Urban Art has been evolving since the beginning of the cities. It's continuing to
evolve now, in the digital age. I plan on exploring this evolution through new media and the
culture that is arising.
Graffiti's been around since the ancient Greeks, but graffiti as we think of it today
originated in 1960's New York City.
Paragraph/Part One: Resurgence of graffiti coincides with birth of web, urban art movement, etc.
Paragraph/Part Two: Cultural relevance of graffiti then and now, folk culture OF graffiti, etc.
Paragraph/Part Three: Influence of social media on contemporary graffiti (participatory research), controversy, innovations surrounding graffiti, etc.
Conclusion:Bring all points together and speculate on the future of graffiti
Sources: Bowen, Tracy E. "Graffiti Art: A Contemporary Study of Toronto Artists."
Studies in Art Education 41.1 (1999): 22-39. JSTOR. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
both sites are run anonymously, so no author information can be found.
Exit Through the Gift Shop. Dir. Banksy. Perf. Banksy, Thierry Guetta, Shepard Fairey. Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2010. Film.
Go into any urban area today, and think about what you see. Skyscrapers, neon signs,
with a thick layer of smog covering it all. Now think about the seedier places of that metro
area. Subway cars, freight trains, projects. All covered in a thick layer of graffiti. It's vandalism,
a crime, you think. Something to be punished. But to a small but prolific group of people, that
artwork you dismiss as petty vandalism is a way of life. One that has existed since ancient
Roman times, but came into it's own in the 60's in New York City. Since then, graffiti has
blossomed alongside hip-hop culture and come into it's own within the world of the Internet.
This road has never been an easy one, with government and police officials working to curb
the presence of graffiti and graffiti artists and the more elite of the public thinking the art
tasteless or even unrefined. But like the very people who make the street art, graffiti is
resilient and shows no signs of dying.
Before one can begin to explore graffiti as a controversial art movement, one must
understand what it actually means. In different contexts, graffiti has different meaning for
different people. Popular sociologists define graffiti as art that “encompasses place, style, and
purpose” (Bowen, 1999.) There are also different graffiti styles. One, perhaps most
ubiquitous, is called “tagging.” Most graffiti writers (artists) consider tagging to be the simplest
form of graffiti. There are also throw ups, slightly more complex, and murals/pieces which are
the most complex and most dangerous to complete. (Anonymous, n.d.). There are even
differing types of graffiti artists. Some are known as taggers, or writers who simply engage in
tagging. Older, more experienced artists may refer to them as “scribblers” (Anonymous, n.d.).
Some are writers who engage in traditional forms of graffiti, tagging and throw ups and larger
pieces. Then there are a third type, the ones who mostly make murals. Some writers call
these artists muralists, and these types are also the ones most likely to stick to the legal side
of graffiti. As one can see, graffiti is much more than simply writing one's name or nickname in
strange lettering. It has it's own hierarchy, it's own culture.
During the 1960's, the United States was in a state of social and political turmoil. The
Vietnam war raged on, despite a lack of public support, Martin Luther King Jr. was
assassinated, and nuclear testing continued in Nevada. The people weren't happy, and their
government only listened if they had enough money. So they took to the streets. Students at
Columbia University shut down their school, one million students marched through Paris
(Bowen, 1999). And the people made art. On every surface, but particularly freight trains and
subway cars, there was art. Names, declarations of love, witty remarks. The people, feeling
little control over their situation, did what they could in order to feel in control. At the same
time, the beginnings of hip-hop culture were emerging as the Civil Rights movement dragged
on. As this subculture developed, so did the culture of graffiti. But it wasn't just disaffected
youths who wrote graffiti. Soldiers on their way to Vietnam wrote tons of graffiti, expressing
their hopes, loves, fears, and prejudices.
As these graffiti artists grew older, some became more interested in the art side of
graffiti. These writers began to paint more murals and pieces instead of just tagging. They
prized quality over the thrill of breaking the law. This led to the eventual integration of “street
art” as a fine arts genre, gaining exhibition in galleries and gaining value to collectors. Thus,
graffiti art has been slowly transforming to something seen as subversive and petty to
legitimate art. Graffiti artists come from all walks of life. Some are those impoverished young
people convention believes are creating are. Many are art students in metropolitan areas.
Some are adults, already gallery artists in some circles. Though they come from all areas of
life, all cultures, they have a central belief in common. Belief in art of the people, by the
people, for the people. They want the world to see their art, not just those who can afford to or
are elite enough to attend an exhibition in a gallery.
Today, when one thinks of graffiti, we immediately think of scrawled, almost
indecipherable letters, usually names. Most people think of it as vandalism, a blight on
“civilized” society. But what these people don't realize is that graffiti writers are a society all
their own, with rules and terminology and customs. However, until recently, most scholars
disregarded this aspect. Traditionally, graffiti creation has been associated with low
socioeconomic status and viewed as a way for people of this low socioeconomic status to
establish themselves in society. Rather than art or expression, territorialism was the main
motivation for art created in the 1970's and 1980's. Sociologists explored the graffiti, analyzed
it along with urban planners and then let art historians examine the pieces.
