Graffiti in the United States

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Gang symbols in Spokane, Washington.

Graffiti in the United States are writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.[1] Graffiti ranges from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings. Graffiti, consisting of the defacement of public spaces and buildings, remains a nuisance issue for cities. It also has had an international influence especially from the examples in the New York City Subway and the Chicana/Chicano experience.


In America around the late 1960s, graffiti was used as a form of expression by political activists, and also by gangs such as the Savage Skulls, La Familia, and Savage Nomads to mark territory. Towards the end of the 1960s, the signatures—tags—of Philadelphia graffiti writers Cornbread, Cool Earl and Topcat 126 started to appear.[2][3] Cornbread is often cited as one of the earliest writer of modern graffiti.[4] Around 1970–71, the centre of graffiti innovation moved to New York City where writers following in the wake of TAKI 183, Tracy 168 and Phase 2 would add their street number to their nickname, "bomb" a train with their work, and let the subway take it—and their fame, if it was impressive, or simply pervasive, enough—"all city". Bubble lettering held sway initially among writers from the Bronx, though the elaborate writing Tracy 168 dubbed "wildstyle" would come to define the art.[2][5] The early trendsetters were joined in the 70s by artists like Dondi, Zephyr and Lady Pink.[2]

Graffiti is one of the four main elements of hip hop culture (along with rapping, DJing, and break dancing).[6] The relationship between graffiti and hip hop culture arises both from early graffiti artists practicing other aspects of hip hop, and its being practiced in areas where other elements of hip hop were evolving as art forms. By the mid-eighties, the form would move from the street to the art world. Jean-Michel Basquiat would abandon his SAMO tag for art galleries, and street art's connections to hip hop would loosen. Occasional hip hop paeans to graffiti could still be heard throughout the nineties, however, in tracks like the Artifacts' "Wrong Side of Da Tracks", Qwel's Brick Walls and Aesop Rock's "No Jumper Cables".[2]


Early modernist graffiti can be dated back to box cars in the early 1920s yet the graffiti movement seen in today's contemporary world really originated through the minds of political activists and gang members of the 1960s.[7] The "pioneering era" of graffiti took place during the years 1969 through 1974. This time period was a time of change in popularity and style. New York City became the new hub (formerly Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and to a lesser degree in Boston) of graffiti tags and images. Graffiti artists during this time period sought to put as many markings up as possible around the city. This was the ultimate goal of exposure. Soon after the migration from Philadelphia to New York City, the city produced one of the first graffiti artists to gain media attention in itself, TAKI 183. TAKI 183 was a youth from Washington Heights, Manhattan who worked as a foot messenger. His tag is a mixture of his name Demetrius (Demetraki), TAKI, and his street number, 183rd. Being a foot messenger, he was constantly on the subway and began to put up his tags along his travels. This spawned a 1971 article in the New York Times titled "'Taki 183' Spawns Pen Pals".[3][8][9] Julio 204 is also credited as an early writer, though not recognized at the time outside of the graffiti subculture. Other notable names from that time are: Stay High 149, PHASE 2, Stitch 1, Joe 182, Junior 161 and Cay 161. Barbara 62 and Eva 62 were also early graffiti artists in New York, and are the first women to become known for writing graffiti.

Also taking place during this era was the movement from outside on the city streets to the subways. Graffiti also saw its first seeds of competition around this time. The goal of most artists at this point was "getting up": having as many tags and bombs in as many places as possible. Artists began to break into subway yards in order to paint as many trains as they could with a lower risk, often creating larger elaborate pieces of art along the subway car sides. This is when the act of bombing was said to be officially established.

By 1971 tags began to take on their signature calligraphic appearance because, due to the huge number of artists, each graffiti artist needed a way to distinguish themselves. Aside from the growing complexity and creativity, tags also began to grow in size and scale – for example, many artists had begun to increase letter size and line thickness, as well as outlining their tags. This gave birth to the so-called 'masterpiece' or 'piece' in 1972. Super Kool 223 is credited as being the first to do these pieces.[10][11][12]

The use of designs such as polka dots, crosshatches, and checkers became increasingly popular. Spray paint[13] use increased dramatically around this time as artists began to expand their work. "Top-to-bottoms", works which span the entire height of a subway car, made their first appearance around this time as well. The overall creativity and artistic maturation of this time period did not go unnoticed by the public – Hugo Martinez founded the United Graffiti Artists (UGA) in 1972. UGA consisted of many top graffiti artists of the time, and aimed to present graffiti in an art gallery setting. By 1974, graffiti artists had begun to incorporate the use of scenery and cartoon characters into their work. TF5 (The Fabulous Five), was a crew which was known for their elaborately designed whole cars.[14]

New York City


Heavily tagged subway car in New York City in 1973

By the mid-1970s time, most standards had been set in graffiti writing and culture. The heaviest "bombing" in U.S. history took place in this period, partially because of the economic restraints on New York City, which limited its ability to combat this art form with graffiti removal programs or transit maintenance. "Top-to-bottoms" evolved to take up entire subway cars. A notable development was the "throw-up," which is more complex than simple "tagging" but not as intricate as a "piece." Not long after their introduction, throw-ups led to races to see who could do the largest number in the shortest time.

