To most viewers who stumble across urban art, Street Art is indistinguishable from graffiti writing, since both easily fall into the categorization of graffiti set by Riggle. However, there are distinct stylistic elements unique to the two. To properly examine the differences between them, this chapter will provide a brief historical overview of the graffiti movement. Beginning in 1967 with the writer Cornbread in Philadelphia, it will
proceed to the present day, paying attention the emergence of the subgenres of tagging and Street Art within the world of Graffiti, and outline a set of guidelines which will be used to differentiate the two forms of art, tagging and Street Art, from each other.
The first emergence of modern graffiti can be traced to a Philadelphia high school student, Darryl McCray, known by the pseudonym of Cornbread.3 In 1967, Cornbread began tagging the walls of his city as ‘a way to get a girl’s attention.’4 He began writing ‘Cornbread loves Cynthia’ across northern Philadelphia. In later years, Cornbread was misidentified as a Cornelius Hosey, who was killed during a gang shooting. To prove that he was still alive, Cornbread began tagging everywhere, and was eventually arrested as he tried to tag ‘Cornbread lives’ onto an elephant at the Philadelphia Zoo. It was this artist, along with a second young graffiti writer, Cool Earl, who is considered the first artist to deliberately ‘bomb’5 a city with his tags.6
Whether this fact became known to the young writers of New York City or not, by 1971, the idea of ‘bombing’ a city had spread to the borough of Washington Heights, with writers like Taki 183, Julio 204, and Frank 207, spraying their marks across their neighborhoods.7 The artist Taki 183, though not the first graffiti writer of the city, became the first writer to become recognized by someone outside of the graffiti movement. Employed as a foot messenger, Taki had easy access to the underground rail system of the city, and began tagging his name across the different subway lines. In 1971, the New York Times published an article about the young artist.8 In the same year, graffiti writing had spread to all five boroughs of the city, with the subways acting as lines of communication between artists, and thus serving as a sparkplug to inter-borough competitions between the graffiti writers.9 Subway cars proved to be to be the ideal playground for graffiti artists for a number of reasons, first and foremost, their accessibility. Prior to 1982, with the introduction of fences and guard dogs, the subway yards were largely unsecured, making the subway carriages easy targets for graffiti writers. Furthermore, by placing their tag on a mobile object, like the subway train, their name would be visible to a larger public, which helped have their name seen across a larger geographical area. Understandably, it became increasingly important for these artists to make their work unique in some way. As such, the style of the script began to evolve, with tags being enhanced by ‘flourishes, stars, and other designs.’10 Additionally, the scale of the tags began to increase in size, with artists taking over the entire exterior of subway cars with their sprayed names. Over the next several years, from 1973 through the early 1980s, the peak of graffiti writing, two distinct communities of practice developed, those who prioritized style, and those who placed the sheer number of tags across the city above the style of their work, preferring quantity and visibility over quality.11 All the while, the Metropolitan Transit Authority was taking countermeasures to reduce and prevent the work of graffiti writers. In 1980, the MTA and the City of New York achieved significant success in their ‘war’ against graffiti. Legislation was passed that made it illegal for those under the age of 18 to buy spray paint. Shop keepers were obliged to keep that type of paint in locked cages, making it more difficult for artists to steal their supplies.12 Furthermore, penalties for graffiti writers who were caught became more severe, leading several artists to quit writing altogether. In addition to the new anti-graffiti legislations, the budget to maintain fences and remove graffiti increased, which led to quick and consistent repair of fences around train yards and short life spans of graffiti writing on the trains. Many of the preferred tagging locations were rendered inaccessible and, by 1984, the venue for many writers had changed from train cars to city walls, leading to a considerable change in the style of the writing.13 While graffiti writing continued to be a popular mode of expression, it was around this time that Street Art began to appear as a separate form of expression from tagging.
