":
"For me this was a sport that belonged to me/us and rules and regulations were all regulated by who ever had the knack to create and innovate within it" (Phase II).
A 'style wars' began among writers, and this was an exciting time in the world of graffiti as the competition was fierce with so many ideas flooding in to the ever-expanding scene. Writers were highly critical of each others work. Originality, flow of letters, care of spraying, outline sharpness and use of details all add to the creation of a "burner" (an excellent piece).
Styles and techniques used by writers include wildstyle (almost unreadable; interlocking letters, signifying direction; a flow of movement), 3D, fading (blending colours), cracked letters, gothic, computer lettering (developed by Kase 2), and new modifications to old styles, like shadow 3-D S. The wildstyle lettering was often illegible to those outside of the graffiti subculture. This, for many writers, added to its beauty giving a more unified feel to the subculture. Dondi, an early writer, extends this view in subway art and says that, "when he writes for other writers, he uses wildstyle, and when he writes for the public, he uses straight letters" (Chalfant & Cooper 70-71).
Original ideas were always been sought by writers, no writer wanted to be known for "biting" (basically artistic plagiarism). Conflicts would arises between writers, where one would accuse the other of biting. Writers would also deliberately go over another writers work ("going over"), which is seen as a great mark of disrespect in the graffiti world. This would often lead to clashes between writers or crews. Writers go over others' work for various reasons, for instance - to challenge; because there is limited space; as payback for previous going overs or for dropping a dime on them. The infamous Cap, featured in the documentary film, Style Wars, was well known for going over many writer's pieces, just for the fun of it. Lee, an early writer, says of him: "at one time I thought cap was a fuckin' government official planted to stir shit up" (Rock. A. Party 41).
Many new writers would seek to be 'adopted' by a more well-known established writer, where they were taught about all aspects of graffiti - from the "lay-up" (train yard) through to style. This teacher student relationship was fairly common in the graffiti world. For the new graffiti writer "the best way to learn is through recapitulating the entire history of graffiti art, from the simple to the complex" (Chalfant & Cooper 32). The originators of graffiti, such as Taki 183, Phase II, Stayhigh 149, Blade, Seen, Lee, Bama, Kase 2, and others are remembered and well respected by later writers, seen almost in a mythical light. "Stories about them, their contemporaries, and their achievements comprise a body of graffiti folklaw". (Chalfant & Cooper 17).
Fame can come to graffiti writers in many ways - a writer may get instant fame if their work gets media attention (interviewed, photos in newspapers, their work in a film clip, etc). Taki 183 was the first to receive media fame.
Writers who have fame are considered the Kings. Writers with fame may be labelled the 'King of Style'; 'King of the Insides'; 'King of the Line' etc. 1
Fame is ever moving, therefore, the title of king changes often. IN, who went 'all city' bombing the subways, was proclaimed as the 'King of Everything' by some writers.
Even though style, colour, size and form were important, 'getting up' was the first factor to work on. As writer Tracy 168 explains:
"style don't mean nothing if you don't get up. If people don't see your pieces, how are they gonna know if you've got style?" (Castleman 20).
The 1970's were salient years of graffiti bombing - these were the invention years. They were the years that begun the history of graffiti and led to its development to the present day.
"People will never really understand what graffiti is unless they go to New York to live surrounded by abandoned buildings and cars that are burnt and stripped and the city comes out saying graffiti is terrible, but then you look around the neighbourhood and you've got all this rubble & shit, and yet you come out of there with the attitude toward life that you can create something positive" BRIM (Chalfant & Prigoff 17)
Graffiti is of interest to socialists, anthropologists, psychologists, criminologists, artists and others. They seek to find out why people write graffiti, what motivates them and what aids to its continuance. Diverse subcultures, like the hip hop one, are seen by British Marxist scholars as "symbolic forms of resistance" (Hebdige in 'Subculture: The Meaning Of Style' 80). Haze, a writer, looks at the meaning of graffiti in simple terms: He states that:
"alot of people get caught up in the meaning of graffiti. I don't think graffiti was originally meant to mean anything" (Molotov cocktail 5).
Writers span across all ethnic and economic boundaries, although when graffiti first emerged it was predominantly Puerto Rican youth. As it evolved it was poor Hispanic, black and sometimes white youths who wrote. Working class whites who lived the working class life identified with the hip hop subculture because they were also uninvited into t he dominant middle class (the WASP - White Anglo Saxon Protestants) society. As graffiti expanded it attracted youth from more affluent backgrounds who were allured by graffiti's danger and excitement. It "reached out to the substantial hip white audience that...identify with its raw, outlaw attitude" (George 54).
Most writers begin young - 10 or 11 years old, and many stop writing by the time they are 16. However, this is not always the case, many writers continue into their twenties and if they cross the boundary into the art worlds, they will go on producing graffiti longer still. The reasons why writers write varies widely. For older writers, it is a "way d of life, something that is part of their everyday thinking and routine" (Walsh 12).
Devon. D. Brewer, a Sociologist, has extensively researched inner city graffiti and he concludes that the motives for graffiti are an important issue. He argues:
"There are four major values in hip hop graffiti: fame, artistic expression, power and rebellion" (188).
Psychologists who have studied graffiti writers have concluded that "a desire for individual-group recognition and rebellion against authority probably account for this phenomenon" (Legendre 730).
You could, therefore, ask that if the writer was honoured by the society they reject and are rebelling against, would they still do it? They probably would, as fame and artistic expression are two strong factors.
But what is the social function of graffiti as expression? Feldman, in his book 'Varieties of Visual Expression' argues that this social function is achieved when: "(1) it influences the collective behaviour of people (2) it is created to be seen or used in primarily public situations (3) it expresses or describes collective aspects of existences as opposed to individual and personal kinds of experience" (qtd in Element). If we consider it an artistic expression, we can see that "all works of art perform a social function, since they are created for an audience" (Feldman qtd in Element).
Writers will often form or join crews. Crews take graffiti from individual expression to collective expression with a creative aim, which is getting up. A crew, according to T-Kid:
"is a unit of dudes who work together to achieve a goal: to get up and go all city" (Chalfant & Cooper 50).
They see graffiti as making the city a brighter ] place to be- "a public service" (Castleman 71). Parents of the writers were often not as positive about their child's 'hobby'. Skeme's mum, featured in the documentary film Style Wars, sighs:
"what you got is a whole miserable subculture." (Stylewars).
Writers' corners began to crop up all over New York City as the graffiti phenomenon spread across the city -writers would congregate in these spots around the city. The first one was formed in 1972 at 188st and Audubon Ave in Manhattan. The best and most prestigious writers would sign 'W.C.188' after their piece. There was also the 'coffee shop' in the Bronx; Brooklyn Bridge; and the writers bench at the concourse (subway at 149st and grand concourse in the Bronx).
In 1971 a number of writing gangs formed around the city. The 'Vanguards'; 'The Last Survivors' and 'The Ex (experienced)-Vandals'. ] By 1972 the Ex-Vandals had grown substantially, however, they eventually disbanded because of problems with fighting gangs. The Ex-Vandals, though, lived on as legends in the minds of writers and influenced many other later graffiti groups.
Writers and gangs have a number of things in common: "both seek recognition from their peers, use aliases, take part in illegal activities, see themselves as noble outlaws, are young and most often poor" (Castleman 106).
