As a general practice of unsanctioned drawings or writings on public spaces, graffiti has been around for thousands of years. It is older than trains, older than hip hop culture, and older than spray paint. As long as there have been walls, people have been writing on them. Structures from places like Ancient Greece, Egypt, Israel, and Rome are littered with unofficial scrawled phrases, drawings, and commentary. These drawings and writings ranged in tone and meaning, some simply a way of proclaiming ‘[name] was here’ or just a picture of penis and others a more nuanced form of political or social commentary. Even in antiquity, officials and property owners often discouraged these graffiti works, resorting to posting threats when they wanted a wall to remain clean (Keegan, 2014).
It was not until the 1960s that the modern graffiti subculture truly began to emerge. In Philadelphia, a graffiti writer claimed local highways with the mark ‘Bobby Beck in ‘59’ and soon after the writer CORNBREAD began writing “Cornbread Loves Cynthia” on the walls of his school, neighborhood, and bus route. These were the first contenders for graffiti ‘kings’ and soon the movement grew. In New York City, teenagers began creating unique tags to represent their names and writing them on neighborhood walls. One of these teenagers, TAKI 183, established graffiti as a large-scale pastime by tagging throughout the city in spots likely to be noticed by others. Many others followed in TAKI’s lead, including SUPERKOOL, who created the first graffiti masterpiece, or piece,’ by writing a larger, more stylish tag (Snyder, 2009). Graffiti writers grew in prominence, technique, and scale by writing on subway trains at night. It was the surest way a writer to get their work seen across the city and many prided themselves on going ‘all city’ by writing on trains in every subway line. A hierarchy among writers ranged from ‘toys,’ inexperienced or unskilled writers, to ‘kings,’ highly skilled and dedicated writers (Snyder, 2009).
In the 1980s, the subculture truly spread beyond New York City, largely due to the help of tourists who started their own graffiti movements or brought information back to their hometowns. Additionally, attention from media, gallery owners, and documentary makers ensured that the movement gained lasting recognition and an international reach. Writers began to receive less positive attention from city officials such as mayors. By 1989, city officials began moving painted trains out of service and, as trains were no longer a pathway to citywide fame, writers moved on to other venues (Snyder, 2009). Writers shifted to visible walls throughout the city, bridges, and outbound freight trains. The international spread of graffiti meant that writers became less limited in the location of their work. New York remains popular for graffiti, but many of the top graffiti ‘kings’ travel to different cities, and even countries, to create international work.
Another development of graffiti was its connection to the hip hop culture. Although graffiti exists outside of and began before hip hop, the two are linked in many ways. Many writers do not identify with the hip hop culture, but a relatively large proportion of graffiti does come through hip hop. Hip hop organizations, such as Zulu Nation, and break dance crews have helped to spread graffiti writing to a wider audience and to boost its popularity (Ferrell, 1996; Rahn, 2002; Snyder, 2009).
The reaction of city officials to graffiti on subway trains is hardly surprising given the commonly accepted “broken windows” theory of crime and urban decline. This theory sees smaller-scale crime and disorder, such as broken windows or graffiti, as pathways to more serious crime and a sign of the city losing control. Consequently, some officials focus on preventing and punishing small scale disorder in the community like graffiti, believing that the focus on order will prevent larger crime. Many officials and community leaders see graffiti as generally destructive to the community, carrying messages of hate, racism, and gang warfare. They also view the cost of graffiti cleanup as an excessive burden on the city, as Los Angeles county, for example, spent almost $30 million on cleanup in 2007 (Tavares, 2014). In response, officials have launched many community programs in the hopes of eradicating graffiti and convicting more writers. These efforts, however, often lead to disproportionate policing of poor youth and lie on the faulty assumption that graffiti writing is linked to higher crime rates overall or a life of more serious crime (Snyder, 2009). The anti-graffiti programs and laws are also often selectively enforced, favoring writers who create murals as more socially acceptable form of art over writers who primarily focus on tagging.
Graffiti writing is not only criminal activity; it is also often treated as a legitimate art form. In particular, community members commonly view ‘pieces,”often large colorful murals, as public art. Consequently, many cities, like Rapid City, South Dakota, have created legal graffiti spaces, in places such as abandoned warehouses and alleyways, where writers can create without fear of backlash from the police. These legal walls are often more progressive versions of the very programs intended to stop graffiti. By creating an isolated space for graffiti, many officials hope to limit outside illegal graffiti (McAuliffe, 2012). The commercialization of graffiti is also common, as writers put their work in galleries, sell products bearing their work, and train in art schools (Snyder, 2009). Some of these writers are scorned as ‘selling out,’ but their actions are often an unavoidable consequence of the existence of graffiti as crime. Many writers are choosing to opt out of the criminal element of graffiti by pursuing a more socially legitimate future.
As graffiti movements exist in nearly every major city, writers must go to great lengths to distinguish themselves. Consequently, some have moved away from traditional graffiti to other, complementary forms. These ‘postgraffiti’ movements vary in methods, but are generally more widely accepted than traditional graffiti. For instance, a growing reverse graffiti movement uses high-pressure water hoses to create pieces on dirty walls. In another postgraffiti movement, the group Knitta Please creates knitted graffiti to put on street poles, parking meters, trees, and the like.
