Graffiti: Hip Hop Culture and Graffiti Today
An age old practice, graffiti holds special significance as one of the elements of hip hop culture. Graffiti as an urban art form has existed since at least the 1950s, but began developing in earnest in the late 1960s, and flourished during the 1970s.
Graffiti in hip hop began as a way of "tagging" for one's crew/gang, and developed during the 1970s on the subways of New York, and later expanded to the city walls themselves. This movement from trains to walls was encouraged by the efforts of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority to eradicate graffiti on their property (the M.T.A. officially declared the transit graffiti-free in 1989).
The first forms of subway graffiti were quick spray-painted or marker signatures ("tags"), which quickly evolved into large elaborate calligraphy, complete with color effects, shading, and more. As time went by, graffiti artistically developed and began to greatly define the aesthetic of urban areas. Many hip hop crews have made a name for themselves through their graffiti such as Afrika Bambaataa's Black Spades. By 1976, graffiti artists like Lee Quinones began painting entire murals using advanced techniques.
The book Subway Art (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1984) and the TV program Style Wars (first shown on the PBS channel in 1984) were among the first ways the mainstream public were introduced to graffiti. Quickly, the rest of the globe imitated and adapted hip hop graffiti. Today, there are also strong scenes in Europe, South America, Australia and Japan.
Graffiti has long been villianized by those in authority and allegedly associated with gangs, violence, drug culture and street crime. In most jurisdictions, creating graffiti art on public property without permission is a criminal offense punishable by fines and incarceration.
So, graffiti is considered one of the four elements of hip hop (along with emceeing, DJing, and B-Boying). These were the four major forms of creative expression that came from the Bronx, NY and spread to the rest of the world. Graffiti represented the visual, emceeing and DJ produced the music, and B-Boying was the dance. In the early days of hip-hop, all of these elements were deeply intertwined. Graf artists were very often B-boys and emcees and DJs as well. At the hottest parties, you might see a writer doing his thing on a wall while the DJ spins and scratches, the emcee revs up the crowd, and the B-boy battling each other on the dance floor.
Hip hop nowadays is mostly centered around the emcee (or rapper), since the it's the emcee that sells product (in the form of CDs) that the music industry can sell. Graf writers, B-boys, and DJs have faded somewhat into the background, but there's a movement trying to bring them back, which you can see in music videos featuring more dancers, graf writers, and a greater spotlight on DJs who are the ones actually making the beats.
Graffiti was done by writers of all ethnicities. They tended to be young (teenagers, mostly) but some of the hardcore writers from the 70s are still going strong today. Writing was inclusive...if you had the talent. It was based on skill, not the color of your skin, your religion, or anything else that didn't translate to the pieces you made. Graffiti is multicultural, representing the ethnic diversity of New York, the city that spawned it. Hip hop has changed, and has moved far beyond the Bronx, but many of hip hop's founding fathers hope that it can remain a powerful multicultural force in spite of all the commercialism and marketing that surrounds it now.
Graffiti existed (and still exists) as a major part of the urban environment. Young rappers growing up and wandering the city streets still see graffiti all around them. For some, graffiti represents decay, but for hip hop culture, graffiti provided the visual inspiration that encouraged other forms of creativity and expression, such as emceeing. Maybe you don't have to know about every element of hip hop in order to be part of the culture, but you do have to know about it if you want to know what inspired some of the best the hip hop artists of today--who grew up surrounded by graffiti, learning the moves of the best b-boys, and rocking to the beats of the freshest DJs.
Graffiti is an important and powerful artform, and this document is dedicated to all the graf writers out there, past, present, and future.