The History of Graffiti and Hip Hop, Graffiti Research by All Weather Artist Rik Cheetham

CHAPTER 3. Dr King's Legacy


"A brief explanation as to

why graffiti writing became artistic?"


It is not the case that one day someone decided to paint artistic graffiti and then a movement was born.  Movements begin with a group of people who reflect the same behaviours, attitude and subject matter through similar means. Graffiti art as a whole, encapsulates most, if not all the characteristics of all previous art movements in it’s visual content. We could say, there is usually a cultural or sociological  theme or motivation behind groups of people starting to express a topic via art whether in a graffiti format or not. However we also know that not all individuals within a movement or genre of art hold the same principles, this is evident in the emergence of Surrealism from Dada.


Popular history tells us that modern graffiti’ roots are in New York and as such that is where the attention of study has been focused and the documented evidence that exists commonly is presented to support this. But what being is chronicled within a  graffiti context is sub-culture and not documented in real time by the authors or the creators of documentaries. So when we hear about something happening through the press or any other media, it has already happened or been happening for some time until it becomes visible or recognised in the mainstream channels.


People have been writing graffiti for millennia. In the 20th century there are many examples of graffiti being the expressive format for various groups of people with shared experiences or motives. During the first and Second World Wars, many troops would write and paint  or draw on the walls where ever they were, offering a theraputic relief from the reality of being on the front line,  facing death and destruction at any given moment.

The trio, known as the East Los Streetscapers, were pioneers of the Chicano Mural Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s

After WW2, American troops based all over the world would write “Kilroy was here” with an accompanying illustration which is synonymous with graffiti to this present day. (Background of Kilroy) After the death of Saxophonist  Charlie Parker, graffiti began appearing stating “Bird Lives” around New York and further afield in celebration of his musical influence.  “Free Huey” a reference to Black Panther activist Huey Newton and the phrase “Dick Nickson before he Dicks you”. During the general strike in Paris in May 1968, the city was dubbed with slogans and illustrations, stating “L’ennui est contre-révolutionnaire” (“Boredom is counterrevolutionary”). The Chicano movement was fuelled by art which countered political propaganda, an influence that would be seen later within the Puerto Rican community in New York. The motives behind these political  examples are clear. I’m sure if we were to look at any form of rebellion or cultural conflict, graffiti will have been used to rally troops or spread propaganda. Of course it is only graffiti if it expresses a counter government argument. If it were pro-government it would be an act of patriotism or resistance. But the phenomenon of modern graffiti writing has a different feeling to all the expressively rebellious protest formats of the past. To understand how graffiti writing evolved into what we now imagine in an artistic sense, it is important to look back to a point where this evolution was taking place. Untouched by the destruction and subsequent redevelopment left by WW2 in many of the large European cities; The United States was still very much effected by the economic implications of paying for a War in Europe, in the pacific and in Vietnam. Veterans were returning to face unemployment and undiagnosed PTSD. In the cities drug use was on the rise and crime rates were high. Redevelopment was slow and the housing conditions were poor. The old landscapes of New York and Philadelphia would not only make it possible for graffiti to exist, but also later to be a perfect example of a landscape in which graffiti could flourish and evolve into what we see today in all large inner city areas around the globe. Philadelphia exhibited a strong graffiti writing scene throughout the 1960’s with famous names such as CORNBREAD, COOL KLEPTO KID, COOL EARL and CHEWY.



The artistic history of this period between 1970 and 1985 is already well documented by the witnesses who were there to give a first hand account in documentaries such as Style Wars and films like Wild Style. These movies captured this movement once it was already established and making its transition into the mainstream featuring some of the early names and faces. However, with this in mind; what is presented in this Chapter is not an account of the art being produced in an attempt to identify who did it first.  Instead, this is a brief look at external influences which allowed and assisted the development of the artistic side of writing. The technology and culture which shaped the forms and common features which we associate with the art and the name of graffiti today.


New York, by the early 70’s had seen much poverty and civil unrest, but from within those conditions came creativity and powerful communicative insight and expression. Alongside the desperate social conditions was the wealth, commercial power, bright lights, culture and new media of New York City. The social, human and psychological conditions that identity based graffiti met, were all very much present and typical of the socio-economic circumstances in inner-cities in the United States at that period.


In regards to the artistic product, what allowed or inspired people, at this time, to communicate in this way? What was present to make the leap between carving your name in your favourite tree or bench to the elaborate art we associate with graffiti today? The specific events, influences and technology which allowed graffiti to be created and evolve artistically have strong roots in New York. With limited opportunities and low employment in the inner city it would never have been considered at the time that these conditions would give birth to one of the most influential, musical and artistic movements of the 20th century. By visiting the documented evidence of graffiti in New York at this time and investigate the technological (ability to create graffiti) and cultural influences (content of graffiti) at this time, it provides us with a chain of events which intensified the acceleration the transition of graffiti writing being with artistic intent.



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