James Haskins, in his book 'Street Gangs' describes the stimulus behind street gangs and their activities as "one way of feeling like 'somebody'. Identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of importance - for many in the lower economic classes...gang activity has seemed the only way to fulfil these very important needs" (Haskin 11).
Graffiti gangs exist for the writing. Although fights do occur, t his is not intentional part of the reason behind the gang. Also, although some of the work may be violent in nature - it is expressed psychologically (through the art work) rather than physically.
Writing groups, began to form after the ending of the Ex-Vandals. These were more informal than writing gangs, and many writers belonged to more than one group at a time. 'The Fabulous Five' is the most well-known and most respected of these groups, as it contained only the most skilled writers of the city. 'Wanted', another prolific group, was formed by Tracy 168 in 1972. By the mid 1970s, it had acquired one of the largest memberships.
Other early well known writing groups included, 'The Independent Writers' (INDs); 'The Nation's Top (TNT); 'Crazy Inside Artists' (CIA); 'United Artists' (UA); and 'Rolling Thunder Writers' (RTW).
In 1972 graffiti took on a new perspective. A group was formed by a sociology student, Hugo Martinez, called United Graffiti Artists ( UGA). Martinez set the group up to advance graffiti as a legitimate art form, especially among Puerto Ricans. Martinez's aim was to lead these youth away from the deviance of graffiti to a more accepted positive direction. The group, which included the most prestigious writers of the time, organised exhibitions and obtained various commissions, including painting the backdrops to the ballet 'Deuce Coupe'. The group, however, experienced many problems, including racial tension - Hugo Martinez was accused of being pro-Puerto Rican and excluding other races. The UGA eventually broke up, which led to graffiti holding a low profile for a time.
Another group, the National Organisation of Graffiti Artists (NOGA) was established in mid 1974 by Jack Peslinger (a theatre director). They held exhibitions but they experienced money problems from early on. They were rejected by the MTA, when they offered to repaint the trains for $150 per car, in order to raise money for their organisation. (The MTA's own cost is $1,500 per car).
As graffiti on the subway grew, it became a hotly debated issue among officials of the city. It, therefore, became a political issue. Mayor Lindsay described the writers as "'insecure cowards' seeking recognition" (Castleman 137). However, Taki 183 had seen it in another way. In the original Times article he had asked:
"why do they go after the little guy? Why not the campaign organisations that put stickers all over the subway at election time? (Hager 15).
Richard Goldstein, in an article in New York Magazine in 1973 asserted that graffiti is "the first genuine teenage street culture since the fifties..." (qtd in Castleman 141).
The New York Times and New York Magazine became antagonistic in their opposite views to graffiti, not unlike the Republican and Democrats. After 1975 media attention to graffiti slowed right down and did not pick up again until the hip hop blast of the 1980's.
Hip hop emerged in New York City, which could be described as an "urban world of physical and psychological violence" (Frank and McKenzie 43). Hip hop graffiti emerged from the social, cultural and political inequalities regular to the U.S. and graffiti can be seen as the "personal expression of an oppressed and disenfranchised people" (starr 132).
Graffiti is one element within the subculture known as hip-hop, which comprises rap music, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti. At the hip-hop core is a hard edged attitude reflecting the hard edged society in which it emerged. Graffiti and rap "were especially aggressively public displays of counter presence and voice. Each asserted the right to write" (Rose 59).
The Bronx borough on New York conceived hip hop culture and the graffiti that was created in the Bronx train yards was always representative of the inventiveness of the Bronx youth.
Hip hop artists have evolved into "an underground subculture...with an art form, value system and language all of its own" (Howorth 553). In fact, hip hop has always negotiated its power to exist within the larger capitalist American system "by drawing on the particular experiences and customs of their communities, ethnic groups and age cohorts" (Lachmann 232). Therefore, hip hop disputes hegemony; proving its valid existence within and different from the dominant society's thinking.
Graffiti and hip hop fused in the urban underground, but:
"it is Hollywood who originated the 'hip hop de hippy hop the body rock' that led to the rap-breaking-graffiti scene being labelled hip hop" (George 50).
Therefore, the term hip hop is a label that was given to describe the collective whole of the four connected but distinct elements that make hip hop what it is. It is a term that was given by those outside of the subculture. The elements within hip hop, however, did "develop in relation to one another and in relation to the larger society" (Rose 27).
Hip hop exploded into the popular urban consciousness in the early 1980's, after the release of The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" in 1979. It took graffiti with it - taking the phenomenon to a whole new dimension of youth street culture.
Hip hop also hit the cinema screens, with 'Wildstyle', 'Beat Street' and 'Style Wars'. These films featured many well-known icons of the hip hop scene, and therefore added to its promotion. Wildstyle featured Lee and Lady Pink, two of the "old School" (originators of the scene) graffiti writers, plus breakdancers, rappers and hip hop DJs. Style wars featured Seen, Skeme, Dondi, Shy147, Noc, Iz the Wiz and the legendary one-armed kase 2 - all graffiti originators.
Graffiti fused with rap, DJing and breakdancing in a number of ways: graffiti writers often rapped, breakdanced or produced records. The infamous DJ Kool Herc and Fab Five Freddy were graffiti writers before becoming DJs.
Futura 2000, a graffiti writer, paid homage to Kurtis Blow's rap 'The Breaks' with a whole car piece of the same name. Rappers wore graffiti adorned jackets, and writers painted backdrops for rap shows.
Prominent writers also recorded rap records ie/Phase 2 and Futura, while Breakdancing crews, like the infamous Rock Steady Crew, would perform with a graffiti backdrop and a 'boombox' blasting rap. All of this created a prevailing mood of community and solidarity among the four genres.
Afrika Bambaataa - a nominal leader for hip hop and the creator of the "Zulu Nation" asserts that:
"it's about survival, economics and keeping our people moving on...a sense of community can be created within the community rather than being imposed by people coming from outside" (qtd in Hebdige 'Cut 'N' Mix' 139).
The harshness of inner city life was often reflected in their work. In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and The furious five's 'The Message' delivered its reality-hitting lyrics into the urban consciousness. (see appendix 4 for lyrics). However, rap music was not the only influence to graffiti writers. Influences also came from punk rock of the 1980s and rock 'n' roll.
The urban city is defined by social space, and there is not enough space for the vast and varied people. Therefore, the urban space of a city is isolated and fragmented "by ethnic, class and consumer segregation" (Ferrell 78).
Graffiti allows mobility in a number of ways. The work surpasses the normal spatial boundaries of the city where it was carried through or placed in diverse neighbourhoods not ordinarily penetrated. Graffiti also "violates the city's everyday ethnic segregation by incorporating kids of various ethnic backgrounds" (Ferrell 85).
In order to try and understand possibly why graffiti expanded so much, the New York urban landscape in the 70's needs to be addressed.
New York's social cultural and political ground in the 1970's was undergoing a great transformation. It was a time of great political unrest - th e Black Power Movement, the Black Panthers and the Women's Rights Movements - to name some. The growth of technology, the changing job front, the changing infrastructure of federal funding, housing and "new migration patterns from third world industrialising nations...all contributed to the economic and social restructuring of urban America" (Rose 27).