Though not the main focus of this thesis, the history of graffiti writing throughout the 1980s is important in understanding the development of Street Art, and was integral in the development of many unique mediums of Street Art. While artists like John Fekner had begun working with stencils in the early seventies, it was not until the beginning of the 1980s, that Street Art really started to appear and to be recognized as separate from graffiti writing. Artists such as Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Kenny Sharf, whose style differed from the writers of the 1970s, flocked to New York City to be a part of the burgeoning art scene. Haring, for instance, was introduced to the idea of Street Art upon moving to New York City as a student enrolled at the School of Visual Arts, where he quickly discovered the alternative art community of taggers who worked in subways or empty dance-halls.14 In conjunction with the influence of the contemporary taggers and writers, Haring was inspired by Jean Dubuffet, Pierre Alechinsky, William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Robert Henri’s manifesto The Art Spirit, which asserted the fundamental independence of the artist.15 Armed with the ideal of complete artistic freedom, Haring made it his goal to create a form of ‘authentic’ public art, one free of institutional restrictions. As Haring set out to achieve his goal, he came into his signature
approach of covering unused advertising panels in white chalk.16 In his own words,
Haring’s artwork quickly became a staple in the subways of New York City, however, due to his style and execution, Haring’s art stands in contrast to the tags of graffiti writers. His chosen medium of work, chalk, and his motivation behind it, the ‘sociological experiment’, differentiate his work from graffiti taggers, yet, throughout his career, Haring incorporated many of the motives of taggers, primarily that their artwork is seen and accessible by a large number of people who would not normally visit a gallery to experience the same artwork. His work is integral in the establishment of Street Art as a unique art form.
I kept seeing more and more of these black spaces, and I drew on them whenever I saw one. Because they were so fragile, people left them alone and respected them; they didn’t rub them out or try to mess them up. It gave them this other power. It was this chalk-white fragile thing in the middle of all this power and tension and violence that the subway was…For me it was a whole sort of philosophical and sociological experiment. When I drew, I drew in the daytime which meant there were always people watching. There were always confrontations, whether it was with people that were interested in looking at it, or people that wanted to tell you [that] you shouldn’t be drawing there… I was learning, watching people’s reactions and interactions with the drawings and with me and looking at it as a phenomenon.17
Haring was not alone in establishing Street Art as a different form of art from graffiti writing. Jean Michel Basquiat, a fellow New York artists was also instrumental in the development of street art into what it is known as today. Starting in 1972, Basquiat and an artist friend, Al Diaz, began spray painting buildings under the name SAMO, an acronym for ‘Same Old Shit’.18 Together, Basquiat and Diaz sprayed images and sayings that epitomized anti-establishment, anti-religion, and anti-political sentiments. Shortly after being recognized by a counter culture media outlet, The Village Voice, Basquiat and Diaz had a falling out, following which, Basquiat spray painted the words ‘SAMO is dead’ across the façade of many art galleries and buildings in lower Manhattan. Sometime during his work with Diaz, Basquiat sold hand painted postcards and shirts, and struggled to make a living, until the early 1980’s, when his work was featured in a group show. His work received acclaim due to his unique fusion of words, symbols, stick figures, and animals, and soon his work became associated with a new art movement of the time, Neo-Expressionism.19 Basquiat continued to exhibit his work across the United States and even in Africa, and in 1983, met Andy Warhol, who he would later collaborate on a series of works with.20 Basquiat proved that it was possible for a graffiti tagger to move beyond the limits of simply scrawling a tag across a city and evolved his wok into a legitimate art form.
Alongside the efforts of the artists in New York, an artist working just outside of Paris is important in understanding the evolution of Street Art. ‘Blek le Rat’, claims that he, himself is the ‘original stencil pioneer’.21 He explains in his bio that he was inspired to create his own style after a visit to New York City during the late 1970s.22 Doubtless, having come in contact with the graffiti writing of the city, he was motivated to create similar graffiti in his home city of Paris. However, he did not want to simply imitate what he saw in New York, but rather, he aimed to have his own style in the streets.23 Between 1981 and 1983, he began to spray stenciled rats around the city of Paris, explaining that ‘rats are the only wild living animals in cities and only rats will survive when the human race will have disappeared and died out’.24 Much of Blek le Rat’s work carried heavy political messages, such as his first large figure stencil in 1983, depicting an Irish man standing up to a British soldier in Belfast during the 1973 riots.25 It is clear that these three artists, Keith Haring, Basquiat, and Blek le Rat were inspired by the graffiti writing of New York City. However, it is also evident that their art belongs to a different category than that of graffiti writing. It was artists such as these three, who imbued their work with political or social commentary, who laid the foundation for future street artists such as Banksy, Shepard Fairey, JR, and others.
