Graffiti history – a topic rich in subject matter with colorful characters and even more colorful artworks
Where to begin when looking for 10 important moments from graffiti history? Everyone will have their own point of view when it comes to graffiti history, but there are some defining moments that most people will agree on, such as Cornbread being responsible for the birth of the graffiti scene and all that has followed since, evolving into the flourishing urban and street art scene we are now witness to. Widewalls has recently been looking at graffiti history in a number of feature articles, 20th Century & the Rise of Graffiti looked into the origins of graffiti and how it developed in the last century. Street Art & Music: Who Likes What? took a look at the relationships between street artists and music while the Food, Sleep, Sex & Revenge article took a brief look at how street art vandalism has transformed into an acceptable art form. Picking 10 important moments from graffiti history is no easy task, but here we present a selection for you to muse over and argue about, a brief reminder of some of the important steps that graffiti has made since Cornbread scrawled his name all over Philadelphia, through to David Choe becoming the richest graffiti artist in modern times.
Here they are!
Cornbread and The Start of Modern Graffiti History
What would graffiti history be without the name Cornbread? It is quite possible that there would be no graffiti history as we know it, for Darryl McCray, who was given the nickname Cornbread while in a juvenile corrections facility, is widely regarded as the father of modern day graffiti. The story goes that the young Cornbread developed a crush on a girl named Cynthia Custuss upon leaving the correctional facility, he wrote Cornbread Loves Cynthia all over the local area to win her affections. Finding he enjoyed this, he continued to tag Philadelphia with his name, including the jet plane that belonged to the Jackson 5 and on an elephant in the local zoo which resulted in an arrest!
TAKI 183 & Tagging
TAKI 183 engraved his name in graffiti history when The New York Times ran an article about him on July 21st, 1971. Prior to this, TAKI 183, which comes from the Greek version of his first name, Demetraki and his address, had been regularly tagging around New York City in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The article, titled TAKI 183 Spawns Pen Pals, gave birth to a whole legion of kids who decided to copy him and tag their own names across the city. The tagging of names became highly competitive, with those who tagged more becoming better known in the graffiti community. TAKI 183 was not the first graffiti artist to tag in New York but he certainly got the most attention.
Phase 2 & Bubble Writing
Phase 2 is regarded in graffiti history as the man that developed the popular style of graffiti, bubble writing, that has often been copied. The graffiti writing style that became known as softies, was developed by Phase 2 in New York City during the 1970’s and became a big influence on hip-hop culture, something the graffiti artist was heavily involved with during the 1980’s. Phase 2 was a b-boy, sometimes DJ at hip-hop events and even went on to release a couple of rap singles, while he himself has often been referenced in songs. The influence of his distinctive bubble style writing can still be seen today in the works of graffiti artists such as OG Slick.
Style Wars Graffiti Documentary
1983 saw the release of the Style Wars documentary film, a definitive slice of graffiti history at that point. The film directed by Tony Silver and produced in collaboration with Henry Chalfant, was about hip-hop with a heavy focus on the graffiti scene. The acclaimed film featured a host of names synonymous with the graffiti scene of the time, including legends such as Futura, Dondi, Seen, Kase2, Zephyr, TAKI 183 among the many names. Style Wars captured the graffiti artists expressing themselves through their street art along with opposing views on the subject of graffiti. A true piece of graffiti history!
Jean-Michel Basquiat & SAMO
1977 to 1980 marks the point in graffiti history that the legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat first came to the public attention with his SAMO graffiti on the streets. Though associated just with Basquiat, it was actually developed along with high school friends Al Diaz and Shannon Dawson for a comic. Pronounced same-oh, the saying is said to have come from a stoned talk and calling their marijuana the same old shit, later shortened to same old, then eventually SAMO. The graffiti took the form of short phrases, usually poetic or sarcastic and was created in the Manhattan area of New York City. The graffiti started to get noticed, but Diaz wanted to remain anonymous while Basquiat enjoyed the attention, even meeting Keith Haring in 1979 because he had noticed SAMO. Basquiat killed off the graffiti with a final SAMO IS DEAD in 1980 as his career in the art world began to take off.
Blek le Rat & Stencils
Xavier Prou has his place in graffiti history due the graffiti he started to create on the streets of Paris in 1981. As Blek le Rat, the French graffiti artist has become known as the father of stencil graffiti, starting out by painting stencils of rats on the streets, using rat as an anagram of art. Influenced by the work of early New York graffiti and the work of Richard Hambleton, Blek le Rat set about taking his art to the public of Paris by way of stencil graffiti, often with themes of social consciousness. 2006 saw the graffiti artist start producing images of homeless people to raise awareness of the global problem. Popular opinion believes that Banksy was heavily influenced by the work of Blek le Rat, which shares a similar style.
Shepard Fairey & OBEY
When Shepard Fairey created his Andre the Giant has a Possee sticker way back in 1989, he could never have imagined that the OBEY Giant it morphed into would become such a recognisable image and sustain his graffiti career for a quarter of a century! Shepard Fairey is one of the new breed of graffiti and street artists that emerged through the 1990’s and exploded into the 21st century sealing their place in graffiti history. Such was the impact of the OBEY Giant that it has become a global brand, enabling Shepard Fairey to take his graffiti and design skills into many different areas, some of which you can read about in our article on his 25th Anniversary. Some may not like the business minded approach, but you can’t deny that it is a defining moment in graffiti history.
Images courtesy of Shepard Fairey.
Banksy & Graffiti
Like Shepard Fairey, Banksy is one of the new breed of graffiti artists that have transformed the world of graffiti and street art in the 21st century. Banksy began as a freehand graffiti artist in the early 1990’s and formed part of the famous underground graffiti scene in Bristol, UK, with the likes of Nick Walker, 3D and Inkie. By 2000 Banksy had switched to creating stencil art, marking his transformation into one of the most talked about graffiti artists in the world of street art, while also successfully infiltrating the art world. With his artworks now fetching a small fortune, there is always interest in what Banksy will do next and his popularity never seems to wane. The switch to stenciling and demand for his works marks his place in graffiti history.
Graffiti Wars – King Robbo vs Banksy
Without doubt there have probably been many feuds in the world of graffiti, but not many became as well-known as that of King Robbo Vs Banksy. The late John Robertson, aka King Robbo, was a legend of the underground graffiti scene in the UK, with his works appearing all over London. Many of the works by King Robbo vanished over time, but one piece had remained intact since 1985 and only accessible by water. In 2009, Banksy took it upon himself to transform the King Robbo piece, which led to each artist painting over what the other had done, finally leading to online arguments and Team Robbo attacking Banksy graffiti works. The whole feud was the subject of a TV documentary titled Graffiti Wars, earning the pair an extra place in graffiti history.
The Richest Street Artists
It is a sign of the times and the popularity of graffiti and street art in general, that The Richest website published a list of The 5 Richest Street Artists in the World back in 2014. Graffiti and being rich is not something that springs to mind when you think of street art, but times have changed and some people are making a healthy living from graffiti. So, at number 5 we have Retna, worth an estimated $5 million, at number 4 Mr Brainwash with $10 Million, 3rd place goes to Shepard Fairey with $15 million, just behind Banksy who is worth $20 million. But top of the list is David Choe, estimated to be worth a cool $200 million. I wonder what Cornbread makes of that? Graffiti history is changing in many ways, stay tuned to see what happens next!
Images courtesy of David Choe