The history of the 20th century graffiti art is a long and well-documented story, but with the recent popularity of all things urban and street art related that have benefited a great number of contemporary urban artists who now combine street art with studio-based works, it is always good to remind ourselves of the originators of the street art and graffiti scene. The 21st century has seen these two movements become recognized art forms bound to break away from being branded as forms of vandalism. While some of the original graffiti artists from the 1970’s managed to cross over into the art gallery world, only recently has it been seen as the norm for artists to work both outdoors and in the studio. This has been aided somewhat also by the rise in galleries that now specialize in exhibiting urban contemporary artworks. But first, let’s go back a little further and find out just who is responsible for those spray cans that are equally loved and hated.
You may be surprised to learn that the original concept of the aerosol dates back to France in 1790, when carbonated drinks were served, while in 1837, a gentleman named Perpigna invented the soda siphon with the use of a valve. Spray cans made of metal were first used in 1862, but were too heavy for commercial use at the time while in 1899 inventors Helbling and Pertsch patented pressurized aerosols. Into the 20th century and Norwegian Erik Rotheim patented his aerosol with valve, which was the forerunner of the modern version, the Norwegian post office even produced a stamp to celebrate the invention in 1998.
On to World War II and the United States government invested in research to find a way for their troops to carry a spray against bugs with malaria, this resulted in a small aerosol invented by Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivan. Their work led Robert Abplanalp to design a valve crimp, that let liquids be sprayed from a can under pressure. His lightweight aluminum cans became widely available to the public in 1947 through his Precision Valve Corporation. Then we come to 1949 and one Edward Seymour, the father of spray paint. On the suggestion of his wife Bonnie, Seymour came up with the aerosol can full of paint, the first color being aluminum. The company, Seymour of Sycamore was founded to manufacture the spray paints and is still going strong today in Chicago.
While graffiti has existed in many forms, from when man lived in caves through to ancient civilizations, the modern form of street art and graffiti writing was undoubtedly born during themed to late 1960’s. Darryl McCray, better known as Cornbread, is the man who is often credited with being the first graffiti writer, tagging his name all over North Philadelphia. The story goes that he started graffiti writing because of a girl he had a crush on, Cynthia Custuss, which led to him writing ‘Cornbread Loves Cynthia’ all over the area, then continuing with his own tag. Cool Earl was best friend to Cornbread and also became known for his tagging exploits, the pair gaining media attention. Another Philadelphia tagger, Top Cat 126, moved to New York in 1967 and helped to spark the graffiti trend there. Watch Cornbread and Taki 183 in action in this MOCA 2011 video.
The end of the 1960’s saw the emergence of the graffiti scene in New York, when a number of graffiti writers started tagging their names, usually an alias combined with a street number, such as JULIO 204, CAY161 and the infamous TAKI183. He gained notoriety when The New York Times ran an article on him in 1971, resulting in tagging becoming a game of who could get noticed the most. 1971 was also the time when the subway trains started to be tagged, creating some of the most iconic artwork to have come out of the early graffiti and street art scene. The graffiti being created also started to evolve and become more unique, with artists such as LEE 163 starting to join the letters together. The early 1970’s also saw the emergence of two legends of the graffiti scene in Phase 2, who developed his distinctive bubble writing and Blade, who became known for covering entire train carriages with graffiti work. 1972 also saw the creation of United Graffiti Artists, a collective formed by Hugo Martinez, who recognized the potential of this new exciting art form and started to display graffiti work in galleries. The remainder of the 1970’s saw graffiti spread across the USA and saw the graffiti writers develop more complex forms of artwork. The end of the 70’s was marked by a defining moment, Fab 5 Freddy and Lee Quiñones, both from Brooklyn graffiti group The Fabulous 5, being given a prestigious exhibition in Rome, Italy. Check out 10 New York Graffiti Legends Still Kicking (Ass).
The 1980’s saw graffiti and street art become inextricably linked with the emerging hip-hop scene that helped to spread the graffiti culture worldwide. Fab 5 Freddy received further attention when he was name-checked in the hit song Rapture, by Blondie in 1981, he appeared in the video for the song alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat and the song became the first so-called hip-hop video to be aired on MTV. With the public becoming more interested in graffiti, media attention increased, but not always with positive outcomes, the graffiti scene being labeled as encouraging crime and fear. The 1980’s saw two legendary films released about the graffiti and hip-hop scene, the documentary Style Wars (1983), which featured artists such as Dondi, ZEPHYR, MinOne and Skeme and the fictional Wild Style (1983). Fab 5 Freddy, along with Futura 2000, took graffiti to Europe in 1983 as part of the New York City Rap Tour. The 1980’s also saw a move towards conceptual graffiti & urban artworks by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton.
While hip-hop was closely linked with graffiti culture, punk also adopted the idea of graffiti to help spread messages. UK anarcho-punk band Crass regularly had stencil-like images on their releases and undertook a graffiti stencil campaign on the London Underground system in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, with anti-war, anarchist, feminist and anti-consumerist messages being popular. Amsterdam saw graffiti become an important part of the punk scene, producing a magazine called Gallery Anus to document the graffiti work. In America, it was the band Black Flag and their fans that widely stenciled their classic logo.
As mentioned earlier, the 1980’s saw a number of graffiti and street artists cross over into the world of art galleries, including Basquiat, Haring and Hambleton, but the 1990’s slowly ushered in the new breed of creatives that were to change the face of graffiti. The decline of the USSR at the start of the 90’s saw many Eastern European countries open up to graffiti, a subject touched upon in our interview with Jan Kaláb, while the rise of the internet helped to share graffiti images and to spread the word about the movement. It was the 1990’s that saw street artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy make their first moves on this creative scene, who have gone on to dominate it ever since then. Banksy, of course, is said to have been influenced by one of the first stencil artists that appeared and known as the father of stencil art, French street artist Blek le Rat, who was stenciling rats on the streets of Paris during the 1980’s. You can read about the 25th anniversary of Fairey in Poster Power and an interesting article about Banksy in A Relentless Market, that questions when the movement became about money.
The world of street art and graffiti has changed dramatically since the days of Cornbread, who incidentally, now works with The Mural Arts Program that helps to prevent illegal tagging, with the two movements becoming accepted in the wider art market. Edward Seymour could have had no idea just how much his paint in a spray can invention would change the face of our urban landscapes.
Editors’ Tip: The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti
It is the ultimate guide to the world’s most remarkable pieces of graffiti and street art. This book is the definitive survey of the international movement, focusing on the world’s most influential urban artists and artworks. Since the lives and works of urban artists are inextricably linked to specific locations and places, this beautifully illustrated volume features specially commissioned “city artworks” that provide an intimate understanding of these metropolitan landscapes. Organized geographically by country and city, more than 100 of today’s most important artists—including Espo in New York, Shepard Fairey in Los Angeles, Os Gêmeos in Brazil, and Anthony Lister in Australia—are profiled alongside key examples of their work.
Images courtesy of the artists and as credited.