From The Subway to the Gallery- History of Modern Graffiti Art
, by Bobby Banks, 16 min reading time
, by Bobby Banks, 16 min reading time
Over the years street artists have managed to establish themselves as respected creators and some of them have even gained international fame, transforming graffiti from a fringe art, aiming sometimes to mark street gangs’ territory, into big business. How did this change even become possible? Is today’s graffiti free of the stigmatization concerning vandalism? Whether you see graffiti as an expressive and lively form of art or as a form of irresponsible vandalism, one thing is certain; in recent years it has captured the attention of the general population to the world’s biggest galleries. Graffiti is without question, not something new since humans have started drawing on surfaces thousands of years ago. Nonetheless, graffiti in the form that is most commonly known in our days, arose through processes established possibly in Philadelphia around the 1960s reaching New York by the end of the decade. The 1970s were a decade of high acne for the art of graffiti and it was then when it became popularized and began to occupy a significant part of the public space, making its presence felt by the general population, who would then see subway windows and public walls covered in tags and paintings of bigger scale.
In any case, over the years street artists have managed to establish themselves as respected creators and some of them have even gained international fame, transforming graffiti from a fringe art, aiming sometimes to mark street gangs’ territory, into big business. How did this change even become possible? Is today’s graffiti free of the stigmatization concerning vandalism? These are some questions, on which we will try to shed light, while we try to explore the history of modern graffiti and the position that it claims in today’s culture. "Graffiti" etymologically is related to the Greek verb "γράφειν," which translates into "to scratch, draw, or write". As a result, graffiti can be defined as the act of writing, drawing, or painting on surfaces of a structure in a public space, usually with the use of spray paint/markers. The earliest known example of graffiti paintings can be found in the French Lascaux cave dating back to 17,000 years ago. Moving on to modern history, during WWII “Kilroy was here”, was a typical standardized phrase used by soldiers to establish an unwritten connection in-between them, allowing them to leave their mark in as many different walls as possible. This mentality was closely related to modern graffiti, which was highly motivated by the desire of the artist to assert his/her existence. Taki 183, one of the first taggers of New York, had stated that: “I liked the feeling of getting my name up, and I liked the idea of getting away with it. Once I started, I couldn’t stop”. The 1960s are the decade of birth of modern graffiti. The US is undoubtedly the general region, in which the first graffitis arose. According to some sources, it was Philadelphia where it all started; however, others pinpoint New York and its Black and Latino neighborhoods, where hip-hop music was flourishing at the time. It is also important to notice that it was during that period that the aerosol spray can was invented providing the first street artists with a convenient and relatively cheap medium. In the early history of graffiti, the term “artist” was not commonly used to describe the people, who were involved in this street subculture. On the contrary, they were mostly referred to as “writers” or “taggers”. At this point, the essence of graffiti was to create simple tags or signatures and try to copy them in as many locations as possible, so that everybody could see them. Some of the most famous taggers of that time are Julio 204 and Taki 183 originating in New York and Corn Bread from Philadelphia, all of whom are claiming the “first tag”, even though it is difficult to pinpoint it with certainty. Soon these early creators made a huge realization: What if they started using subway cars and trains as surfaces for their tags? This way, their messages would travel in big distances and, as a result, reach out to a wider number of viewers.
Naturally, it didn’t take long for the walls of the subway to end up covered in tags. This new element of movement added another dimension to the art of graffiti. In many cases, taggers were motivated by the mindset that their art would be appreciated, no longer in a static form, but in motion. American sociologist Richard Lachmann mentions the following: “Much of the best graffiti was meant to be appreciated in motion, as it passed through dark and dingy stations or on elevated tracks. Photos and graffiti canvases cannot convey the energy and aura of giant artwork in motion.”. Since then, graffiti artists never lost their interest in leaving their marks in moving vehicles and the image of the subways worldwide was transformed forever. From that point and beyond, tags went through a long process of variations. Since the culture of graffiti was gaining more and more popularity in the US and Europe, the taggers had to be increasingly original in order to stand out. The signatures became bigger, more stylized and more colorful. Also, new calligraphic styles were introduced, while the artists started experimenting with can nozzles from household items, that were accessible to them, such as oven cleaners etc. As a result, this increased the creative freedom of the taggers who started trying out new spray effects and line widths. For these early graffiti writers, the majority of whom were poor and to some extent socially marginalized, with limited life choices, tagging was a request for recognition and respect. In his book, Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground, Gregory Snyder states that it was all about “fame and respect for their deeds”. Around the mid-1970s and even more so during the 1980s, graffiti became a target of fierce criticism and found itself in the middle of a “war” with the official authorities. There was no other place on earth, than New York, where such a vast amount of money and resources was used for this peculiar war. Graffiti was an actual political target of that era and as Martha Cooper commented about Edward Coch, former mayor of New York: “For Koch, graffiti was evidence of a lack of authoritarian order; as such, the presence of graffiti had a psychological effect that made all citizens its victim through a disruption of the visual order, thus promoting a feeling of confusion and fear among people.” For politicians, such as Edward Koch and John Lindsay, it was a matter of claiming back their authority. Cleaning up the city from graffiti often translated into following and searching youngsters after school, staking out their houses and questioning informants in order to collect information on potential writers.
