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

CHAPTER 4. Taggin' (calligraphy)


"A brief explanation as to

why graffiti writing became artistic?"


Since the 1960’s name based graffiti has been the prominent form of graffiti in our cities. Educator and writer, Herbert Kohl, grew up in the Bronx and published a study called “Names, Graffiti and Culture” in the April Issue of Urban review in 1969. Using photos by James Hilton, Kohl documented young people in Spanish Halem, writing their names and street numbers on walls in their neighbourhood. Even in these early years Kohl noted that this “complex cultural phenomenon”, was different from other types of gang graffiti, wanton vandalism or traditional proclamations of love - Kohl studied the sense of identity and community demonstrated in what was a formalized pattern of nicknames accompanied by street numbers, which as a Bronx native, might have seemed a common feature in the city.

In almost every account it is said that Manhattan was the first borough in New York where writing names on walls had started,  but it was not limited to New York. In 1971,  articles appeared in both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times relating to graffiti writing. Bearing in mind the media are often behind the times when it comes to street culture, it must be accepted this is only some of the earliest documented evidence of the principles and aims behind the written graffiti movement and not the date or source of its origination.


The Today Magazine in the Philadelphia inquirer May 2nd 1971, published an article by columnist Sandy Padwe. According to the author, the article was written out of journalistic intrigue after observing the names which adorned the streets. Famous writers of the Philadelphia streets such as Cornbread, Cool Earl, Kool Klepto Kidd, Chewy, Kool Bobby and Cold Duck had a reputation for writing most frequently and in the craziest places. After writing their names on a I beam they found on the ground, which then got hoisted to the 30th floor, Cool Earl and Kool Klepto Kidd went down in urban legend as having climbed up to write their names. They gained notoriety in their city and were treated as celebrities by the youth seeing their graffiti. One of the strangest stories which illustrates how for this competition went was how Cornbread was arrested at Philadelphia Zoo in the act of writing “Cornbread Lives” on the side of an elephant.



“It was illegal, but we didn’t see it like that. We saw it as something necessary to fulfil our sense of belonging in a neighbourhood which didn’t offer us a whole lot for ourselves.”





In New York, the story popularised by the documentary, Style Wars tells that a writer called ‘TAKI 183’ was the to first  individual who  brought identity based, written, graffiti element into the public eye in 1970 via putting his name up in marker where ever he would travel, known as Tagging - Once it became apparent there was an identity behind this name, ‘TAKI 183’ had become famous and many would then strive to be recognised within the city by writing their name too.

TAKI’s fame and the large amounts of individuals who had followed in his footsteps (other notable names at the time being JOE 136, BARBARA 62, EEL 159, YANK 135 and LEO 136) the culture of tagging had become so widely noticed, particularly by the transport companies who were dealing with the consequences of this seemingly new trend, that The New York Times ran an article in which TAKI was interviewed about the mass following it was claimed he had started. TAKI was an abbreviation for the traditional Greek name Demetrius and 183 was his street number. This identity had been seen all over the city:- on Broadway, Kennedy international airport, in New Jersey, Connecticut, upstate New York and on subway cars travelling the city. TAKI states in the article that when he began writing his name the summer before, there was nobody else writing similar graffiti. Whether this is true may be disputed by earlier articles such as Herbert Kohl’s studies. The question of who did it first is not as important as acknowledging that in 1971 this was happening in such concentration in New York that it had become news worthy.


These are just a couple of the most popular documented evidence of the aims of the popular written graffiti movement at this time. Many have claimed that they were writing similar Graffiti first, from L.A to murmurs in Europe at around the same point in time. So what had changed? Why were people writing their names in this manner at all?


Sociologically, spaces we inhabited had become more enclosed, living in large, built up cities and the communities we lived in became so much more densely populated and expansive. Influencing and marking your spaces would only seem more natural, but natural being the key word. Nothing had changed. Humans had always marked their spaces. It was the ability for these marks to remain seen that had changed. Technology.


Throughout history there is evidence of people writing their names in their environment. Much of what survived to later be seen was that of scratching. Scratching being the simplest permanent form of marking a surface and also a term from which the word graffiti evolved. It can be presumed many others throughout time have signed their name in the same locations, using other tools but these markings would have eventually washed away naturally. Until very recently in human history writing tools could not be used on surfaces such as concrete and steel. For the purposes of graffiti, a bucket of paint and a brush may have been the best medium however they are not practical to carry and apply secretively. Spray paint became available commercially in the 1950’s and provided a portable fairly mess-free tool for graffiti; however, it was not aerosol which was at the root of the early period of Tagging. Sidney Rosenthal, from Richmond Hill, New York, is credited with inventing the marker in 1952. Marker pens became a widely available product in the 1960’s and an ever-increasing variety of inks became available in this compact portable tool, including permanent Ink. The new indelible Ink marker not only made a whole new variety of surfaces available to write on,  it made production achievable quickly and gave a life span to the mark. Use of this new technology allowed graffiti to be seen, despite being unwanted. As the trend of Tagging grew, tags were appearing in such numbers that an attempt at cleaning became futile as more tags would simply replace those which had been reduced to inky smears by the cleaning process.


A game of “can you top this?” began. As graffiti writers were trying to out do each other, the competition for space intensified and aerosol paint was adopted to create larger, bolder forms of writing. Without the marker pen, graffiti writing would not have become common practice among young people. Spray paint may still have been used for art, but it is not an easy tool to write with. It was as a result of this competitive behaviour that aerosol started to be applied to writing and calligraphic art as the content of graffiti would develop to become largely artistic.


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