As primitive forms of graffiti we can consider the wall writings and paintings dating back to Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire and Ancient Greece.
The beginning of the street art movement was in the early 1960, but we can talk about graffiti even before that, in 1920s and 1930s, when “street gangs” were painting the sides of subway trains and buses in New York City. According to the urban legends, it seems that the roots of the street art movement have been in Washington Heights, Manhattan’s upper west side. The street artists were signing their artworks with their names and the name of their street, which usually in Manhattan is a number (ex. Sixty-eight street). Names as “TAKI 183” or “TRACY 168” were borne. The desire to create art on the street has spread to other area of New York as Bronx, where graffiti art was signed “LEE 163”, and in Brooklyn where it was signed “FRIENDLY FREDDY”.
The art that changed the look of NYC
An important turn-up in the graffiti art was in 1949, when Ed Seymour invented the aerosol paint, “a small can of paint packaged with an aerosol propellant and fitted with a spray head”. Soon after, “STAY HIGH 149” (Wayne Roberts) has changed the look of graffiti on the walls by adding to the usual words, “ornaments like stars, crowns, arrows and even characters that would soon become legendary and meaningful”. In no time, the trains of NYC became unrecognizable, being painted “top-to-bottom in a raging war for style recognition”.
1968, inside a subway train, NYC
Seen has been known as “The man who invented modern graffiti”, and his style even playful and changing made his work easily recognizable. “Graffiti is my life, always has been and always will be!”, has declared Seen aka The Godfather of Graffiti. Seen was using multiple layers of paint, combined with soft areas, and his technique of spraying paint on trains and overlapping structures was perfectly lined up. He didn’t have any problem in creating shapes and forms intersecting each other.
“For me the transition was rapid, one minute we were bombing trains and living the culture, and the next minute boom.”, used to say Futura (Leonard Hilton McGurr), who begun painting illegally in NYC’s subway, in the early 1970s. In the early 1980s, he realized a show at the Fun Gallery, along with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton.
The Boom of Street Art in the 1970s and 1980s
In 1966, Cornbread and Cool Earl, graffiti artists from Philadelphia, begun writing their names throughout the city and captured the attention of the media. A year later, the new style invaded the New York City.
“The impact of this subversive culture was extraordinarily felt in the 1970s and 1980s”, when “young people” took the matter into their own hands and “the battle for meaning” started an art movement as a result of the economic, social and political aspects of that period of time. It was also the start of the hippie movement, when everything was possible and somehow some individuals felt free to do what they wanted, even to paint with color spray train cars and building walls; for them, it didn’t matter that their action was against the law.
Train on a 6th Avenue Station in NYC fully covered with graffiti in 1970 © Richard Sandler
Graffiti labeled as “Urban Art”
In 1980, all the Graffiti scribbles have been “labeled as Urban Art”. It didn’t matter it was against the law and considered as a felony, “illegal and clandestine aspects are inspiring a great number of artists”, who have found a humoristic approach to the subjects represented in their art. New techniques have evolved as the use of stencils.
At the beginning of the 90s the street art became more and more well known by the citizens. “New types of signature appear. Writing then abstraction, and now concept”. Street Art started to incorporate multiple techniques, and graffiti and spray paint were forgotten for real painting skills and professional artists. And not only photographs found the way to capture and displace “street art into different contexts”. The cities’ art councils started to support the street art movement “recruiting graffiti artists to make murals” and in this way they use an “artistic shield against street vandalism”. And is how “an illegal activity, a process of creation through destruction began its evolution into numerous forms of artistic expression which found its way to galleries and the global art market”.
Even “still subversive, and in its large part an illegal movement”, getting involved artists plus the city halls, art organizations and private individuals to sponsor the artists , “street art earned its place in the contemporary art world”. Little by little this “subcultural phenomenon gained the attention and respect in the ‘grown-up’ world”, and become a form of “true artistic expression”.
Common Threads by Meg Saligman (1999), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. ©Tom Crane
Philadelphia, the World’s Capital of Murals
Today, the street art escaladed to masterpieces in special in Philadelphia where the visitor can admire thousands of amazing oversized murals. We can talk about of a “complex interdisciplinary forms of artistic expression”. Starting from “graffiti, stencils, prints and murals, through large-scale paintings and projects of artistic collaboration, to street installations, as well as performative and video art”, the street art cut its way “into the core of contemporary art”.
From the 60s until today and going through a lot of transformation street art won its place as an open-air museum, and today there are city tours of murals (street art), showing that “there is a future in the movement”.
Philadelphia Muses by Meg Saligman (1999), located at 13th and Locust streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania © Steve Weinik
Golden, J., Robin, R., & Kinney, M.Y., Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.