Graffiti has probably been around since the earliest days of man. Seriously. Paintings inside the Lascaux Caves in France date to prehistoric times—and graffiti was actually found in the Italian archaeological site of Pompeii, where some man proudly scribbled, “Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here.”
While those might have been the original graffiti artists, graffiti as street art largely began in the 1960s and is generally traced to high school student Darryl McCray, better known as Cornbread. Cornbread lived in North Philadelphia and took to painting tributes to his crush, in the form of “Cornbread Loves Cynthia,” all over North Philly. Eventually, he took to just painting his name (aka his “tag”) across the city. Philadelphia birthed several other well-known graffiti and tag artists like Cool Earl and Top Cat 126.
Toward the end of the 1960s, graffiti was emerging in New York and tags were usually just an alias and a number, like JULIO204, CAY161, and the infamous TAKI183. The New York Times printed an article on TAKI183, resulting in a street game, of sorts. Artists were constantly trying to get their tags noticed the most. Subway trains were perfect backdrops for graffiti and spray-painted trains became part of the city’s underground landscape. The artwork became more complex and the artists became more notorious. Toward the end of the 1970s, graffiti was gradually being viewed as a legitimate form of artwork and, most notably, artists Fab 5 Freddy and Lee Quinones (both from Brooklyn graffiti collective The Fabulous Five) had an art dealer and were given a prominent exhibition in Rome, Italy.
In the 1980s, street art and hip-hop culture were becoming inextricably linked. News stories often linked graffiti and crime, but it was also being associated with music of all sorts. Fab 5 Freddy’s friendship with Blondie singer Debbie Harry got him name-checked in their 1981 hit “Rapture” – and Freddy appeared in the song’s music video alongside up-and-coming artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Richard Hambleton were key in moving graffiti into a conceptual, rather than literal approach. Punk culture was also adopting graffiti into their ethos. Stencil use became more prevalent and soon you could see feminist and anarchist messages alongside punk rock band names.
As time passed, the 1990s brought graffiti art a newfound legitimacy with artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy. Fairey’s art emerged from skateboard culture was more known for sticker campaigns (most notably, OBEY: Andre the Giant Has a Posse), and he would eventually become known for creating a series of posters supporting Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run, particularly the iconic “HOPE” image. Banksy is perhaps the most famous street artist of today and was influenced by 80s French stencil artist Blek le Rat. Banksy produced a documentary, “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, which was nominated for an Oscar.
By definition, graffiti is public art and there has always been a hierarchy and culture of earned respect among artists. It also has an element of subversion and pure creativity. Our Graffiti Capsule collection is meant to capture a bit of that subversive feeling and challenge the norm.
Lead image credit: New York Amsterdam News