Graffiti writing was becoming very competitive and artists strove to go "all-city," or to have their names seen in all five boroughs. Eventually, the standards set in the early 70s began to stagnate, and in the 80s artists began to expand and change the subculture as described in the 1984 book Subway Art.

The late 70s and early 80s brought a new wave of creativity to the scene. As the influence of graffiti grew beyond the Bronx, a movement began with the encouragement of Friendly Freddie. Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite) is another popular graffiti figure of this time, who started in a Brooklyn "wall-writing group." He notes how differences in spray technique and letters between Upper Manhattan and Brooklyn began to merge in the late 70s: "out of that came 'Wild Style'."[15] Fab 5 Freddy is often credited with helping to spread the influence of graffiti and rap music beyond its early foundations in the Bronx, and making links with the mostly white downtown art and music scenes. It was around this time that the established art world started becoming receptive to the graffiti culture for the first time since Hugo Martinez's Razor Gallery in the early 1970s.

It was also, however, the last wave of true bombing before the Transit Authority made graffiti eradication a priority. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) began to repair yard fences and remove graffiti consistently. With the MTA combating the artists by removing their work, many artists quit in frustration and the subways became a little more pleasant to use.[citation needed]


Storefront graffiti of a restaurant in Manhattan TriBeCa in New York City.

Just as the culture was spreading outside New York City and overseas, the cultural aspect of graffiti in New York City was said to be deteriorating almost to the point of extinction. The rapid decline in writing was due to several factors. The streets became more dangerous due to the burgeoning crack epidemic, legislation was underway to make penalties for graffiti artists more severe, and restrictions on paint sale and display made racking (stealing) materials difficult. Above all, the MTA greatly increased their anti-graffiti budget. Many favored painting sites became heavily guarded, yards were patrolled, newer and better fences were erected, and buffing of pieces was strong, heavy, and consistent. Stainless steel, to which paint adheres poorly (and was easily removed by the powerful cleaning solutions and spinning brushes used in automatic car washers at the yards) had also become the car body material of choice for new rolling stock, retiring hundreds of worn out carbon-steel bodied subway cars whose exteriors had made an ideal canvas for taggers. As a result of rolling stock being harder to paint, more writers went into the streets, which is now, along with commuter trains and box cars, the most prevalent form of writing.

Many graffiti artists, however, chose to see the new problems as a challenge rather than a reason to quit. A downside to these challenges was that the artists became very territorial of good writing spots, and strength and unity in numbers became increasingly important. Some of the mentionable graffiti artists from this era were Blade, Dondi, Min 1, Quik, Seen and Skeme. This was stated to be the end for the casual New York City Subway graffiti artists, and the years to follow would be populated by only what some consider the most "die hard" artists. People often found that making graffiti around their local areas was an easy way to get caught so they traveled to different areas.


File:MMP Salem Oregon street gang graffiti.jpg
Graffiti from MMP, first recorded street gang in the history of Oregon's capital city of Salem [1]. "Spyder" was gang leader.[16] 1987.

The years between 1985 and 1989 became known as the "die hard" era. A last shot for the graffiti artists of this time was in the form of subway cars destined for the scrap yard. With the increased security, the culture had taken a step back. The previous elaborate "burners" on the outside of cars were now marred with simplistic marker tags which often soaked through the paint.

By mid-1986 the MTA and the CTA were winning their "war on graffiti," and the population of active graffiti artists diminished. As the population of artists lowered so did the violence associated with graffiti crews and "bombing." Roof tops also were being the new billboards for some '80s writers. Some notable graffiti artists of this era were Cope2, Claw Money, Sane Smith,[17] Zephyr and T Kid.[18]

Clean Train Movement

The current era in graffiti is characterized by a majority of graffiti artists moving from train carriages to "street galleries." The Clean Train Movement started in May 1989, when New York City attempted to remove all of the subway cars found with graffiti on them out of the transit system, as they brought in new graffiti-free rolling stock like the R62, R62A, R68, and R68A. Because of this, many graffiti artists were unable to continue vandalizing them. Much controversy arose among the streets debating whether graffiti should be considered an actual form of art.[19] Videograf Productions was the first graffiti video series to document the New York City's clean train movement.

