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Kings on a Mission

  • Kings on a Mission
August 19, 2014

Can you remember the thrill of writing your name for the first time on a wall, perhaps near your school, and feeling the rush of adrenalin when faced with the possibility of being caught? What is more important, can you remember why you had done such a thing? Was it for a girl? Or, a group of friends? Maybe it was just for you – a way to leave a mark of your existence, announcing it to the world… Now go back in time, decades earlier, and imagine a group of people, just like you, who wanted, no – needed!, to express themselves in front of the audience that was their community. What kind of inspiration had driven them to do such a thing? Did they have an idea of what series of events they had set into motion?

Kings on a Mission
Blade, subway graffiti

The Graffiti Culture of the 1970s and 1980s

It has been said many a times that the contemporary urban art scene owes its origins to those pioneers of the graffiti movement from the 1970s. And it was more than a movement. It was a subversive culture of young people who had a profound need to express themselves, yearning for the respect of their peers and, perhaps, fame. But, it can be argued that it was more then just wanting to be recognized. In documentary work of photographers and authors such as Marta Cooper and Henry Chalfant, it could be seen that imagery created in those fruitful decades of street art had been more than spray-paint signatures created in the act of vandalism. In Training Days: The Subway Artists Then and Now, Henry Chalfant revisited the culture inviting the street art community to remember the beginnings of artistic expressions in urban environments.

Kings on a Mission

“In a few years time, I’ll be sixty, and then I would like to do a train, I would love to get back and put my name on a train, be the oldest guy ever to do it…” are the words at the beginning of the BBC Radio 4 program Graffiti: Kings on a Mission. So much symbolic power is embedded in this sentence. In his seminal essay from 1973, The Faith of Graffiti, published in the Esquire Magazine, Norman Mailer announced that the “masterpieces in letters six feet high” would bring a new paradigm in the world of art. And he was not wrong one bit. Today, artists with formal education in typography have a profound passion for the graffiti scene and, what is more, many of them are devoted to graffiti, making this artistic expression an important part of their careers. The power of street art has spread around the globe, and from that New York initial energy of the 1970s it has grown into a meaningful tool for new aesthetics and socio-political commentary. BBC 4 Radio programme will try to paint a picture of a time when an entire city was a canvas and when an entire youth culture laid the foundations of something truly remarkable. You can listen to the program and read Norman Mailer’s essay here.

Kings on a Mission
Esquire Magazine, cover detail, May 1974