The systematic poverty, homelessness, ongoing racism, violence, neglected neighbourhoods, and post Vietnam fall out all led to the fragmentation of the social space creating 'no go' ghetto areas, where the only ones allowed in were also not allowed out. Along with "a terrible school system, an addictive welfare system and a government that lets drugs pour into the community..." (George 44).
This chaos left "working class residents with limited affordable housing, a shrinking job market and diminishing social services" (Rose 27).
Although there always existed people in society with varying economic and social categories, the 1970's gave birth to new magnitudes, dividing the gaps sharply "between an affluent, technocratic, professional white collar group managing the financial and commercial life of an international city and an unemployed and an underemployed service sector, which is substantially black and Hispanic" (Daniel Walkowitz qtd in Rose 29).
New York City was experiencing great financial troubles in the 1970s - struggling and almost bankrupt - in 1975, New York begged congress x for a federal bail out, President Ford vetoed it, forcing New York to obtain a federal loan. This had a domino effect of creating cut backs on social services etc, which in turn created more problems for the poorest in society. It was, therefore, no coincidence that hip hop culture was ethnic.
The youths of the ghettos, while trying to assert their identities, would try and tell their views of the social world in which they dwelled. Their resources for self-expression were often limited.
"Lower class kids have always wanted and created their own insular thing" (George 44).
Therefore, graffiti (and the hip hop whole) can be seen to echo inner-city inventiveness, while carrying out their own "strategies of resistance" (Baker 62) from the alienation they felt.
Graffiti penetrated the psyche of the society in which it rebelled against - addressing and questioning social and artistic boundaries. Graffiti then, resists authority and changes the visual scope of the city, creating complicated urban subcultural preferences.
To the dominant society, graffiti equals vandalism plain and logical. But to the writer and others involved in the subculture, graffiti art is a:
"form of expression and always has been. It's culture and doesn't owe anyone anything." (Phase II).
Hip hop emerged as a voice of the disaffected youth from the ghettos of New York, reflecting a dysfunctional society. These youths use the tools of the spraycan and the microphone to communicate and assert their goals of the movement to each other and to outsiders. Graffiti creates a communications network, a visual colloquy between writers and other members of the hip hop subculture, and it also 'talks' to the rest of society. Graffiti can be seen then as a form of public art, carried on the canvases of the street, put up whether people like it or not. It "bypasses the normal channels of art within the system, which is often closed to them anyway." (Chalfant & Prigoff 10).
Hip hop reconstructed the stresses and denials of the dominant society in order to create its own terrain. In the case of graffiti writers "claiming territories and inscribing their otherwise contained identities on public property" (Rose 22). Graffiti, therefore, can be seen as a:
"youth's subtle yet loud, clear and energetic response towards a society which showed no love for them, the so-called underdog" (Phase 2 in Rap pages 54).
"I think graffiti is vandalism...they think they're artists and have some right like free speech to express their individualism or artistry...graffiti might look good to them and their buddies, but the majority of people don't want to look at that crap every day" Gary Doyle - Public Works Officer, Nuisance Crime Abatement Unit (Walsh backcover)
Since the New York graffiti phenomenon began in the late 60s, resistance began against it. graffiti is often seen in disastrous terms, symbolising and reflecting the deterioration of a society. As Kriegel suggests "the spread of graffiti is as accurate a barometer of the decline of urban civility as anything else one can think of" (432). Government officials, etc, were faced with a serious issue. This issue was can graffiti actually be controlled and if it can how. The public, the media, New York City Government, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the New York City Transit Police Department (TP), have all 'declared war' in some way or another on what was considered by Sanford Garelik (City Council President) in 1972 as "one of the worst forms of pollution we have to combat" (Castleman x).
The resistance to graffiti, especially police tactics, was brought into question and controversial debate, with the death of alleged graffiti writer Michael Stewart in the hands of police in 1973.
Between 1970 and 1974 graffiti on the subway was cleaned off by manual labour. Technological advances had not yet been reached regarding a cleaning solvent that actually worked. A chemist was even employed by the MTA to try to 'mix' the magical solution.
The cost of all the labour and materials needed to repaint the cars (that had to spend four days out of service in the process) was "equivalent to the revenue from [the sale of] 6,000 tokens" (Castleman 149).
It was a vicious cycle, as soon as the trains went back into service clean they were bombed again, which "mocks, as it were, the hapless effort to obscure their predecessors. Thus the signs of official failure are everywhere" (Glazer 4).
From the mid to the late 70s anti graffiti efforts took a major turn because it was seen that graffiti reflected the urban decay of the city. Graffiti on the subways 'dislocated', especially when the windows were completely covered, making the public feel "uneasy...when it became difficult to tell which station a train was pulling into" (Henderson 43). Officials worried about gang involvement and property owners felt violated. The public felt uneasy, graffiti was seen as taking away the feeling of security. Jared Lebow (spokesman for the New York City Transit) asserted:
"the impression graffiti gave was that the subway system was out of control...if vandals have a free reign, then criminals have a free reign" (Henderson 44).
Other methods of resistance, apart from cleaning, were attempted. One of these methods (which shows example of how graffiti runs parallel to technological advances) was by the spray paint industry. They made the paints so that 'fat caps' could not be fitted anymore, therefore, writers could not cover a large area quickly.
However, Fred stated simply that:
"the writers will find another way... styles will change and new styles will be made up 1 to suit the materials" (Castleman 65).
Writers corners were frequently targeted by the police and were eventually killed off by police pressure by 1983.
This strategy, as explained by Theodore Rotun, a police officer, is that:
"a graffiti artist is like a pyromaniac who starts a fire, he has to stay around and watch it. If his graffiti can't go from one end of the city to another and he can't brag and sit at his writers corners...then it's no good" (Castleman 87).
The break up of the writers corners smashed the communications network between writers of the different boroughs.
In 1974 a smaller special unit specifically for graffiti was established, consisting of ten officers (undercover). Their graffiti files contained:
"over 3,000 photographs of various writers' styles...which are just like fingerprints. We can identify a writers work, even if he has changed his name, by examining it and comparing it to samples in the files" (castleman 163).
The graffiti squad cited three major reasons for their efforts against graffiti: (1) the obvious fact that graffiti is illegal; it is a crime (2) the train yards and lay ups are very dangerous to writers, therefore, police saw themselves as keeping the writers out of danger (3) graffiti leads to further crime according to two surveys carried out.
The first survey (unpublished) carried out in 1976 looked at the arrest records of 15 year olds in 1974 and found "of those surveyed, 17.6% were found to have later been arrested for felonies and 9.9% had been arrested for misdemeanours" (Castleman 167). A second survey in 1977, wit $h similar results led Garelik to conclude that the survey:
"destroys the romantic myth that graffiti writing is a harmless act...it is predictable that a young graffiti writer will become a criminal...graffiti writing is a school for crime...to ignore this fact is to do a serious injustice to the public" (Castleman 167).
Even as police stepped up their arrests, writers were not deterred. Writers were concerned more with police brutality than the legal consequences of being caught. Omar says that getting arrested is:
"just part of the cost of doing bizniz" (Walsh 32).
In fact, he goes on further:
"I feel good breaking the law. The people who make laws are not effected by them...I hate the rich and faceless corporations" (Walsh 32).
