Graffiti Art and Street Art:
The Evolution from Underground to New Media Art Form
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Graffiti Art and Street Art: The Evolution from Underground to New Media Art Form
By Iphia Henry
Graffiti, since being embraced by mainstream culture, is now recognized as legitimate art form all over the world. Over the years the graffiti movement has evolved from gorilla style, heavily typographic etchings which was marked on public buildings, and trains and was considered as vandalism. As the public took notice, graffiti writers began to emerge and soon recognized as graffiti artists. The use of this new medium of artist expression gave birth to numerous imitators who not only expanded the movement but also went even further by inventing new application styles and techniques that increased the visual complexity of each new graffiti installation. By the 1990’s graffiti art, otherwise known as street art was being viewed in galleries all over the world and in the early 2000’s new experimental forms of graffiti began to emerge, like Bio- Graffiti.
Graffiti is the informal application of a medium onto a surface. The plural form, “Graffito” is the name for images or letters scratched on a wall. Graffiti is any form of public sketch that may appear in the form of simple written words to large-scale elaborate wall paintings. As stated before, use of the word has developed to consist of any type of graphics applied to a public surface. In many cities and suburbs such applications are deemed as vandalism. Graffiti, street art, or urban art is an art form that is limitless, and rebels against more conventional forms of contemporary art. Until most recently, graffiti is predominantly recognized to be utilized by political activists to make daring statements or by street gangs to mark their territory. In these modern times, it is closely related to underground Hip Hop and B-Boy culture, even though it actually pre-dates the urban underground movement. The evolution of Street Art is derived from Graffiti and is considered a predecessor of the art form.
Historically, in ancient times the term graffiti was referenced to wall carvings, figure drawings, inscriptions found on the walls of ancient ruins. According to the article, Graffiti Art History & Famous Graffiti Artists, found in ArtHistoryGuide.com; the first known instance of graffiti exists in Ephesus, an ancient Greek city that is now modern day Turkey. Quotations from famous literature have also been found scratched on the walls in the city of Pompeii. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius preserved graffiti etched on the walls in the ancient Roman city. Some examples of Roman carved graffiti works can be found in Egypt’s wall and monuments.
In recent history, in 1904 a magazine called Anthropophyteia was the first to focus on graffiti, which was referred to at the time as Toilette Graffiti. During the 1920’s Nazis also used graffiti, writing on walls, as part of their propaganda campaign to stir up hatred towards Jews and nonconformist. Another historical record of graffiti was during World War II, where a graffiti tag of “Kilroy was here” was disseminated around war torn Europe by American troops. According to subwayoutlaws.com, “Kilroy worked in a Detroit bomb plant where, after inspecting a bomb he would write in white chalk “Kilroy was here” on the side. The bombs were shipped throughout war torn Europe and “Kilroy was here” gained fame. As American forces took back towns from the Germans, soldiers etched “Kilroy was here” on whatever wall was left standing.” Please note that while researching this topic I came across many suggested derivations of the origins of “Kilroy was here”. Due to this the explanations provided regarding the origins of this particular World War II phenomenon is debatable.
During the last 40 years, many may argue that modern graffiti was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the 1960’s. Created by two street artists who went by the alias CORNBREAD and COOL EARL. They tagged their names through out the city gaining notoriety. By the late sixties, this avant-garde gorilla art form had flourished and gave birth to new writers from Washington Heights, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Shortly after Darryl McCray aka CORNBREAD, who is now known as the “father of modern graffiti” exploded on the scene, a new breed of artists was emerging from Washington Heights. The New York Times took notice in July 1971, with a small profile about a graffiti artist named TAKI 183. The article ran on the front page of its inside section, titled “Taki 183” Spawns Pen Pals. TAKI 183 was the alias of a Greek kid from 183rd Street in Washington Heights. TAKI was the nickname for his given name Demetrius and 183 was the number of the street where he lived. His hobby was basically to write or tag his nickname and street number around New York. TAKI was by no means the first writer, however he was the first to be recognized by the news media. Even though mainstream media was acknowledging this new art form, it was still rather esoterical. In a 2010 interview posted in I Love Graffiti Magazine, TAKI 183 explained, “I think we were calling it writing, but if we saw a subway car we would say, “Let’s go hit the car.” If you hit it from end to end, you’d “kill the car”— that was how we talked Part of the reason it became big during the summer of ’70 is because I was going to summer school at George Washington High School and my desk was full of graffiti. I had written my name and all these people would write on my table also. I already had a name and people were meeting me and they would go out and write. That was the big summer I was working as a messenger. I was in a lot of places and I just kept writing; as long as I had a marker I’d keep writing. It was addictive.” During those days and even most recently, graffiti has been attractive to young artists as an inexpensive way to gain notoriety and express themselves. TAKI 183’s method led to numerous copycats. The design style was very simplistic in execution and at the time was not influenced by the contemporary art world. Graffiti art has nothing to do with formal creative identity or fine art, but is purely about branding. Notoriety was attained either through mass coverage or through executed style. According to Cedar Lewisohn’s Street Art, “ Street art is more about interacting with the audience on the street and the people, the masses. Graffiti isn’t so much about connecting with the masses: it’s about connecting with different crews. Most Graffiti you can’t even read, so it’s really contained within the culture that understands it and does it. Street art is much more open. It’s an open society”.