In the 90's, with graffiti infiltrating popular culture through movies and video games, the
graffiti world saw a resurgence of artistic graffiti, more than just territorial markings that
characterized the decades before. Crews were forming, “bombings” (painting expeditions)
were taking place with more frequency. In response, vendors who sold graffiti writer's
materials: paint, spray cans, markers, tips, and the like locked down these items to make
coming by them more difficult. Zines started, and writers would critique each others' work.
Photographers, such as myself, began taking photos of these impermanent works of art.
These photographs became known as flicks, or “flix” in some circles. With the advent of the
internet, zines showcasing flicks became less prevalent and more of a collectors item. Those
who produced the flicks often started blogging websites and showcased the writer's work
online. One such blog is known as 12oz Prophet and has been around almost as long as
internet zines have been. They've branched out to also include street artists who do
stenciling, which in some circles isn't really considered true graffiti.
This art, stenciling, along with wheatpaste and other alternatives to the traditional can
of paint have become mainstream due to it's accessibility and the rise of one artist known as
“Banksy.” Banksy is a controversial figure in the graffiti/street art world because of the nature
of what he does. He usually uses stencils or wheatpaste rather than actual spray paint. He
doesn't do throw ups or murals, but he has popularized street art and graffiti, giving the field
respect it didn't have before. In the documentary he made recently, which is of controversial
legitimacy, other street artists, like Invader and Shepard Fairey, and the potentially
nonexistant Mr. Brainwash discuss their art and the history of street art in general. However,
many true graffiti writers express distate for the documentary, stating it was fabricated and
that what Banksy does isn't true “art” because it is done from a stencil, whereas writers do
their work freehand (Banksy, 2010). Also, Mr. Brainwash is thought to be fake because his
style is almost exactly like Shepard and Banksy, which they explain away by stating that the
artist employs designers to create his work for him, which seems to take away from graffiti
writing, say many anonymous graffiti writers.
Away from high profile figures like the above mentioned, graffiti in its truest form is
taking over the internet. Countless blogs are run on hosting sites like tumblr showcasing flicks
and writers in action. Photographers make portfolios consisting solely of flicks and of photos
of the writers. Social networking sites like flickr are breeding grounds for writers and crews
across the country to meet and discuss technique, something they otherwise wouldn't have
been able to do ten years ago. What is the future of graffiti though? Apps for smartphones
advertise and augmented reality, graffiti experience in an effort to curb would-be vandals. It
seems like that graffiti isn't leaving anytime soon. And someday, perhaps within the next five
years, we'll see true graffiti at the Manhattan Museum of Modern Art.
In conclusion, graffiti is a resilient, evolving concept, much like the writers of the form.
They have their beginnings in the beginning of time, but their modern origin is in 1960's New
York City. They were perceived as the poor kids and early graffiti reflected that, with
territorialism being a large part of the graffiti produced. Art wasn't a factor in the earlier days,
but in the 90's, art became just as important as the territory. It wasn't just staking one's space,
it was making one's mark, impermanent on a changing surface. Poignant when one thinks
about it enough, but the writers probably weren't. The 2000's brought arguable poseurs and
even potentially fictitious artists. Web 2.0 revolutionized the subculture, made it part of new
media. While the Krylon will eventually be scrubbed off by a disgruntled middle-aged suit, the
freedom, the resilience of graffiti will live on through not only new media, but the stubbornness
of the writers and photographers who make the work possible. And that is something that can
never be diminished, even by a graffiti clean-up crew. It will only get bigger and better.
Something more than anyone thought it ever could be. And that's what's important. Not the
throwies, not the tags, and not the crews. It's not even about fats versus skinny caps. It's
about living on, having a legacy even if one can't afford to be in the position of power that
condemns this very art. It's about life. Graffiti is life.
Anonymous. (n.d.). The Words: Graffiti Glossary . Art Crimes - The Writing on the Wall - graffiti art
worldwide. Retrieved October 30, 2011, from http://www.graffiti.org/faq/graffiti.glossary.html
Bowen, T. (1999). Graffiti Art: A Contemporary Study of Toronto Artists. Studies in Art Education, 41(1),
22-39. Retrieved November 1, 2011, from the JSTOR database.
Banksy, B. (Director). (2010). Exit Through the Gift Shop [Documentary]. United States: Oscilloscope
Stowers, G. (n.d.). Articles - Graffiti Art. WELCOME TO HIPHOP-NETWORK.COM. Retrieved
November 2, 2011, from http://www.hiphop-network.com/articles/graffitiarticles/graffitiart.asp