Even so, writers still see the police as the public enemy number one, not the third rail. However, two squad officers, who joined the squad in 1975, Kevin Hickey and Conrad Lesnewski (affectionately known to writers as simply, Hickey & Ski) were to Bronx graffitists "the two most famous policemen in New York City...they're like super cops, like Starsky and Hutch" (Castleman 167). Writers admired them, some even dedicating pieces to them. As Hickey himself stated, some writers found it a "compliment to be arrested by Hickey and Ski" (Castleman 168).
In 1979, for unknown reasons, the graffiti squad was disbanded. A new squad was formed in 1980.
Mayor Lindsay followed with his own war against graffiti. His programme suggested that anyone found in possession of an open spraycan in a public building be fined and sentenced to prison. The bill also proposed that sellers of spray paint be "registered with the police department and keep a record of the names and addresses of all persons who purchase such merchandise" (Castleman 138).
A graffiti task force was also set up in the same year and came into force early in 1973. _
As well as this, an anti-graffiti media attack was planned for posters, T.V., etc - featuring the slogan "Make Your Mark In Society, Not On It". The public were encouraged to be involved in an 'anti-graffiti day' - a mass scrub up of the city and in reporting writers. At around the same time as this anti-graffiti day was proposed, a full page advertisement in the 'Village Voice', for Lou Reed's new album - "depicting a man spray painting Reed's name on a subway car" (Edmand 495) - was taken out.
MTA chairman Richard Ravitch stated that graffiti:
"is a symbol that we have lost control. If we are to regain control of our system, we must have the assistance of the media in portraying graffiti for what it is - vandalism" (Castleman 176).
The New York Times was on the anti graffiti bandwagon and used its media power to call "upon the city ad ministration to ban the sale of spray paint to minors and thus stop graffiti at its source" (Castleman 136). However, they forgot one major fact: writers did not usually buy paint, they racked it.
Meanwhile, New York magazine jumped over to the other side of the fence... In an article by Richard Goldstein 'This Thing Has Gotten completely Out Of Hand'. the title referred to:
"not the growing graffiti fad but to the city's fight against it...it just may be that the kids who write graffiti are the healthiest and most assertive people in their neighbourhoods" (Castleman 141).
New York Magazine went further still and published photographs of graffiti that they considered "award winning" (Castleman 141). These texts were juxtaposed in their own war between pro graffiti and anti graffiti in the printed form.
Mayor Lindsey responded to new York magazine articles in a press conference. He scoffed:
"those who call graffiti vandalism 'art'...and asked the citizens of new York to join him in denouncing graffiti vandals" (Castleman 142).
Norman Mailer saw Lindsey's angry fight against graffiti as:
"an upset to his fortunes..." (of trying for the Democratic presidential elections 1972). a vermin of catastrophe that these writings had sprouted like weeds over the misery of fun city, a new monkey of unmanageables to sit on Lindsay's overloaded political back...graffiti grew, and the millions of tourists who passed through the city brought the word out to the rest of the nation: 'Filth is sprouting on the walls'" (mailer).
In July 1974, MTA chairman David Yunich, announced a "$10 million programme of graffiti eradication" (Castleman 150). His plan was to use attack dogs to get rid of the problem. This move led the Times to change its stance on anti-graffiti, now proclaiming it was "dour New Yorkers who are offended by subway graffiti" (Castleman 150).
It was not until the buff system - a chemical wash using a strong chemical paint substance - was brought into service in 1977, that the war against graffiti seemed to make any advances. Created as a graffiti remover, the trains go through a wash (not unlike a giant car wash) and then they are buffed to remove the graffiti. The cost of this buffing system to the MTA was $400,000. The MTA saw it as the "final solution" (Rose 45). The writers often called it 'the orange crush' after the Vietnam defoliant 'Agent Orange.
However, the buff created a number of serious problems: a nearby school had to close when the children began complaining of respiratory problems. Also transit workers complained of nausea and breathing problems. This eventually resulted, in 1985, to$6.3 million being awarded to transit workers with "health problems stemming from exposure to fumes from cleaning solvents" (Edmand 496). The chemicals also corroded the trains and it was also discovered that the toxic buff chemicals were polluting the city's waterways as they were being dumped wit h no respect for the environment.
On the older flat surface trains, the remover only removed the graffiti partially, leaving a worse mess than what was considered the mess before
The newly buffed cars were seen, then, to provide a new canvas for writers to work on, although many writers stopped writing at this period, many continued.
It was a constant battle against the buff to get the piece up and get it seen in service before the buff got to it. Often, a piece got buffed straight away - to the frustration of the writer.
In 1980, the MTA (celebrating its diamond jubilee) increased the manpower for cleaning the trains, but to no avail, writers got back up. Newspapers criticised the MTA for their failure against the problem. The 'Daily News' described the anti-graffiti plan as like "the child who tried to empty the ocean with a bucket" (Castleman 156).
In 1981, Mayor Koch proclaimed a new resistance to graffiti - razor wire fences and guard dogs in the yards - at a cost of $1.5 million. The effectiveness was tested to this approach - the trains were painted white and for three month stayed that way. Therefore, this tactic against graffiti was considered a success and the programme expanded. The MTA received a further $22.4 million to put up razor wire in the other yards around the city. Richard Ravitch (MTA chairman) who had first cast doubt on the Mayors idea, was now pleased with the results and the subsequent funding. However, hesitancy was indicated by officials of the MTA and especially by the writers themselves... One writer Ali, declared:
"...the writers won't be stopped by razor wire, dogs or razor towers. We'll get past the fences. Wait and see" (Castleman 147).
Bloodtea, another writer, expanded on this:
"All they're doing is moving graffiti from the outsides of the trains to the insides. It's the inside graffiti - the tag s - that the public hates. All the Mayor is doing is getting rid of the outside pieces that the public likes, the big colourful pieces" (Castleman 147).
In the same year, Zephyr, Ali and other writers put forward a novel proposal to the MTA asking to allow them to paint a train and to survey the public's response. They were turned down. Ravitch stated "I have an obligation to respect the rights of the public and they all hate graffiti" (Castleman 177). To Ravitch, it was not the writer's energies that were misplaced, it was their "value system" (Stylewars).
In 1984, David Gunn - Chairman of the Transit Authority - took graffiti covered trains out of service, therefore, eliminating the audience that writers sought. A year later, Mayor Koch put forward the law banning spray paint to minors.
It was also the year when the death of Michael Stewart was brought to trial. Six of the white police were acquitted by an all white jury. Stewart was black. It was not until 1990 that Stewarts' family was awarded $1.7 million.
After 1988, the graffiti subculture underwent a transformation, where it settled more on the streets, inside of trains, walls and the black books. This was due "to a third and more massive campaign by the transit authority to wipe it out, and the combination of disunity and disinterest among writers for different reasons" (Writing From the style Underground 84).
Officially, subway graffiti died on May 12 1989, but it was far too evolved to be stopped. It was a massive subculture that had gone around the world, and as every writer knows, many still got up on the subway, it was just buffed before it could be seen.
While every authority was passing the buck for the problem that was graffiti, Chairman Yunich seemed to respond with the most viable answer that:
"graffiti is a sociological problem that has defied solution" (Castleman 151).
Graffiti is in your face, an attack on the visuals. The attempt to exterminate graffiti, meant that people were 'listening' - namely the authorities that graffiti was rebelling against. The approach taken by authority (to declare all out war) seemed to fail, costing the city billions of dollars in revenue.
