Though traditional hip hop graffiti didn’t start appearing until the 1950’s, there are examples of graffiti dating back to ancient times. In ancient times, graffiti was carved or painted onto walls and often times contained declarations of love, examples of retoric, and magic spells. One particular example is a supposed prostitution advertisement on the walls of the Greek city Ephesus.
There are even examples of graffiti on the walls of Pompeii.
However, what we consider graffiti today (the kind involving spray cans and illegality) originated in the 1950’s on subway cars. In the beginning, graffiti was used mostly by street gangs to mark their territory. As the 1960’s came around, graffiti started to be picked up by individual writers who simply wanted to be noticed. This desire to be noticed is what started the practice of tagging. One particular man who goes by the name TAKI183, is credited with making tagging popular. TAKI183 worked as a mail carrier. He took to the habit of writing his name every single place he went including subway cars and buses, eventually making it his mission to ride every single bus and subway car running through NYC.
As graffiti gained popularity, writers started to compete for popularity. This sparked the Style wars that characterized most of the 1970’s. This turned graffiti into its own subculture. Old writers began taking on apprentices, groups of writers started forming crews, and large groups of writers would gather together to admire each others work. .Despite the Style Wars going on at this time, graffiti formed strong bonds between writers because they were all appreciating the same art form.
The 1970’s was also the Golden Age of subway car graffiti. Subway cars became the best targets for writers because they traveled long distances day and night. Therefore, writing on subway cars was the most effective way for graffiti writers to get their name out there because it was guaranteed to be seen by large groups of people. However, this also created a big problem with the authorities who saw graffiti writing as an issue that had gotten out of hand. Not only did graffiti writers have to battle each other for popularity, but they also had to battle law enforcement to make sure their work was seen before it was destroyed.
Come the end of the 80’s, however, subway writing died out after the removal of the last graffitied subway car was removed from the rails in 1989. This drove graffiti writers to city walls. With the decline of subway car writing came the rise of writing graffiti as a way to make money. Many writers were commissioned to paint masterpieces and murals on store fronts, city walls, and even in museums. Some graffiti enthusiasts would argue that this takes away from graffiti writing because one of the major components of graffiti was the illegality of the action. A writer gained street credit by creating awesome works of art right under the noses of the authorities. Therefore, some argue that commissioned graffiti pieces should not be considered graffiti because they are created legally.
With this division of what makes graffiti graffiti came the rise of street art. Street are is the name given to legal murals and paintings done on city walls or in store fronts. Street art, unlike graffiti, doesn’t necessarily have to have the typical graffiti styles of lettering or tagging. Many artists use street art as a way to provoke social or political questions or as ways to investigate their own art forms.
Nowadays, graffiti has made its way off of the city streets and into movies, clothing styles, posters, and modern art. Graffiti has morphed into its own subculture in the heart of New York but it has also spread all over the world.