Prior to the Clean Train Movement, the streets were largely left untouched not only in New York City, but in other major American cities as well. After the transit company began diligently cleaning their trains, graffiti burst onto the streets of America to an unsuspecting, unappreciative public.

City officials elsewhere in the country smugly assumed that gang graffiti were a blight limited largely to the Big Apple.

No more. The stylised smears born in the South Bronx have spread across the country, covering buildings, bridges and highways in every urban center. From Philadelphia to Santa Barbara, Calif., the annual costs of cleaning up after the underground artists are soaring into the billions.[20]

During this period many graffiti artists had taken to displaying their works in galleries and owning their own studios. This practice started in the early 1980s with artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, who started out tagging locations with his signature SAMO (Same Old Shit), and Keith Haring, who was also able to take his art into studio spaces.

In some cases, graffiti artists had achieved such elaborate graffiti (especially those done in memory of a deceased person) on storefront gates that shopkeepers have hesitated to cover them up. In the Bronx after the death of rapper Big Pun, several murals dedicated to his life done by BG183, Bio, Nicer TATS CRU appeared virtually overnight;[21] similar outpourings occurred after the deaths of The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Big L, and Jam Master Jay.[22][23]

Government response

Graffiti advocates perceive graffiti as a method of reclaiming public space or displaying an art form; their opponents regard it as an unwanted nuisance, or as expensive vandalism requiring repair of the vandalized property. Graffiti can be viewed as a "quality of life" issue, and its detractors suggest that the presence of graffiti contributes to a general sense of squalor and a heightened fear of crime. Graffiti has a strong negative influence on property values and lowers the tax base, reducing the available funding for municipal services, such as schools, fire protection, and sanitation.[citation needed]

In 1984, the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN) was created to combat the city's growing concerns about gang-related graffiti. PAGN led to the creation of the Mural Arts Program, which replaced often-hit spots with elaborate, commissioned murals that were protected by a city ordinance, with fines and penalties for anyone caught defacing them.

Philadelphia's Broad-Ridge Spur also features a long-standing example of the art form at the Spring Garden (to 8th and Market). While still existing, it has long been quarantined and features tags and murals that have existed for upwards of 15 years.

Advocates of the "broken window theory" believe that this sense of decay encourages further vandalism and promotes an environment leading to offenses that are more serious. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch's vigorous subscription to the broken window theory promoted the aggressive anti-graffiti campaign in New York City in the early 1980s, resulting in "the buff"; a chemical wash for trains that dissolved the paint. New York City has adopted a strenuous zero tolerance policy ever since. However, throughout the world, authorities often treat graffiti as a minor-nuisance crime, though with widely varying penalties. In New York City rooftops became the mainstream graffiti location after graffiti on trains died out.

In 1995 New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani set up the Anti-Graffiti Task Force,[24] a multi-agency initiative to combat the perceived problem of graffiti vandals in New York City. This began a crackdown on "quality of life crimes" throughout the city, and one of the largest anti-graffiti campaigns in U.S. history. That same year Title 10–117 of the New York Administrative Code banned the sale of aerosol spray-paint cans to children under 18. The law also requires that merchants who sell spray paint must either lock it in a case or display the cans behind a counter, out of reach of potential shoplifters. Violations of the city's anti-graffiti law carry fines of US$350 per incident.[25] Famous New York City graffiti artist Zephyr wrote a viewpoint opposing this law.[26]

On January 1, 2006, in New York City, legislation created by Councilmember Peter Vallone, Jr. attempted to make it illegal for a person under the age of 21 to possess spray paint or permanent markers. The law prompted outrage by fashion and media mogul Marc Ecko who sued Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Councilmember Vallone on behalf of art students and "legitimate" graffiti artists. On May 1, 2006, Judge George B. Daniels granted the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction against the recent amendments to the anti-graffiti legislation, effectively prohibiting (on May 4) the New York Police Department from enforcing the restrictions.[27] A similar measure was proposed in New Castle County, Delaware in April 2006 and passed into law as a county ordinance in May 2006.[28]

Chicago's mayor, Richard M. Daley created the "Graffiti Blasters" to eliminate graffiti and gang-related vandalism. The bureau advertises free cleanup within 24 hours of a phone call. The bureau uses paints (compatible with the city's 'color scheme') and baking-soda-based solvents to remove some varieties of graffiti.[29]

In 1992, an ordinance was passed in Chicago that bans the sale and possession of spray paint and certain types of etching equipment and markers.[29] The law falls under Chapter 8-4: Public Peace & Welfare, Section 100: Vagrancy. The specific law (8-4-130) makes graffiti an offense with a fine of no less than US$500 per incident, surpassing the penalty for public drunkenness, peddling, or disrupting a religious service.

