From Tags to Legends: Graffiti History Through Art & Culture

Graffiti art is the symbol of a creative revolution, a visual language that has left an indelible mark on the urban landscape. As we explore the world of graffiti, subway murals, and street art, we will see how this form of art has made its presence felt time and again throughout New York City's history and beyond.

The Origins of Graffiti in the 1960s: A Closer Look at Two Pioneers

The modern graffiti movement took shape in the 1960s with groundbreaking artists such as Cornbread and Taki 183. Philadelphia-based Darryl “Cornbread” McCray, often considered the first graffiti writer, began tagging his name in 1965, sparking a citywide movement.
His tags represented both self-expression and defiance against authority. They spread throughout Philadelphia, even appearing on an elephant at the city zoo and the Jackson 5’s private jet. Cornbread’s actions inspired others and laid the groundwork for the future of graffiti.

Meanwhile, Demetrius aka Taki 183, a greek-american from Washington Heights, played a significant role in shaping graffiti culture in New York City. He started tagging his name and street number on subway trains and walls in 1969, ultimately gaining mainstream media attention with a 1971 article in The New York Times.
His tags, influenced by his Greek heritage and the fast-paced NYC lifestyle, symbolized youth culture and resilience. His contributions challenged social norms and inspired the evolution of graffiti from simple tags to intricate, vibrant creations.
The 1960s marked the beginning of graffiti and street art, with pioneers like these laying the foundation for the dynamic art form that would flourish in the coming decades.

From Tags to Bombing: The New York City Graffiti Scene of the 1970s

In the early 70s, graffiti exploded onto the streets of New York City, evolving from simple tags to complex and colorful pieces, a phenomenon known as “bombing.” This involved quickly covering large areas of public spaces with spray paint, creating their name or a pseudonym everywhere, such as on walls, doors, or subway trains. This style required great skill, coordination, and courage, as graffiti artists often had to operate at night to avoid being arrested by the police. Bombing became a challenge for graffiti artists who sought to aggressively and quickly cover as many spaces as possible, leaving their mark on the city.

The bombing style had a significant impact on the culture of graffiti, contributing to the spread of urban art on a large scale. In the 1970s, graffiti became associated with NYC gangs when groups like the Savage Skulls, the Black Spades, and the Ghetto Brothers began to use graffiti as a way to assert their dominance and create visual boundaries in the city. These groups created tags and murals that represented the identity of each gang, marking territory and sending a clear message to rivals.

The rapid growth of the graffiti movement and its strong association with the city’s crime led the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) of New York City, with great support from Mayor Ed Koch, to launch an initiative in the early 80s called the “Clean Train Movement” to eradicate graffiti from subway trains. The MTA spent a lot of money cleaning the trains, hiring security guards, and installing surveillance cameras to prevent further acts of vandalism. However, the Clean Train Movement campaign caught the attention of graffiti writers, who saw the clean trains as new spaces to exhibit their art. This led many graffiti artists to seek new spaces to showcase their artwork, resulting in graffiti spreading across the city’s streets and buildings.

Wild Style: The Intersection of Graffiti and Hip Hop Culture

Towards the end of the 1970s, the graffiti scene started to become intrinsically linked with the burgeoning hip-hop movement. Born in the Bronx, hip-hop culture quickly spread throughout the city and beyond, encompassing music, dance, and visual art. Graffiti became an integral part of this cultural revolution, setting the stage for the deep connection between the two art forms that would be explored further in the years to come.

The Wild Style, an innovative graffiti style that emerged in the 1970s, played a vital role in linking graffiti to the burgeoning hip-hop culture. Characterized by complex, interwoven letters and elaborate designs, Wild Style expanded the artistic possibilities of graffiti, showcasing ingenuity and imagination.

The emergence of hip-hop in the Bronx during the 1970s was a turning point for the development of Wild Style. As hip-hop music, breakdancing, and DJing gained traction, graffiti became an essential part of this cultural revolution. The four pillars of hip-hop culture – MCing, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti – joined forces to create a spirited movement that celebrated originality, self-expression, and resistance against societal norms.

Pioneering Wild Style artists like Lee Quiñones, Dondi, Fab Five Freddy and Lady Pink contributed to the movement by crafting visually captivating pieces that mirrored the zeitgeist. They experimented with elaborate lettering and overlapping shapes. It has also been common practice to incorporate 3D elements into the pieces, with mesmerizing designs that engaged the viewer’s attention.