In addition to the efforts of artists to create unique forms of communication and to make their work visible, the creation of legalized venues for graffiti helped to spur on the Street Art movement. The second half of the 1980s saw a rise in not only Street Art and Graffiti Writing, but also a rise in creating spaces where artists could work without fear from the law. One such location, which will be discussed more in depth later, is the Barton Hill Youth Club in Bristol, England. John Nation, a staff member of the club stocked paint at the youth club and encouraged artists from all over the United Kingdom to come and paint legally on the walls.26 The same idea was explored in New York City in 1993, with the opening of 5Pointz as a legal and curated venue for street artists and graffiti taggers to create and display their work.27 These two, along with a whole slew of other locations, allowed for artists, like Banksy, to develop their identities as artists in a safe environment.
Finally, the impact that the punk rock scene had on the underground art culture is of import to the development of other mediums of Street Art, such as sticker art and wheat paste posters. Posters and stickers advertising concerts, clubs, and events were a common sight in New York City throughout the 1980s, and have been identified by artists like Shepard Fairey as the inspiration for their work. In his book Supply and Demand: The Art of Shepard Fairey, Fairey, a teenager in the Eighties explains that he was drawn to the punk atmosphere of the skate and band world, and that it was the stickers that he saw scattered across the city that drew him to collecting the same stickers, and later to creating his own.28 This later evolved to his widespread habit of pasting posters and installations around the world. He, like many other artists, was influenced not only by the graffiti writers, but by the punk scene of New York. While graffiti writing remains an active form of art this day, the 1980s saw a rise in a new genre of graffiti, Street Art, and since then, this form of art has evolved and grown in popularity across the world.
Recognizing Street Art as a distinctive form of artistic expression within the world of graffiti, I have outlined five general differences between the two main subgenres of graffiti: graffiti writing and Street Art.
First, Street Art is not tagging in the traditional sense. While graffiti began as an underground movement, largely based on the idea of tagging one’s name or initials, Street Art has moved beyond this idea and can appear in the form of stenciled images, mosaics, stickers, wheat paste posters, freestyle murals, projected video, and even video projects. Graffiti Writing and Street Art have different goals. The motivation of writing, or tagging, as is the case with Cornbread, is being visible and spread their name to the eyes of a widened public. Conversely, most street artists convey political or social messages. Street Art is not limited to scrawling letters in a territorial battle, but can come in any form of artistic expression, from Banksy’s stenciled social commentaries, to Shepard Fairey’s ‘Andre the Giant’ sticker campaign.
Second, the reason why taggers and street artists choose their public venues for their art is different. Street artists, as is the case with an artist known as Invader, often consider themselves artists, with a goal of ‘liberating Art from its usual alienators that museums or institutions can be’.29 Many share the sentiment that the ‘public space [is] the only option for free speech and expression without bureaucracy’.30 However, graffiti taggers choose train cars, city walls, and other public spaces as a means of increasing their visibility and claim territory for the different groups competing for recognition within the urban contexts.
Thirdly, Street Art is, on a whole, recognized and respected by the public in a way that graffiti is not. As evidenced by the 1980s Metropolitan Transit Authority’s numerous efforts to remove graffiti writing from the trains, graffiti is largely viewed as vandalism and, unless done within sanctioned graffiti havens, such as 5Pointz, or the Barton Hill Youth Club, graffiti is consistently destroyed and painted over. On the contrary, Street Art, while often still illegal in nature, is seen in a much more positive light. Both tagging and Street Art are transient art forms, with limited life spans. While most works of Street Art are removed quickly, and a large portion destroyed every year, several examples of recognized Street Art, such as a piece painted by Banksy in Park City, Utah, have been preserved by business owners, museums, and other such organizations, sometimes through extreme measures, and kept on the walls for several years, if not longer.31 Additionally, street artists are commissioned quite frequently, by museums, art organizations, businesses, hotels, etc., within some cities, such as Denver, Colorado, Los Angeles, California, New York City, Amsterdam, and more to place murals within the city. While this is all true, street artists, like graffiti writers, when working outside the bounds of legal commissions, are subject to legal repercussions, and even the biggest names within the genre have been arrested, charged with vandalism, and have warrants out for their arrest.32