Brewer even suggests that the anti-graffiti tactics used by the city:
"may have actually worked to entrench the illegal focus of writers there" (194).
It was an outdated method of resistance and accomplished little in eradicating the problem. It did not address the dilemma o +f the urban decay surrounding these youths, of what motivates the youth to do it, the larger societal problems. The authorities could not see, either, that graffiti writing was a way for the youths to express their energies the only way they knew how: on the side of a subway car, or a on wall.
Resistance to graffiti still does not work as "since 1989, graffiti has wound up costing the United States Government over $4,000,000,000 per annum and this figure is escalating" (Beatty & Cray qtd in Element).
"Even if it seems like a stereotyped name for a woman, that was far from being true since you could see my name on subway cars next to all the male writer's names. I was a feminist speaking for women's rights even before I ever heard about anything like that" LADY PINK (Molotov cocktail 19)
Males have always dominated all aspects of hip hop, and graffiti is no exception. However there have always been a small but significant number of women who are represented in the scene. This chapter, although short, will investigate the females, who played true to the game. Like Lady Pink, one of the most well known of the female writers, who still writes to this day - legally and sometimes illegally.
Females have a harder time achieving fame in this predominately male genre. Some of the best and most well - known female writers - Barbara62, Eva 62, Lady Pink, Charmin, Stoney, lady Heart to name some, have played a role in changing the male dominated shape of the graffiti world. Charmin, for instance, gained he 9r fame by tagging the statue of liberty - the first writer to do this, male or female, earned her the respect she sought.
Barbara 62 and Eva 62 were early writers - in the same era as Taki 183 - and they usually wrote in a pair. Many female writers used male names - the reason for this could be inferred as a way to gain acceptance before a stereotype could be attached.
Many male writers resented female writers. They did not want them to come to train yards, they say, "cause if they get hurt we'll feel responsible" (Castleman 69). Another female writer of the early days, Kathy 161 would go to the train yards but most female writers attempted to gain their fame via walls, handball courts and tagging the insides of trains.
Female writers were usually 'boxed out' of graffiti groups/organisations. On rare occasions, if a female writer was considered to be a "bad" (good) writer, she would be invited to join an organisation. An example of this is when the highly prolific and prestigious organisation, United Graffiti Artists (UGA), invited Charmin and Stoney (two very accomplished writers of the time) to join them. In fact, Stoney had previously been a member of the 'Ex-Vandals' gang. Opposition from male writers to allowing females into their organisation was strong. Many of these writers saw females as a threat, especially if they had fame, good style, etc.
The attitude towards Stoney by Hugo Martinez (founder of the UGA) and other male writers was according to Bama:
"...She was about being serious. Hugo kind of saw her as a threat to the other guys ' egos because she kind of painted very well...That sort of attitude that made some of the fellas who weren't as good but were important members of the group feel bad. So they thought that it would be good to get rid of her, and they got rid of her" (castleman 121).
All- female crews and groups were attempted but they never really got off the ground. Female writers then were always slaves of the male dominance of the subculture, always having to be one step ahead in order to be taken seriously as graffiti writers. They were always on the outside, sometimes breaking through into the inside.
Females had a lot more to prove than their male counterparts, while aiming for the same goals of style and fame.
They often had to live with rumours about their sexual activities.
As Lady Pink describe Cs in an interview in 'Molotov Cocktail' (a graffiti ''zine):
"As a female writer your sexual reputation is run through the dirt. Boys will not tell each other that a girl said no to them. People were saying crazy things about how I wasn't doing my own pieces and so on...So I went painting with guys in the Bronx and all the way down to Brooklyn... they saw that I was serious" (Molotov Cocktail 19).
This can be seen as an attempt to intimidate females from partaking in the subculture, and it did deter many females. However, according to Lady heart:
"although it was sometimes an effective strategy, fear of family reprisals and the physical risks in train yards were much greater deterrents against female participation" (Rose 44).
Female style of graffiti was similar to males, although females often painted more feminine, using less blacks, more colour and more visually pleasing characters and backgrounds. By using more gender role colours, etc, while still maintaining style and technique, these women individualised their work asserting the fact that they were females in a male field, but that they could be as good and sometimes better than the boys.
"'You're mad,' cried one, 'it is not art, it is never art.'
'No,' said the other, 'I think it's valid'" (Mailer)
The question as to whether graffiti can be considered art is a controversial one to say the least. This is especially salient in the views of the general public and gallery owners alike. It can be asked: is it vandalism when it is illegal on the streets or on the side of a subway car and art when it is on a canvas on someone's wall or on a legitimate advertisement - what is the difference? What is art, what is vandalism, what is graffiti writing...
It can be suggested that "deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label" (Becker qtd in Lachmann 230). In other words, graffiti writing was labelled as vandalism and rejected by the dominant society, until, like a twist of fate, the art world took it in, therefore making it more acceptable. The deviance was left as the appeal. Another important question that has arisen through this, is whether graffiti should cross over to the mainstream. This has cause d great debate, especially among the writers themselves. Haze, puts it like this:
"It's very tricky to call graffiti art because it was born to operate outside the system, and art has a system. So when you put graffiti in a gallery, you are taking an outsider and putting it inside. It's like putting an animal in a cage" (Molotov Cocktail 7).
However, Lady pink, a prolific writer, states simply that:
"it can no longer be called graffiti but art, and is accepted as such" (Wagstaff).
Graffiti came to the attention of the art mainstream twice: In late 1972 and again in 1980. The biggest art 'movement' of the 70s - Minimalism - was dying out and a new art interest was sought.
"The original graffiti muralists could be viewed as naive artists in that they lacked any sort of training yet produced new forms of art that incorporated diverse elements of mass culture" (Lachmann 242). In other words, the graffiti artists did not emerge from other art worlds. Although, Robinson & McCormick express that "graffiti shares many of the stylistic elements seen in East Village art (Neo-Expressionism) - an obsession with trademarks ("tags"), the use of motifs borrowed from the comics and popular culture and adolescent taste for dramatic, lowbrow imagery" (qtd in crane 79).
In 1972, the United Graffiti Artists (UGA) held a show in the Razor gallery. It was featured in Newsweek and in 1974 the first 'historical reference' of graffiti was published - a book by Norman mailer 'The Faith of Graffiti' which put forth the "creative power of graffiti" (Edmand 495).
The Art Space Gallery in SoHo opened with a graffiti art exhibition in 1975. Phase and Bama were there, their work selling from $1,000 - $3,000. Prices remained low for graffiti writing on canvas, this was because as a new aesthetic, it could not be categorised in the same sphere as 'elite', conventional art. However, the show did not receive the vast media coverage that it needed.
In February 1979, Fred Braithwaite (A.K.A. Fab five Freddy; later as Freddy Love) was featured in the 'Scenes' Column of the Village Voice paper.
In the article, he boldly stated:
"I think it's time everyone realised graffiti is the purest form of New York art. What else has evolved from the streets" (Hager 63).
Following the article, Fred received a number of phone calls. One in particular, from the Italian art dealer Claudio Bruni, led Fred and Lee (another member of the Fabulous five) to a show in Rome.
Freddy became the voice of graffiti, much like Afrika Bambaataa became the voice for hip hop (in particular rap).