Additional financial support was even provided to the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which in 1984 launched the “Clean Car Program”, which, years later, is being remembered as its stauncher project in hope of eradicating graffiti. However, as journalist Jeff Chang noted, the attempts of MTA “only further intensified the process of stylistic change, because there were many more potential targets, and they’re all clean canvases.” Naturally, individual writers and crews fought back and saw these restrictions as a challenge that they had to overcome, becoming with time more and more territorial with their targets. Unsurprisingly, graffiti was anything but eliminated from the streets of New York. Nowadays, it continues to thrive and gains more and more acceptance, as people and critics are starting to see the artistic value in it. As a form of art, it keeps evolving and depending on the country and culture it incorporates different elements, for example, manga-inspired art in the streets of Japan. In our days, graffiti has developed in ways that have led to its –perhaps partial- commercialization and, due to the rising concern about the environmental crisis, more and more people are starting to discuss the negative effects that spray paint, as a medium, has on the atmosphere.
No matter its controversial history, it is less and less viewed as a form of vandalism. Of course, in some cases, graffiti works still end up cleaned and removed on the spot from public or private spaces. On the other hand, some regions focus on the artistic aspect of it and take care of protecting and maintaining specific public pieces. The controversy surrounding graffiti has this main question at its core: What constitutes art? Whatever the answer to this question may be, it is a fact that right now graffiti has won a place in the scene of pop culture and contemporary art, existing both in the streets and at the same time inside the halls of some of the world’s biggest museums. This exact transition from the streets to the museums makes one think about what difference did this change brought to the essence of graffiti. Caleb Neelon, graffiti artist and educator, makes some interesting observations on this issue: “Artists who master the craft of painting on the street can create perhaps even greater work in studio settings, where they have more time, resources and don’t have to worry about the weather (or the police). What they might lose is the volume of people who see their work on a daily basis.” In reality, graffiti as such is not commonly seen inside galleries and museums, at least compared to other forms of art. Nonetheless, a certain aesthetic has been introduced and incorporated into many artists’ works. A remarkable example is the work of Jean Dubuffet, French painter and sculptor, who embraced tags and graphic motifs into his art. This showcases that the influence of graffiti on modern and contemporary culture is beyond the graffiti works themselves, since these pieces have ended up inspiring artists of other genres as well. The key question, though, still remains: “Is commercialism slowly killing street art?”. Some view the high popularity and the entrance of graffiti in the scene of high art as something inherently positive, since it allows the artists to promote their art to a wider range of audience, this way ensuring recognition and financial profits for themselves. On the other hand, the capitalization of graffiti leads to concern about street art being in danger of losing its character and originality for the sake of brand deals and lucrative contracts. In other words, can graffiti’s anarchic spirit stay alive in a gallery’s asphyxiating highly-polished and commercialized space? Can street art’s anticapitalistic rhetoric ever be in correspondence with making a profit out of it? Nowadays, big brands like, Coca Cola, Nike, Zippo and others have partnered up with famous street artists, who created pieces inspired by them.
