The urge to scrawl on a wall is probably older than the Pyramids, but nobody really knows the exact origins of street-art graffiti, the style that virtually took over New York in the 1970s and 1980s.
Pictured: Donald "Dondi" White, Children of the Grave Again, Part 3 subway mural
The roots of that graffiti may go as far back as World War II, when American GIs fighting across Europe and the Pacific left “Kilroy Was Here” as a calling card. Its mixture of imagery with a personal name predated a similar combination by 30 years. Just who Kilroy was remains a mystery, though legend has it that he was a worker in a stateside shipyard or bomb factory.
Another antecedent to modern graffiti may have been the motto “Bird Lives,” written by fans of jazz legend Charlie “Bird” Parker after his death in the mid-1950s.
When radical university students in France rioted in May 1968, they blanketed Paris with the slogan “Sous les pavés, la plage” (“Beneath the paving stones, the beach”), an exhortation to tear down society and start anew. Its liberating, anarchistic message was similar to the spirit infusing later graffiti.
Pictured: Sous les pavés, la plage! (“Beneath the paving stones - the beach!”) anonymous, Paris May 1968
Graffiti had been more or less an anonymous endeavor until the late 1960s, when tagging—or leaving a distinctly written nom de guerre—drew a new, attention-seeking generation to graffiti. Tagging probably started in Philadelphia, and one of its most notable early practitioners was Darryl McCray, a.k.a. Cornbread, who, around 1967, began tagging walls in public spaces throughout the City of Brotherly Love.
Pictured: Darryl McCray, aka "Cornbread"
By the early 1970s, tagging had spread to New York. One ubiquitous tag belonged to Taki 183, a Greek kid from Washington Heights who took a variant of his name, Demetrius (his last name remains unknown), and paired it with his address—West 183rd Street. Taki’s tag became so widespread, it caught the attention of The New York Times, which published “ ‘Taki 183’ Spawns Pen Pals” in July 1971. Graffiti had became a media phenomenon. (See also the following image.)
Article from The New York Times, Friday July 21, 1971
As the 1970s wore on, graffiti evolved rapidly. One key agent of change was Michael Tracy, a.k.a. Tracy 168. Along with other writers, Tracy developed an approach to graffiti that became known as “wildstyle,” in which the tag grew into an oversize, interlocking block of letters that began to read more as visual imagery than as text. Wildstyle graffiti was produced by crews made up of multiple artists, who would steal into the MTA’s rail yards to work on the cars as they waited to be put into service.
Pictured: Michael Tracy, aka Tracy 168
The advent of wildstyle ignited the so-called style wars, an intense competition to create distinctive forms of graffiti. One of the early innovators was Jeff Brown, a.k.a. Kase 2, the self-proclaimed “King of Style,” who developed an angular, futuristic expression that he called “Computer Rock.”
Pictured: KASE 2 burner on a subway train
Increasingly, graffiti began to incorporate imagery in evermore complex compositions that covered entire subway-car exteriors, including the windows. George Lee Quiñones, known as Lee, and Donald “Dondi” White were some of the pioneers of this ambitious form of graffiti, which started to be hailed as art in certain quarters.
Pictured: Lee Quiñones, Hell Express, 1979
As early as 1972, Hugo Martinez, a sociology major at City College of New York, organized the best graffiti writers under the United Graffiti Artists banner, to promote their work and show it in gallery settings.
Pictured: Hugo Martinez, right, head of a new group called "Graffiti Artists United", talks with Pedro Pietri, left, and Holwis Vasquez, center, about new floor-to-ceiling exhibition of graffiti, Dec. 8, 1972 at City College of New York. Created by youngsters who n
Likewise, photographers such as Henry Chalfant, pictured, and Martha Cooper began to document graffiti and celebrate graffiti writers as artists. Graffiti spread into both pop culture and fine art, two realms that were especially intertwined in late-1970s and early-1980s New York.