Key hip-hop artists and DJs, such as Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and Kool Herc, played crucial roles in connecting graffiti to hip-hop. Their trailblazing work in music and culture forged a strong bond between the two art forms, solidifying graffiti’s position as an indispensable aspect of the hip-hop movement.

Graffiti and hip-hop complemented each other, with each element drawing inspiration from the other. Graffiti served as the visual manifestation of the hip-hop movement, decorating walls, subway cars, and buildings throughout New York City. The striking colors, energetic shapes, and elaborate patterns of Wild Style pieces encapsulated the essence of hip-hop culture, reflecting the passion and inventiveness of the artists and their community.

From the Streets to Art Galleries

The transition of graffiti from urban spaces to art galleries in the 1980s marked a turning point in the movement. As graffiti gained recognition as a legitimate art form, it attracted the attention of the mainstream art world.
The 1980s witnessed a rapid evolution in graffiti art, with artists experimenting with new styles, techniques, and mediums. Incorporating fine art elements like abstract expressionism and surrealism allowed artists to expand their visual vocabulary and explore a wide range of themes.

Basquiat and Haring are among the most well-known artists to emerge from the graffiti scene, but their success was part of a larger trend that saw numerous graffiti artists gain recognition and commercial success. Galleries and collectors began to appreciate the exceptional talent of these street artists, featuring their work in prominent exhibitions and fetching high prices at auctions.
Artists such as Futura 2000, Dondi White, and Lady Pink gained recognition in the art world, exhibiting in galleries and museums, and collaborating with established artists and fashion designers. Their success helped legitimize graffiti as an art form and paved the way for future generations of street artists.
The 1980s also saw the emergence of graffiti art collectives, like the United Graffiti Artists (UGA), which aimed to promote graffiti as a valid form of artistic expression through exhibitions, workshops, and events, raising awareness of the artistic merits of graffiti and contributing to its acceptance within mainstream art circles.

From the 90s to the Present Day: Global Expansion and Evolution

The globalization of graffiti in the late ’80s and ’90s expanded the art form beyond New York City, with diverse regional styles emerging in cities like London, Paris, Berlin, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires. The Berlin Wall became a symbol of freedom and self-expression, while Latin American artists blended traditional muralism with contemporary graffiti styles. New subgenres like stencil art and wheatpasting appeared, enabling intricate designs and social-political commentary.

Banksy’s satirical works brought fame and legitimacy to graffiti as an art form, inspiring a new generation of artists. In recent years, the lines between graffiti, street art, and fine art have blurred, with diverse artists collaborating and experimenting with new techniques. The graffiti scene has become more inclusive, with women and artists from various backgrounds shaping its contemporary landscape. Overall, graffiti’s journey from the ’90s to today has been marked by global expansion, evolution, and increased acceptance. The movement continues to grow, diversify, and push boundaries, leaving a lasting impact on the global cultural landscape.

Graffiti's Influence on Contemporary Graphic Design

Graffiti and street art have significantly impacted contemporary graphic design, with designers drawing inspiration from the movement’s bold colors, expressive typography, and dynamic compositions. Elements of graffiti are often incorporated into advertising, packaging, branding, and digital media, adding a sense of energy, authenticity, and rebellion to various designs.

The collaborative spirit of graffiti culture has inspired interdisciplinary projects and public art installations in the world of graphic design, resulting in a more diverse and vibrant visual landscape. This fusion of disciplines continues to shape the creative landscape, enriching both practitioners and audiences alike.

As we wrap this journey through graffti history, let’s take a moment to explore some of the most captivating works created by contemporary artists from around the world. These remarkable pieces, which can be easily found online, demonstrate the ability of artistic expression to transcend geographical borders and stimulate the imagination.

Create your graffiti artwork

We hope you enjoyed the intense story of graffiti, especially through the 70s and 80s, two decades that we love – not only for graffiti but for their whole visual culture. Their energy created just so many visual cliches that we love, like the old devices aesthetic of floppy disks, cassette tapes or start video games. But also incredible logo designs, like the MTV one

Inspired by Bronx atmospheres, hip-hop and street art culture? Then download our Free Graffiti Textures pack and start creating digital artwork with the same energy!

Indieground Design

Indieground Design

We are a team of designers, developers & photographers from Italy and we love to create striking graphic resources! Have a look around our website to discover more about what we do and the services we offer!

Indieground Design

Indieground Design

We are a team of designers, developers & photographers from Italy and we love to create striking graphic resources! Have a look around our website to discover more about what we do and the services we offer!

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