In 2005, the city of Pittsburgh implemented a customized database-driven graffiti tracking system to build and enhance evidence for prosecution of graffiti artist suspects by linking tags to instances of graffiti.[30] One of the first suspects to be identified by the system as being responsible for significant graffiti vandalism was Daniel Montano, known as MFONE.[31] He was dubbed "The King of Graffiti"[32] for having tagged close to 200 buildings in the city, and was later sentenced to 2.5 to 5 years in prison.[33]

Rapid City, South Dakota contains a section of the city known as Art Alley,[34] a back alley in the downtown district between Main Street and Saint Joseph Street and stretching from 6th to 7th Street. It first began to properly form around 2005, and has expanded since. While graffiti is largely illegal in Rapid City and there are no ordinances condoning it, Art Alley is purposefully overlooked by law enforcement and clean up crews and relies on the community of artists and landowners to add to and maintain the space. The alley has become quite popular for tourists and has become a cultural center for the city.[35][36][37]

The Chicago Transit Authority has begun suing graffiti vandals that have been caught to recover the clean-up costs, and in some cases, the vandals have to clean up the graffiti as well. The agency loses about $1 million in vandalism costs each year.

Comparison with street art

Typically, the term street art, or the more specific post-graffiti, is used to distinguish contemporary public-space artwork from territorial graffiti, vandalism, and corporate art. Some people consider street art a crime; others consider it a form of art. It is a borderline issue.[38]

See also


  1. "Graffiti". Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved 2011-12-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Peter Shapiro, Rough Guide to Hip Hop, 2nd. ed., London: Rough Guides, 2007.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "A History of Graffiti in Its Own Words". New York Magazine.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Cornbread – Graffiti Legend
  5. David Toop, Rap Attack, 3rd ed., London: Serpent's Tail, 2000.
  6. Hager, Steven. Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music, and Graffiti. St Martin's Press, 1984 (out of print).
  7. Abel, Ernest L., and Barbara E. Buckley. "The Handwriting on the Wall: Toward Sociology and Psychology of Graffiti". Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.
  8. "Art Crimes". Jinx Magazine.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Black History Month — 1971". BBC.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Style Writing From The Underground, (R)evolutions of Aerosol Linguistic." Stampa Alternativa in Association with IGTimes, 1996, ISBN 8872263182.
  11. "Freight Train Graffiti", Roger Gastman, Ian Sattler, Darin Rowland. Harry N Abrams Inc, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8109-9249-8.
  12. Burners. Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
  13. "spray paint". cosmos colour.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. The Fabulous 5ive @149st. Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
  15. Fab 5 Freddy quote in: Lippard, Lucy. Mixed Blessings: Art in Multicultural America. New York: The New Press, 1990.
  16. "Street leader has hopes of career in art or music." Statesman Journal. April 28, 1987.
  17. SaneSmith @149st. Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
  18. "T KID 170". Retrieved 30 June 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "From graffiti to galleries". CNN. 2005-11-04. Retrieved 2006-10-10.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Beaty, Jonathon ; Cray, Dan. "Zap You've Been Tagged". Time Magazine. 10 September 1990. prgrph.2
  21. "New Big Pun Mural To Mark Anniversary Of Rapper's Death in the late 1990s". MTV News. 2001-02-02. Retrieved 2006-10-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "Tupak Shakur". Harlem Live. Archived from the original on 2006-10-25. Retrieved 2006-10-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. ""Bang the Hate" Mural Pushes Limits". Santa Monica News. Retrieved 2006-10-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Anti-Graffiti Task Force
  25. "The full text of the law".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. "Zephyr's opposing viewpoint".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. "Marc Ecko Helps Graffiti Artists Beat NYC in Court, Preps 2nd Annual Save The Rhinos Concert". May 2, 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Staff (May 24, 2006). "NCCo OKs laws to keep spray paint from kids". The News Journal. p. B3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. 29.0 29.1 "Clean Ups and Graffiti Removal".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. "Graffiti Artists Paint Pittsburgh; Police See Red". WPXI. March 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Lord, Rich; Levin, Steve (March 2007). "Graffiti suspect faces felony charge". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. "Pittsburgh Police Arrest King Of Graffiti". KDKA. March 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Pittsburgh Graffiti Tagger 'MFONE' Gets State Prison Time – Pittsburgh News Story – WTAE Pittsburgh. (2008-07-24). Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
  34. Art Alley
  35. Art Alley – Rapid City, SD – index. Retrieved on 2011-01-27.
  36. Art Alley’s colorful ‘curator’, November 09, 2006
  37. ‘Art Alley’ provides startling, often beautiful works, December 21, 2005
  38. "Street art or street crime?".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links