Pictured: Henry Chalfant next to his portrait, A tribute to Henry the photographer
Graffiti, which had more or less begun uptown as urban folk art, began to influence contemporary artists downtown, who assimilated aspects of graffiti into their own work. Keith Haring is the probably most famous example: He noticed that the MTA put up sheets of plain black paper in the parts of the subway in place of advertisements when ads weren’t available (not uncommon during an economic recession). These provided a ready surface for Haring’s now-iconic white-chalk drawings.
Pictured: Keith Haring standing beside one of his subway drawings
Painter Jean-Michel Basquiat began his career as a graffiti artist with the tag “SAMO©,” which seemed to appear everywhere in lower Manhattan in the 1980s.
Pictured: SAMO 4-U
Patti Astor, a former dancer, actor and late-’60s student radical, opened the East Village’s Fun Gallery in 1981 (the first of dozens such venues that would pop up over the next seven years). Fun became a showcase for graffiti artists like Lee, Dondi, Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite, Lady Pink and others, along with Basquiat and Haring. Graffiti, which had developed parallel to hip-hop music, became inextricably linked with the latter, as well as with break dancing, as all of these forms migrated downtown to be embraced by the high-low mix of audiences from the art world and the club scene. In this heady atmosphere, paintings by graffiti artists were bought by well-heeled collectors (though in time, the fickle tastes of the art market would turn against graffiti, and only works by “real” artists like Basquiat and Haring would maintain their value).
Pictured: Patti Astor at Keith Haring’s Fun Gallery Show, 1983
The apotheosis of graffiti in the 1980s was Charlie Ahearn’s feature film Wild Style, which mixed a hip-hop soundtrack with graffiti visuals, as well as appearances by Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quiñones, Lady Pink, the Rock Steady Crew, the Cold Crush Brothers, Queen Lisa Lee of Zulu Nation and Grandmaster Flash. The movie was instrumental in making graffiti known around the globe, and became hugely influential on future hip-hop music videos.
Pictured: Wild Style mural by Zephyr, Revolt, Sharp, 1983; front: Doze, Frosty Freeze, Ken Swift; second row: Patti Astor, Fred Brathwaite, Lady Pink; back: Lil Crazy Legs, Revolt and Sharp
Even as it was being extolled as art, graffiti was viewed by city officials as vandalism, and had been since its inception. Efforts to eradicate graffiti date as far back as the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, to little effect. Graffiti was associated in the public mind with a city that was out of control; in time, as the forces of gentrification transformed New York, programs targeting graffiti were stepped up, and eventually worked. By the turn of the millennium, graffiti had all but vanished from the subway, though certain forms—particularly ghostly scratchitti on the windows—stubbornly persist.
Pictured: New York subway, circa 1970s
The era of wildstyle, however, was over. In its place evolved a very different, and more professional-looking, kind of street art, pioneered by graphic artists like Shepard Fairey, whose removable “Andre has a posse” stickers and posters supplanted the spray-painted subway masterpieces of yore.
Pictured: Shepard Fairey sticker by the High Line
Today, the guerrilla element remains, though street artists like Swoon are likely to employ wheatpasted images instead of more permanent or damaging materials.
Pictured: Street art mural by Swoon
In certain places, graffiti lives on as an officially sanctioned, even curated, practice, such as out at Long Island City’s 5 Pointz building, pictured.
Or in this abstract mural in Bushwick.
Pictured: SeeOne and Hellbent street art in Bushwick, Brooklyn
However, the renegade spirit survives, if only intermittently, as in this bit of spray-painted graffiti by the artist known as Neckface.
And even the ghost of wildstyle’s glory days reappears on occasion, such as back in 2005, when a crew of European artists from Sweden, Denmark and Holland bombed the 5 train. Their action proved to be temporary, but it spoke to a number of things: graffiti’s worldwide reach; the ongoing debate over whether graffiti is art or vandalism; and a hint of New York’s possible future, should its latest gilded age ever come to an end.
Pictured: Graffti subway train in 2005 by The Vandals In Motion and Monsters Of Art