In addition to these three points, Street Art is not limited to aerosol paint. While graffiti writers almost exclusively deal in spray can art, street artists use a multiplicity of mediums, ranging from acrylic paint, to stickers, posters, tiles, and more. Additionally, street artists are not necessarily limited to the darkness when installing their work. While a large percentage of Street Art is done illegally, and thus done in the cover of night, there are several examples of sanctioned projects, such as the 2017 installation done by Shepard Fairey on the Plaza Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.33
Finally, the street artists do not exist in silent anonymity. Graffiti taggers do not sign their work in the traditional sense. Rather, their tag serves as a signature, with each tag unique to individual writers. Street artists, whether known by their real name, like Shepard Fairey, or going by a pseudonym, such as Blu, create images that are unique and often sign their work. There are several street artists, such as the ones addressed in this thesis, who have carved out a certain degree of fame within the art community and are known by a greater portion of the population. Just one example is the Italian artist Blu, who has been featured in several news articles in Italy about his mural work, and is recognized through an exhibition within the city Bologna.34 Even the more famous graffiti writers, Taki 183 for instance, do not hold this level of name recognition. Additionally, several street artists have compiled large collections of their work in online databases or in published books, such as the retrospectives by Shepard Fairey, it is much rarer to find books dedicated to a single graffiti tagger. Rather more often we find a curator, such as Roger Gastman. His book, The History of American Graffiti, highlights graffiti production from the last one-hundred years. It seems that street artists are more concerned with the transient nature of their work and take countermeasures to ensure that their art is able to reach the public despite the risk of their work being destroyed or removed. Furthermore, some street artists, whether intentionally or not, have their art represented on a commercial scale. Shepard Fairey, for example, sells numbered prints of his work, as well as stickers, hats, skateboards, and patches.35 Banksy’s works are sold on magnets, shirts, notebooks, and any number of other merchandise, by many third party vendors, making it clear, both in public statements and in his art, that he does not care about copyrighting his work, allowing others to use his images in their products.36 Clet Abraham also has a commercial element to his work. In Florence, he has an art studio where he sells stickers, magnets, and more to those who visit.
These five aspects help to distinguish Street Art from graffiti and will serve as defining factors in discussing Street Art within this thesis.
1 Nicholas Alden Riggle, ‘Street Art: The Transfiguration of the Commonplaces’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 68 (2010), 242-257. 2 ibid.
3 Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon, The History of American Graffiti (New York: Harper Design, 2010).
5 a term used by graffiti writers which means to write (using spray paint) your name as frequently as possible across a geographical area.
7 King Adz, Street Knowledge (New York: Overlook Press, 2011).
8 Don Hossan Charles, ‘Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals’, The New York Times, 1971.
9 Joe Austin, Taking the Train (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).
10 Gastman and Neelon. ibid. Paul Cavalieri, From the Platform (Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 2011).
12 Paul Cavalieri, From the Platform (Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 2011).
13 Felisbrant and Felisbrant.
14‘Bio | Keith Haring’, Haring.com, 2016
17 Jason Rubell, ‘Keith Haring: The Last Interview’, Arts Magazine, September 1990, p. 59.
18 "Jean-Michel Basquiat Biography, Art, And Analysis Of Works", The Art Story, 2017
19 "Jean-Michel Basquiat", Biography.Com, 2017
20 "Jean-Michel Basquiat - 177 Artworks, Bio & Shows On Artsy", Artsy.Net, 2017
21 ‘Stencil Graffiti Blek the Pioneer’, Bleklerat.free.fr, 2016
26 Shepard Fairey, Obey (Berkeley, Calif.: Gingko Press, 2009).
27 ‘ABOUT | 5 POINTZ’, 5ptz.com, 2016
28 Shepard Fairey, Obey (Berkeley, Calif.: Gingko Press, 2009).
29 Invader - About", Space-invaders.com, 2016 http://www.space-invaders.com/about/.
30 Heller, Steven. 2009. ‘Still Obeying After all These Years’, in Shepard Fairey and others, Obey: Supply and Demand-The Art of Shepard Fairey, 1st edn (Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press), pp. 93-101.
31 A piece created by Banksy for the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah was framed and covered in a protective glass by the property owner of the wall housing the piece in order to preserve the work.
32 See chapter 2 for a discussion of the legal repercussions taken on different street artists.
33 Shepard Fairey, Cultivate Harmony (Las Vegas: Plaza Hotel, 2017).
34 Street Art-Banksy & Co.
35 ‘Store - Obey Giant’, Store - Obey Giant, 2017
36 Will Ellsworth-Jones, ‘The Business of Banksy’, in Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall, 1st edn (New York City: St. Martin's Press, 2013), pp. 181-204.