A well-known example is the case of Fauxreel, street artist, who filled in the streets of Toronto and others cities in Canada with artworks inspired by Vespa. The two parties teamed up and prepared this campaign, which raised a wave of reactions against Fauxreel accusing him of “selling out”. The artist himself claimed that: “I approached the Vespa Squarehead project with the goal of raising questions about the role of advertising in public space, examining the grey area between street art, graffiti and advertising and attempting to make connections between products and people’s identities. If I can complete a series of work that will pose and examine these types of questions and it will allow me to make some money at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with that in my opinion.”. As a result, the issue is not just limited to a critique on the basis of mainstream commerciality. The controversy surrounding Fauxreel’s and Vespa’s partnership raises questions, also, concerning the limits of street art and street advertisement. The question, in this case, is whether or not an artist should be able to make a profit off of public space. If yes, what differentiates street artists from huge brands that are also exploiting public space to their benefit? Another example is Ben Eine’s cooperation with Luis Vitton, resulting in a £465 scarf, shedding light on the ways that street art communicates with capitalism and the elite. On the other hand, how true to its original recalcitrant roots can street art remain when it ends up producing artworks at such a price? Graffiti has risen from the subculture and has become one of the world’s biggest brands’ ambassadors. Apart from partnership contracts, street art today is also facing criticism due to many artists participating in huge exhibitions internationally. As mentioned earlier, this ensures massive public coverage and significant profit for the creators. In many ways, street art has re-introduced itself to the public, without cutting ties with its subcultural roots back in the 1960s and 1970s. In our days, graffiti is celebrated as a form of art and the people pertaining to this culture are generally not considered marginalized. Many countries have partially de-criminalized street art and some of the world’s biggest international brands are willing to pay significant amounts in exchange for partnerships with popular artists. Even museums and art galleries are welcoming street art into their collections.
Bansky, perhaps the most famous street artist at this moment, has exhibited his work next to Pollock, Van Gogh, Caravaggio and Picasso. Under these conditions and, also, taking into consideration the passage of many decades, it is rational for one to expect that street art will go through a series of processes that are going to transform it. After all, art and especially street art is supposed to be free, fluid and arbitrary. This means that artists are entitled to the freedom to choose their partnerships and whether or not their works will end up in exhibitions. What most of the writers agree upon is that money is important. As Eine comments: “We just wanted to paint stuff and have a laugh. People started wanting to buy our stuff and we evolved into artists. We are not fucking kids who run around tagging things anymore. Now it’s my actual job. I am making money out of this now. It’s a job. I’ve got 2 exwives and a bunch of kids, so I don’t see any of the money, but it’s my living. If I didn’t have commitments, the ex-wives, the kids, I’d go back to doing it illegally. But I have to make money”. Dave Stuart, street artist, makes the following observation: “If you remove the money, it becomes an art project. If you add the money back in, does it become something else?”. In the end, why does this really matter? Recently, Bansky’s Girl with Ballon was auctioned at Sotheby’s fetching £1,043,000. This is the highest price any of his pieces has managed to be sold for. The story of this artwork would end here if Bansky hadn’t installed a hidden mechanism inside the frame of the piece, that destroyed it at the exact moment of its purchase. Girl with Ballon started to shred itself, leaving the audience wondering about the meaning of this act. Self-destructive art is nothing new. So, what was Bansky’s message? Some said that this was a statement against the commercialization of art, a declaration that it can’t be purchased because it is supposed to be free and accessible to everyone. In any case, this is an interesting example of how street art can still be political and critical of today’s capitalist system. In reality, the irony of Girl with a Ballon is that it took less than £20 to create, was sold for around £1,000,000 and even after its shredding, its price presented an increase of 20%. More importantly, an artwork auctioned at Sothebys –one of the world’s biggest art markets- and still, managed to make a point and start conversations on capitalism, artistic pretentiousness and consumer culture.
Today graffiti is going through a process of extreme institutionalization and commercialization and the previously used “writer” tends to be replaced by the term “street artist”. No matter these differences, though, one of the elements that have remained intact since the 1960s is the motivation of the artists to reach as many people as possible, whether this is realized on the streets or through museum exhibitions. From this aspect, street art is thriving more vigorously than ever and it has gained the respect of the public and critics, who no longer treat it as outsider art. At the same time, the artist themselves have gained recognition and their art is worth of millions of dollars. In other words, whether one focuses on the commercialization of street art as proof of degeneration and decay or as a revolutionary form of art that is still progressing and spreading social emancipation and activism is up for debate. Whatever opinion one has, in the end, graffiti is a vivid part of our culture and it continues to be present not only in the art we consume, but also in the advertisements we see, the clothes we wear and, still, the streets we walk.