In 1980, Fred also painted his own version of Andy Warhol's Pop Art 'Campbell Soup Cans' on the side of a train. He also received international acclaim for his appearance in Blondie's 'Rapture'. The videos to 'Rapture' and 'The Hardest Part' featured Freddy's writing.
Collaborations with popular music icons (especially white ones), reached out to a much wider audience than the art world could achieve alone.
The writer's corners of the time could be seen as the galleries of the underground subculture, as these where the places where style and recognition were discussed and sought. Many writers resisted the 'intrusion' from the dominant art world, thus, preventing graffiti's commodification. When the writer's corners were broken up by police pressure, it left the writers 'open', the corner was replaced by the gallery as a meeting place for serious writers, and "as a result, they came to share their patrons' rejection of subway graffiti as a legitimate form of art" (Lachmann 247).
Writers resistance, though, led the art world to lose interest. Therefore, it was not until 1980 that the art scene for graffiti reemerged, at the same time as the hip hop explosion.
It was through such people as Rene Ricard, Sam Esses (a collector who saw the European interest in graffiti), Henry Chalfant, Patti Astor (underground movie star), Stefan IEins (of Fashion Moda - a storefront South Bronx gallery), Colab Inc (organisers of the 1980 Times Square show), that the rest of the art mainstream was introduced to graffiti writing as art.
Films, like Charlie Ahearn's 'Wildstyle' took graffiti to the big screen. Patti Astor's role in the film - a reporter who "travelled to the South Bronx, discovered the graffiti scene, and brought it back to the established art world," was considered, "a role she would eventually play in real life" (Hager 74).
Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat (A.K.A. Samo) became household names to the gallery dwelling mainstream and the general public alike. As Samo came up from tagging the subways to enter the mainstream, Haring, a School of Visual arts (SVA) dropout who had studied semiotics (the science of signs and symbols), was going down into the bowels of New York City to achieve his fame.
Haring's chalk drawings were a distinct entity to the subway graffiti writing of the time. Barking dogs (which incidentally resemble William Baziotes [1912-1963] White Silhouette  oil on canvas), crawling babies, telephones, etc covered the black papered advertising spaces throughout the subway system.
His work was instantly recognisable and "unlike most graffiti, Haring's work was almost universally admired" (Hager 67).
Haring was seen by many as a graffiti artist, even thought he was not fully part of the hip hop scene. This confusion was made by the mainstream art establishment, who lumped all of the underground subway writers of the period together. However, like some of the subway writers who went from underground to overground, Haring was "only too aware of the destructive influence of the art world" (Wagstaff). It can be suggested that Haring "beat the system by operating both inside and outside the art market" (Tomkins 66).
Haring did have some connection to graffiti writers through going the Monday night meetings on 106st of the writing group 'Soul Artists'. Soul Artists was the group that had in 1981 held a show 'Beyond Words', where Bambaataa opened and such names as Patti Astor were present.
It was during the 1980s, when graffiti writers were approached by art dealers to produce their urban wildstyle onto canvas, for sale to well-off collectors that City Government were spending millions trying to eradicate graffiti, once and for a ll, from the subway system. Therefore, graffiti at this point was seen in both negative and positive terms; pulling in opposite directions.
The graffiti world got fragmented when some went mainstream. These subway graffiti writers became "Involved simultaneously in an art world and a deviant subculture" (Lachmann 230). While the writers who remained separate and resisted the art mainstream drew "on the grim realities of their social backgrounds to make the kinds of political and moral statements that were relatively rare in the Neo-Expressionist movement" (Crane 79).
In 1982, Rene Ricard wrote a cover story for 'Art Forum', a prestigious art magazine. This move hyped graffiti as an art form and blasted it right into the mainstream.
However, In another article, 'Art in Ame , the author Suzy Gablik suggested that graffiti "needs 'criminality' to maintain it's ethical quality, it's note of authenticity" (Starr 132).
Phase 2 saw the real writers as tantamount to the whole subculture, where:
"Keith Haring and Bugs Bunny are not" (Phase 2 in Rap Pages 56).
In 1983, Yaki Kornblit, an art dealer from Amsterdam came to New York looking for the best of the city's writers, with the aim of taking their work to Europe to sell to art collectors who had "20 years before had been drawn to pop art and had provided the enthusiasm and economic backing to launch that movement in the world..." (Chalfant & Prigoff 7).
The writers who attracted Kornblit were the 'old skool' of the subway scene, who had also been involved in some highly publicised New York shows, including the New Wave Show at P.S. 1 and the Fun Gallery. Among the writers were Dondi, Crash, Futura 2000, Zephyr, Pink, Blade and Seen - all well-known writers in the graffiti subculture.
In the same year a 'Post-graffiti' show was held, celebrating graffitists "transition from subway surfaces to canvas..." (Janis qtd in Lachmann 248). Seen, maybe predicting the death of graffiti (as an underground subway movement at least) had painted a 'Graffiti Died' masterpiece in 1982.
The problem with graffiti writing on canvas was that it could look static, away from the flowing movement and the large format on the sides of subway cars. therefore, writers had to evolve their style to fit the new medium. You can see this evolution in Futura 2000's work as it becomes more complex and more 'arty', now rendering the spray can as a tool of the art rather than an icon - the only sign of being a subway graffiti writer. (see Futura's current work in appendix 14).
The late 1980s saw a decline in graffiti on the subway because of extensive efforts to eradicate it. It was a time when Haring's work was selling for as much as $350,000.
On making so much money for his work, Haring had said:
"If you sell your work cheaply, you just get used by the system; somebody else buys it and sells it for more, so you have to take it from them" (Starr 133).
Many writers only dream of obtaining a career in art, many see it as selling out. Writers, like Lee, saw the subway era of writing as a progression period towards new dimensions. Futura saw graffiti as "a path to upward mobility" (Starr 134). ;
As mentioned, the writers at the time had mixed views on whether art should be on gallery walls.
Graffiti artist, Tim Rollins explains:
"It is difficult to accept it on white gallery walls. Then it becomes part of the commodity market. The social context is what gives it its meaning, and this is being ripped f ?rom it" (Starr 132).
Eskae elaborates on this point:
"graffiti is a kick in the face to the gallery/museum system, where the artist is pimped like a whore for the capitalist system, made into another commodity for people to buy...graffiti art is free for all to come and view, no-one can own it, it belongs to all of us" (Walsh backcover).
Eskae, then, sees graffiti as a-hegemonic in that it is not a commodity that can be bought and sold.
But art is controversial. Considering the society we live in - a capitalist society - it is obvious that graffiti would be sold in some way, marketed as a commodity.Graffiti 'predictably' became institutionalised. The way graffiti was mass packaged for the art world "can fit Hebdige's definition of 'the commodity art form' in that they sought to remove muralists from the social and aesthetic context for which their art was invented" (Lachmann 246).
Omar states that:
"Most graff'' heads think doing 'art' is fake or selling out, but they can go fuck themselves. I doubt every writer stays a writer all their life" (Walsh 32).
The move to the mainstream, for some, came as no surprise as Mel Neulander expresses "these are ghetto children, not flower children, they want Cadillacs" (Wagstaff).
GRAFFITI WILL NEVER DIE...IT'S LIKE A PLAGUE...IT WILL ALWAYS BE PRESENT" ROKE
The '90s has conceived new graffiti trends. This chapter will discover how graffiti writers have taken writing to a new level. Even the term graffiti writing has evolved - many now call it aerosol art/culture and the writers aerosol artists.
