Contemporary Art – Graffiti

Contemporary Art – Graffiti

“We didn’t call ourselves graffiti writers, society called us that… We call ourselves bombers, we don’t care about you, we’re like the military – we’re into killing, burningRammellzee – Graffiti writer, visual artist, performance artist, hip hop musician, art theoretician and sculptor from New York City. Late 1960’s – June 27, 2010. From the documentary video – Bomb it!

Origins and history

The word graffiti comes from the Italian word graffito, meaning ‘a little scratch’. Graffiti is writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed, often illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place. It can range from simple written words to elaborate paintings and has existed for thousands of years.  Long ago, civilisations scrawled and painted images on cave walls. Romans wrote on the walls of buildings in cities they conquered, and in ancient cities such as Pompeii graffiti has been discovered in various forms, from political slogans to obscene drawings. Graffiti was also used as a propaganda tool by all sides during the Second World War.

World War II could be seen as the starting point for what we recognise as graffiti art today. “Kilroy was here” became a popular American expression, along with a drawing of a bald-headed man peering over a wall. This may have originated when American soldiers drew the image and text on the walls of places they visited during the war.


Engraving of Kilroy on WWII Monument – Washington D.C.

Early Graffiti Artists

Darryl McCray was born in north Philadelphia in 1953. His name on the streets was ‘Cornbread’ and he is often referred to as the worlds first graffiti artist. He started off ‘tagging’ or writing his name in Philadelphia in 1967. During his time in a juvenile reform centre, he kept getting into trouble for asking for cornbread instead of regular white bread, so the name stuck and he used to write it all over the walls of the institution. Everybody talked about his name in the jail, so he figured if they were talking about his name all over the jail they would talk about his name all over the street. That’s exactly what happened and the more people talked about his name the more he wrote. His brother Lorenzo McCray supported this statement saying that his name just grew and grew, becoming a household name. He would draw a crown above his name and underneath write ‘King of the walls’. In 1971 a friend of his ‘Cornelius Osei’ got killed and the press mistook the name for his, announcing his death in the newspapers. In response to this misinformation, Cornbread went to Philly zoo and tagged everywhere inside the zoo including the elephant. Not surprisingly he got put in prison for his actions.


Darryl McCray – Cornbread, World’s first graffiti writer. The Originators Newsletter.

Names, Numbers and Newspapers

By 1971 New York was rapidly becoming known as the graffiti capital of the country, the title Philadelphia had held for years. Something that really set things in motion for this new form of visual expression was an article in the New York Times in July 1971 about  a young Greek man called Demetrius, or ‘Taki 183’. The numbers you see after the names of graffiti writers often refer to their street, building or school. He was from 183rd street, Northern Heights, Manhattan and worked as a messenger. His job allowed him to travel all over the city, on trains, buses or just walking, and he could write his name wherever he went. He ‘hit’ the East side a lot, and guessed that was where he gained more notoriety as most newspapers or magazines had offices there. He saw how he made graffiti more popular simply by being at the right place at the right time. There was already a ‘writing’ movement, but the newspaper hyped it up overnight by publishing the article.


New York Times article on Taki 183

The growth and essence of the graffiti movement

During this time New York City was in a bad way, and many young people needed  something to do. They were subjected to poverty and lived in run down neighbourhoods. This everyday life gave many the attitude of ‘to hell with everything, I’m just gonna do my thing – bomb the system’, and they would write, write, write! The expression graffiti gave many young people was like, ‘I’m here, I exist, look at me, hello world’!

The very essence of the graffiti movement is all about the signature or the tag of the writer. But that grew to something bigger, somebody grabbed a can of spray paint and said this is better. There are many terms used to describe the different forms and styles of graffiti. Pieces get more elaborate and can be in different styles. The whole art form is based on lettering. Wild Style is be a good example of this, started by Michael Tracy, ‘Tracy 168’. The name was a combination of two words that described how he lived. He defined them by saying the word ‘Wild’ meant – ‘Don’t tell me how to live unless you’re ready to die for me’ and ‘Style’ as ‘class, you respect me, I respect you’. Together they were ‘what I live like, who I am’. Some consider Wild Style a way of life, not just a form of graffiti. Wild Style is usually taking letters and transforming them so much that it can be difficult for non-graffiti artists to recognise. This style could also mean writing pieces in places other writers wouldn’t dare go.


Tracy 168 – Wild Style. Photo Michael Tracy

A Move to the High End Galleries

Jean-Michel Basquiat was among the few graffiti artists who made the transition from the streets to art galleries. Basquiat began his career as a graffiti artist in New York City, before jumping into fine art. He used the pseudonym ‘SAMO’ as a graffiti artist, and often drew on random surfaces and objects. His graffiti work often had political and poetical overtones. He is considered to be one of the most influential artists in the 21st century and was good friends with Andy Warhol, another influential artist of our time.


Jean-Michel Basquiat painting ”Punch Bag”, St. Moritz, 1983. Photo Lee Jaffe.

Basquiat and Warhol often collaborated, mainly during 1984 and 1985, but this was never well received in the art world. They had a great influence on each others work, however, unlike Basquiat, Warhol never did drugs, and he was appalled and fascinated by Basquiat’s overuse. They remained friends until the death of Warhol, in 1987. This event had a great affect on Basquiat, and soon after his depression and drug addiction began to spiral until his death in August 1988.

Female Writers

Young women participated in writing graffiti from its earliest days, but have always been in the minority. Many women involved in the scene have proven time and again that they are highly capable, and have equal if not greater skills as writers than many of their male counterparts. In this spray paint culture, women face many obstacles not encountered by men. The late hours and remote and desolate locations in which most writing is done can be particularly dangerous for women. As in many male-dominated fields the social environment can be extremely harsh. Female graffiti writers are often subjected to all kinds of harassment. As in many other areas, women have to struggle for respect for their achievements.

During the early 1970’s women involved in the scene were writers like Brooklyn’s ‘Stony’ and ‘Cowboy’. ‘Grape’ and ‘Charmine’ were also early female writers. Probably the most prolific of the time period were Manhattan’s ‘Barbara 62’ and ‘Eva 62’. These women would ‘bomb’ streets, public parks and subway stations with as much vigour as men. The mid to late 70’s saw very few young women making consistent efforts on the streets and subways of New York. ‘Lil Love 2’ of Manhattan would occasionally accompany her brother Lee (Quinones) to the lay-ups. However, in 1979 ‘Lady Pink’ came into prominence and would become the most enduring and accomplished female figure in the history of writing to date.


New York subway car with Lady Pink artwork, 1983. Photo by Lady Pink.

The new breed of female writers shows a level of commitment rarely seen in earlier generations. These women are involved in bombing, burners, roller letters and tagging on the streets of New York City. With the globalisation of aerosol art in the 80’s many women across the planet pursued careers as writers. MICKEY of Holland and BLUE of Sweden have made significant strides and are now a part of the New York writing scene, writing for the Fantastic Partners crew.

It is to the credit of all previous generations of women that they thrive in a somewhat misogynistic ‘boys club’ culture.


Today Graffiti as contemporary art is widely recognised around the globe. There are many exhibitions and galleries worldwide dedicated to the celebration of graffiti as an art form.  However, graffiti is still illegal in many countries and is seen as criminal damage to property and businesses. While those in favour applaud graffiti, the authorities and those against are still calling it an increasing problem and a menace to society.




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