GRAFFITI AND GENDER
Graffiti can often be a way of reinforcing ideals of masculinity for male writers. The element of criminal risk and competitive nature between writers both play into classic elements of hegemonic masculinity, positioning men as dominant and powerful. This environment can sometimes be unwelcoming to new female writers and, even though there are many successful female writers such as Lady Pink and Claw Money, the subculture remains male dominated (Lombard, 2013). Female writers can use their art as way to challenge norms and advocate for better treatment of women.
COMMERCIALIZATION AND AUTHENTICITY
Graffiti often easily translates into the commercial world. If writers grow popular enough, they commonly sell products bearing their tags and pieces of art. Many populars writers use websites as way to market products and showcase pieces. Some scorn this as a betrayal of the element of criminal resistance inherent to graffiti (Snyder, 2009). Though commercial artists may be labeled ‘sell outs,’ in some way their goals are not so different those at the root of graffiti writing. Many writers began tagging to find fame, tagging in places likely to been across the city. Commercial artists are seeking fame too, just making a profit while they do it.
GRAFFITI AS ART
Graffiti does not just exist as crime; particularly with the larger ‘pieces,’ or masterpieces, it is also art. It is not uncommon for writers move on from graffiti to formal art schooling and put graffiti-inspired work in galleries. Some continue to tagging illegally in conjunction with their legal careers, while others move on entirely to more traditional forms of art. However, among the public, this respect and appreciation for graffiti as art often extends only to mural-like pieces and not to most tagging (Snyder, 2009).
Infamy: The Movie (2005) A documentary examining graffiti culture by following six writers across the country and a graffiti buffer.
Piece by Piece (2005) A film, narrated by writer, Senior One, focusing on the San Francisco graffiti scene from the 1980s to 2004.
Style Wars (1983) A documentary of hip hop culture that focuses heavily on graffiti writing, highlighting the perspectives of young writers and of authority figures such as Ed Koch.
Bomb It (2007) A documentary of the development of contemporary graffiti from its ancients roots to its modern global form.
Claw Money and Miss 17 Interview
WRITERS TO CHECK OUT
A Philadelphia writer, one of the first to tag for non-gang related reasons. He gained widespread attention daring tags such as one on a zoo elephant and another on the Jackson 5 jet.
A writer who spurred competitive tagging throughout New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s with his dedication to tagging and recognition in the New York Times.
A New York writer who began in 1979. She tagged subway trains for six years, starred in the documentary “Wild Style,” and continued to an art career based on graffiti style.
An English graffiti artist. She focuses on portraying current events and public figures such as Amy Winehouse and Daniel Craig.
A New York Graffiti writer who began in the late 1980s. She was featured in Infamy: the Movie and graffiti writes both individually and with the PMS Crew, a female based graffiti group.
A pair of twin graffiti artists active in Brazil. Most consider the brothers as formative in Brazilian graffiti style and are respected artists in their own right.
A New York train writer of the 1970s and 80s. He often focused on portraying a fictional character SAMO (Same Old Shit).
A Parisian graffiti artist. He used graffiti to fight anonymity and established the use of large-scale stencils in graffiti.
An Afghanistan graffiti artist. She focuses on portraying positive representation of women in Burqas.
A graffiti artist in Senegal. She uses graffiti as a means of advocating for women, particularly in the areas of equal education and equal pay.
Ferrell, Jeff. 1996. Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press. A book based on field research of graffiti writers and campaigns against the in Denver, Colorado.
Keegan, Peter. 2014. Graffiti in Antiquity. London: Routledge. A book examining ancient forms of graffiti, particularly in Greece, Rome, and Egypt.
Macdonald, Nancy. 2003. The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity, and Identity in London and New York. New York: Palgrave. An ethnographic study of male graffiti writers in London and New York.
Rahn, Janice. 2002. Painting Without Permission : Hip-hop Graffiti Subculture. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Snyder, Gregory. 2009. Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground. New York: New York University Press. A research and participant observation based examination of contemporary graffiti culture
Dovey, Kim, Simon Wollan, and Ian Woodcock. 2012. “Placing Graffiti: Creating and Contesting Character in Inner-city Melbourne.” Journal Of Urban Design, 17 (1), 21-41. doi:10.1080/13574809.2011.646248
Lombard, Kara-Jane. 2013. “Men Against the Wall: Graffiti(ed) Masculinities.” Journal Of Men’s Studies, 21 (2), 178-190. doi:10.3149/jms.2102.178
Mcauliffe, Camerom. 2012. “Graffiti or Street Art?: Negotiating the Moral Geographies of the Creative City.” Journal Of Urban Affairs, 34 (2), 189-206. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9906.2012.00610.x
Powers, Lynne A. 1996. “Whatever Happened to the Graffiti Art Movement?” Journal Of Popular Culture, 29 (4), 137-142.
Grant, Christopher M. 1996. “Graffiti.” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 65, no. 8: 11. This 1996 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin offers a clear example of the broken windows perspective, framing graffiti as a harmful to the community.
Naar, Jon. 2007. The Birth of Graffiti. New York, NY: Prestel Pub. A collection of graffiti photography from 1970s Germany.