Graffiti in New York City in the 1990s is no longer as highly visible as it was when it travelled through the city on the side of a train. In the 90s the canvas has evolved - "with the train movement over you've just got to take it to another level" (Writing From The Style Underground 86). However, contrary to popular belief, the trains are still regularly bombed.
Many writers make graffiti videos, such as, "Video graff" by Carl Weston, documenting writers in action. There are also a number of graffiti 'zines, all dedicated to the art, such as, 'On The Go', 'Can Control', 'Skills', 'Tight' (formally known as 'International Graffiti Times' [IGT]). Some writers today do commissions of art for store fronts, etc. Others do memorials and wall murals. Some have art related businesses, doing graphics and logos (such as Haze's company 'Haze gear').
There are still writers today and therefor e, there is still writing. The ingenuity of writers keeps the culture alive. Today it is fiction that most writers come from poor urban areas - a myth created by the media.
"An estimated half of the graffiti writers in the U.S. come from white middle class and upper middle class families...these individuals went into the liminal areas of society...dilapidated urban areas, to create their art. This is their way of physically demonstrating their rejection of the ideals and values placed upon then by their particular upbringing and culture" (Walsh 11).
Today writers have gone beyond the subway evolution of hip hop graffiti and extended their canvas to freight trains, walls (legal and illegal) [appendix 13], rocks, signs, vehicles (see appendix 15) and even animals... recently, members of the 'I Can Fly' (ICF) crew from Brooklyn, stuck a tagged label on the side of an sheep at a local zoo! Many writers plant these ready tagged stickers wherever they go (see appendix 7 and 16 for examples).
By 1991 the transit authority "reported an increase in the amount of graffiti on its trains" (Edmand 496). A graffiti task force was again set up to try to eradicate the problem before it got out of hand as was feared.
In 1992 and 1993, the MTA's 'Sub Talk' publicity campaign referred "to their victory against graffiti as a sign of their role in the city's supposed improving health" (Rose 46).
The subway is no longer an option to get seen. As soon as a train is pieced today, it is taken out of service promptly and buffed before anyone can see it. However, although the NYC subway does seem somewhat cleaned up, compared to over a decade ago, it is definitely a illusion that trains do not get bombed:
"In reality, subway cars still receive between 3,500 and 4000 small 'hits' each week" (Henderson 44).
The writers may record their work on film, ensuring that their work will be seen if not in reality, then in printed form. Omar, the writer I met in NYC, produces a publication for his company 'fly iD' called "clean Trains", which features recently 'hit' trains (appendix 12 has some 90s bombed trains).
The most recent type of graffiti to emerge on the trains, is 'scratch graffiti' (scratchgraf). Writers etch their tags into the windows. ..In New York City every window on every train line has scratch graff. this form of graffiti is the hardest and possibly the most expensive to remove. In fact, between January 1990 and June 1992 "the authority spent $1.4 million replacing scratched plastic windows" (Edmand 496). It is the fastest growing form of graffiti and many see it as undiluted vandalism.
In the 1990s resistance is still in force. Graffiti is seen as creating a downward spiral precipitating 'no-go' areas and is often seen in the same light as drugs and gangs to many officials.
There are many strategies against graffiti. A popular form of eradication is to remove the graffiti as soon as it is put there as if "it never existed at all" (Luna 3).
In 1991, The Queen's Courier, a local paper, began featuring Halls Of Fame - stores were awarded this title who promptly cleaned tags and throw-ups from their store fronts. A Hall Of Shame would be awarded to stores that did not, and readers were suggested to boycott said pictured store. In some areas of NYC police use freshly painted white walls in order to 'trap' graffiti writers - to catch then red handed, so to speak.
Graffiti writers are put through the court system, fined and sometimes sent to boot camps in order to try to relearn their ways of thinking. But it can be suggested that by putting these youths back in the society that they are rebelling against, back into the urban decay, it seems a pointless waste of time and money. Surely it would be better to educate these youths within their society by allowing them to express themselves through their art in a funded project, such as the legal wall projects.
The NYC subway (although basically gone from the scene) will always be the home of NYC graffiti. But as walls replaced subway cars, they cannot be dismissed as a way of getting up. However, many writers prefer to stay on the right side of the law when creating a masterpiece today. The reasons for this are many - their work gets seen, it is not removed straight away, etc.
The Phun Phactory is one such legal wall, and exists to endorse legal aerosol art. Created in 1994 by Pat Dilillo, and located on long island city, the phactory's aim is positive rather than negative, enabling would-be bombers to give their creativity a more favourable and constructive outlet. Dilillo (who also started a group to eradicate graffiti - Graffiti Terminators) realized that these youth needed an "outlet or they are going to go out and bomb a train" ("Legal graffiti? The Police Voice Dissent" 61).
There are various Halls of Fame located throughout the city, where writers are commissioned to do a piece. One such wall, which I have frequented many times since 1993, is the E106st hall of Fame in east Harlem. (There are examples of 106st hall of fame pieces in appendices 8, 10, 13 and the detail piece on the front cover was in the hall of fame).
Graffiti writers came out where the modern media tried to crush them. The 90s is a time where the cultural value is that of a media junkie - images and messages are consumed by the public. They are put there for mass consumption. The capitalist system saw how graffiti "screams your ego across the city" (Mailer), and they consumed this and reproduced it as a commodity form. Therefore, much of graffiti as a raw street art has been absorbed. Despite the fact that it is not in the interest of this capitalist system to have vocal contrary viewpoints, such as those you would find within the graffiti subculture, they are allowed to exist via a negotiated balance of power and graffiti in advertising is one way of redressing the balance. Graffiti writers are increasingly influencing the styles, colours, etc of advertising for major companies where the scope of art is being tested. The Fila advertisements in appendix 15 are prime example of graffiti as a mass produced commodity. The words 'confidence' and 'fearless' are raw, in your face, tag-like structures, currently seen on the front of all the city's buses. If those words were written by a writer without permission, it would be vandalism, but because a massive company like Fila has made the writing into an advertisement, it is now called business.
As Eskae reminds us:
"people with money can put up signs...if you don't have the money you're marginalised...you're not allowed to express yourself or to put up words that you think other people should see. Camel, they're up all over the country and look at the message Camel is sending and companies like t hem. ...they're just trying to keep the masses paralysed so they can go about their business with little resistance" (Walsh 25).
Some writers are one step ahead of the advertisers - claiming back space from the allocated legitimate spaces. These 'urban art terrorists' are redefining the relationship between the legitimate world of advertising and the somewhat less legitimate world of graffiti art (aka: aerosol art). Appendix 16 shows the work of Kaws, who is currently changing the face of advertising in New York City, by working his tags and designs into the advertising he is completely changing the message, but at the same time leaving it intact. In other words, decoding the message and inviting the reader to take a second look - challenging their perceptions.
The internet has become a major force for graffiti. It can be seen as the new 'writers corner' of the 90s, a place where writers can connect, swap addresses to trade their photographs or even scan them via electronic mail. In the chat rooms of 'America On Line' there is always a busy graffiti room where writers from across the country (and sometimes the world) discuss all aspects of graffiti. In many ways the mouse has replaced the spraycan as a writing tool. Many writers have mixed feelings about graffiti on the internet. Reas expresses his view in an interview in rap pages:
"graffiti when I was doing it, wasn't in magazines. it wasn't on the internet. It was on a train...it was free. Now everything costs money. graf is marketed. I don't know if it's right or wrong. I just know that it's different (Rock. A. Party 42).