While this new developing form of expressionism continued to grow, more graffiti artist began to use marker pens, aerosol spray cans, industrial spray paint, acrylics and stencils, to express themselves more as artists. The art, which began to emerge, was mostly mixed, mash of borrowed artistic elements from mass culture. Since most of these artists were not formally trained, their works where heavily influenced by cartoons, mainstream pop culture, manga and typography. By the end of the 1970’s the mainstream art world began embracing this new media. Art dealers and collectors were also taking notice and Graffiti works were being displayed in art galleries. American graffiti artist such as Lee Quinones and FAB 5 FREDDY graffiti works were being showcased in art galleries in across Europe.
FAB 5 FREDDY aka Frederick Braithwaite is an African American Hip-hop historian, Hip-hop pioneer and famous graffiti artist. Frederick got his name by graffiti “bombing” the number 5 trains on the Interborough Rapid Transit system in Brooklyn, New York. During the 1980’s FAB 5 FREDDY become one of the key influential street artists who brought the graffiti movement to the mainstream. He is well known for his famous cartoon style depictions of giant Campbell’s Soup cans, painted on subway trains, which was homage to Andy Warhol. FAB 5 FREDDY states that he started as a graffiti writer then evolved to producing more contemporary art, which then lead to creating pieces for film and television. His acceptance and contributions in the contemporary art world was a fundamental step that aided the evolution of graffiti art from the streets to new media art realm.
Claus Winkler, SEAK, is noted as being the most famous and influential German graffiti artist in the contemporary graffiti and street art movement. According to a short biography in Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents, “In 1984, he saw a bombed wall of some pieces of a spider and a robot with letters, which made a lasting impression on him. It was not until 1992 that he began creating his own murals. He started out with flat letters then developed his own style with light effects.” He is known for his biomechanical, almost organic appearance of his deconstructed letters. Through out his work, SEAK uses the technical style of sfumato; which is a smoky type of chiaroscuro that contrasts the use of light colors and the darker colors hence giving his work a three-dimensional appearance.
Another graffiti artist who has contributed to the mainstream acceptance and appreciation of graffiti is German graffiti artist Mirko Reisser, who works under the name DAIM. Reisser first started spray painting in 1989 and has since developed his astonishing 3 dimensional heavily stylized art creations. He was inspired by the vivid surreal pieces created by Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali and Van Gogh’s’ play on light and shades. Due to his astonishing 3D works that appear to literally expand from the walls, DAIM is now one of the most sought-after graffiti artists in the world. He has even appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records for his artistic achievements.
Graffiti has also infiltrated into the realm of graphic design. French graffiti crew 123Klan are artist whose graffiti installations meld the two worlds. 123Klan was founded by husband and wife Scien and Klor in 1992. In 1994 the crew got into graphic design, creating works inspired by London based graphic designer, Neville Brody. Through out the 90’s, they started to apply graphic design techniques to their graffiti pieces. The style that they developed combines ol’ school graffiti with vector graphics to create innovative installations. 123Klan crew describes their art as “when street knowledge meets technology and graffiti melds with graphic design”.
Another tread in the evolution of graffiti is Bio Graffiti, Grass Art or Green Graffiti. There is not much information regarding this new media, as this graffiti application method appears to be in its infancy. Edina Tokodi, aka Mosstika, is a Hungarian born artist who uses “green guerilla tactics” to create Bio Graffiti. Tokodi studied graphic art and design at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts. She has been creating graffiti installations of prancing animal patterns and camouflage outgrowths that can be seen in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She has tagged walls and fences with whimsical images using living, growing moss. Most of her animal patterns designs are common in eastern European folk art. Tokodi creates fanciful scenes in moss that share both her love of nature.
Many underground graffiti artist who stay true to the traditional art form would argue that graffiti produced for mainstream media consumptions is technically not graffiti. Graffiti in its raw form is actually considered to be illegal and esoterical. Due to the transition from bombing and tagging public property to the producing of large-scale pieces for canvas and commercial use, graffiti and street art culture has made a name for itself in the art world. Graffiti has gone through a transformation, not willing to conform to contemporary art ideals, but expanding and amalgamating to other genres and techniques to create innovative, award-winning masterpieces. There are now countless websites for street art enthusiasts to view works which they many never have this opportunity to view. Websites and blogs like http://ilovegraffiti.de, www.wallbomber.com, http://www.streetartlocator.com and http://www.woostercollective.com showcases artworks from graffiti artist all over the world. Since these website depend mainly on reader submissions, the public can view and embrace the artworks while the artist can remain anonymous. Sites like www.streetartlocator.com have become far more interactive. Using geo-location technology of Google maps, the websites creators allow the public to view artwork with a street level view from anywhere in the world. Graffiti fans can also upload images for tags that they captured on their own, hence the website is constantly expanding. With the continuing evolution of Graffiti, it is evident that this once rebel art form has entered new media territory.
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