Of all the graffiti sites on the World Wide Web, the biggest and best known is 'Art Crimes' (http://www.graffiti.org). It is constantly being updated with scanned photographs, articles, events, etc. There is also a link system that can take you to other graffiti sites.
So, is this the end of the phenomenon? Some say no, others yes. Futura, who was there in the beginning and has evolved his style notes that:
"back then I don't think anyone ever thought about the future of the movement and where it was going - surely I didn't. It was 6 a passing fancy, a fad, a sign of the times" (Futura 2000).
The phenomenon has definitely moved on from its ghetto beginnings, and in the same way that graffiti got fragmented as it went from underground to overground, graffiti's move from the ghetto to just about everywhere has created 'splinters'. Problems arise when graffiti is taken out of it's original context, so where graffiti could go from the 1990's is anyone's guess. In a recent article in Rap pages, writers were asked "what is graf's future? where do you guys see graff 15 years from now?" (Rock. A. Party 44). Some of their replies were quite inventive, if not delusional!...
"Futura 2000: it'll probably be like Blade Runner. It'll be really raw, and there will be neon pieces with holographic characters...Reas: I'll plant a chip in people's heads, and all they'll ever see is a Reas tag...Camp: I'll be the first nigga to do shit on the moon..." (Rock. A. Party 44).
Graffiti art is unpredictable - it is an urban wildstyle that is ever moving - changing - evolving. Therefore, where it is going and who appropriates it depends alot on the writers themselves, the social-cultural-political context, technology. As we have seen, certain chapters of the graffiti history have been closed. But as doors close, new ones open. The former Police Chief, Garelik once suggested that "the fad is dying out" (Castleman 64). But for many writers, 'the fad' presents a different story...
"End graffiti? I don't think so. Everyday another writer is born" ("Legal Graffiti? The Police Voice dissent" 61).
"THE PASSION FOR DESTRUCTION IS A CREATIVE PASSION TOO" MICHAEL BAKUNIN - RUSSIAN ANARCHIST (FERRELL 87).
IF ART LIKE THIS IS A CRIME LET GOD FORGIVE ME" LEE (HAGER 62)
For many people graffiti is not seen as a serious area for studying. Many, but definitely not the majority, of the people that I told about this project on New York City graffiti, could not understand why and some even saw it as a waste of time - rejecting it as a form of expression. Most said there was not enough information. Wrong... If peoples perceptions changed and they realised it can have a positive influence on todays urban culture then maybe graffiti could break from the vandalistic ghetto mentality that so many have labelled it. Whether people like it or not, it has evolved into a contemporary art form - from subway to wherever it wants to go, including gallery walls. Some writers, as chapter 5 brought to light, do not like the fact that graffiti went Y to galleries, but as in any evolution, there are going to be aspects of love and hate, and this is as true for the development of graffiti as anything else. Graffiti has in a lot of ways been redefined. It has become a mass produced product, used in advertisements, etc. At the same time it still represents the city's ongoing problems. When you walk around the less tourist areas of the city - the place where the real people dwell - you can feel its raw energy. Burnt out buildings and cars are still a common sight. And the problems and fear of drugs, crime, Aids, poverty, guns etc, still prevail. Graffiti translates the message that something is not right in the concrete jungle, with murals, memorials and messages.
As I stated in the introduction - the reader will come to see graffiti as either an artistic form of expression or egotistic vandalism. For those of the latter perspective, my aim was to expand their horizons and show that there is more depth to this misunderstood subculture than meets the eye. Graffiti is seen, by the majority of people, as a socially offending technique of urban expression...when in fact I think it is a creative medium in the realm of urban expression - it is an urban bred youth subculture movement that has expanded around the globe, but it could not have started there. It could only have begun in the urban magnitude that is New York city. It is the most exciting genre of wall art to hit NYC, and has been growing and evolving for the last 25 years. The 'soul of writing' is the writers themselves and the evolving style.
Phase 2 announces that:
"one day all of that truth shall manifest itself. Everything that you need to know about why the culture exists and how it came to be is not in a book. The story is one of so much depth that all of it may never be explained" (in rap Pages 55).
Graffiti was and still is influenced by a mix of popular commercial culture and inner city economic and social terms. The mythologist, Joseph Campbell complains that "the United States has no ethos: a vast jumble of people from different nationalities and traditions, it lacks the web of assumptions about social behaviour that you find in deep-rooted homogeneous culture. Instead it is held together by law." (Cooper 306). He goes on to suggest that because of this, there are no myths for the youth, therefore, they create their own and this is where graffiti comes into the story. He suggests that these youth are "dangerous, because their own laws are not those of the city" (Cooper 306). Writers, then, came to be seen as a dangerous threat to society and to its conforming nature.
Graffiti then was written from a need for expression, some may hate it but it served its purpose for inner city youth trapped in a compressing society.
Graffiti is confrontational. It is not about beautifying the urban environment, or pleasing some art critic or media mogul. It is about getting up - about taking a piece of space. Art is a form of empowering communication - you have speakers and you have listeners. Graffiti art gave the writers a voice, therefore, to speak and also be heard allows strength to the silenced.
The question of whether graffiti was a product or a cause of the urban decay of New York city, should have become apparent in chapter 2, where it became obvious that graffiti - whether directly or indirectly - was an "outrage and protest against political oppression, the unjust and alienating political-economic order" (Walsh 2). I suggest that graffiti was a product of the urban decay and not a cause. As Kriegal contends:
"and why does the current state of this city seem to me more accurately captured by these rootless souls th ran by all the statistics about street crime & drug abuse & white flight to the suburbs in the 'New York times'?" (434).
Graffiti draws its energy from the reservoir of collected experience. Many writers blamed the government - the capitalist system - this was reflected in their pieces, such as the apocalyptic scenes, political messages, etc.
Today graffiti can be seen as a vision of the city in which it comes from: a place where the high tech' glitter of computers, beepers and mobile phones exist against a scenery of urban decay; where the dollar determines your destination, where the people within the city can love and hate, where withdrawal and loneliness is felt among a vast and varied ocean of people - graffiti is a paradox that makes absolute sense.
"As A-1 walked the streets with Jon Naar, they passed a sign: DON'T POLLUTE-KEEP THE CITY CLEAN. 'They don't see,' the photographer murmured, 'that sign is a form of pollution itself'" (mailer).
In my own opinion, I think graffiti is a beautiful urban phenomenon. It represents rebellion at its best. Graffiti is just another form of expression created by the human imagination - the inspiration coming from the backdrop that is New York City.
Finally, I would like to revise this dissertation for the coming millennium, focussing on graffiti in various cities around the world - N.Y.C., London, San Fran', Amsterdam, Paris...the list goes on - to see just where writing has gone and where it is going next, because as far as I can see it will always exist in some form or another.
"THE WORDS OF THE PROPHET WERE WRITTEN ON THE SUBWAY WALLS AND THE TENEMENT HALLS" PAUL SIMON 'SOUNDS OF SILENCE'
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