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

CHAPTER 5. Bombin' (calligraphy - lettering)


“I am not a graffiti artist, I am a graffiti Bomber!

The point for me is not the biggest or most beautiful, it is having a piece on every (train) carriage.”


- CAP -

(Style Wars 1982)"



Getting up, tagging, and bombing are all terms applied to the practice of writing your name in as many locations as possible, demonstrated in the story of Spanish Harlem, TAKI 183 and of the Philadelphia pioneers. Despite being almost 5 decades later, the aims and culture remains largely unchanged and can be seen reflected in populated areas all across the globe to the present day.


Writing your name as graffiti is a way of making your mark on the city, being seen, known and recognised. To a graffiti writer it invokes a sense of pride, knowing others are seeing your name, recognising that they have seen you before somewhere. Paradoxically graffiti writers enjoy the mystery of their anonymity. Writers wanted to have their tags seen and for their name to recognised across the city. Often seen by society as being created with an anti-social or criminal intent, as intimidation or to a destructive end; writing your name as graffiti is simply a statement of one’s existence.  We might compare the motives of graffiti writing with Social Media today; It was something people spent a great deal of time and effort doing in order to raise their profile and make a name for themselves. There was a social aspect to writing as the writing community grew. Writers would share pictures and sketches with other writers and meet in key locations. Indeed writing was only anti social should you not be part of the society in which it was taking place. As an artistic product, contrary to the common notion these marks are mindless scrawling, the stylised writing is the reflection of creative self expression born from a process of practiced background reproduction, trail and error, with a view of achieving pleasing aesthetics and perfection of a style. The signatures attempt to communicate as much information as possible in an opportune moment. If it was an attempt at simply being destructive, there are much simpler, more effective ways to express negative behaviour or harm society. A Graffiti writer would admit to painting on a train but argue the case should they be accused of smashing windows or causing damage. If the motive is to simply paint, it is in their best interest to be in and out with as little disturbance as possible.


When spray paint was applied to graffiti writing, it changed the way people would write. The natural way for a human being to write or draw is by being stood against a surface. This is the behaviour we see in small children who we would say, when they write on the wall “they don’t know any better”. Writing or drawing sat at a table is a learnt behaviour, as such writing on a vertical surface becomes a much more expressive way to write  which involves motion and imparts more freedom to the form of the strokes.


Spray paint is not made for writing. The wider stroke created by aerosol means  the size of the characters must increase for the writing to be legible. This was the original purpose of using aerosol paint as opposed to a marker pen. The writers needed to paint bigger to stand out as the competition grew fiercer. The adoption of Aerosol paint as a medium for writing was to enable it to be read. To create a signature that could be seen from or on a passing train. From the bus on the street, or on the street from the bus. Size provides definition.



At this point it is necessary to explain the significance and methodology of writing on trains. this practice was born in New York, however it also has history connected with vagrants of all types travelling across the United States. The New York Subway was the mode of transport used by the young people who were writing graffiti at the time. It could really be considered as an ingenious way to publish their work as graffiti writers. They wanted as many people to see their name as possible, so as well as writing it on every street, and at every station; it was more effective just to write their name on a train which would then carry the signature across the city for them. That was the aim of targeting trains and locations which could be seen from transport routes. If you were to write your name with a sharpie on a signal box, it would be too small to be seen by the commuters. If you wrote your name on the side of a train with a marker it would only be seen when the train stopped at a station. If you write your name in spray paint in these same scenarios, the signature could be seen from the train, on the train and from the street as the train passes. The intention wasn’t damaging trains specifically, but to use the train as a vessel to carry your work. It does not seem like a revolutionary concept today, but in the early 70’s  it would have seemed crazy that someone was writing big letters on the side of a train just so other people could see it and recognise the name.


One common property aerosol and markers share as tools for writing is that neither require additional paint adding in order to refresh the brush and continue writing. As long as there is enough paint or ink in the container, they both produce an uninterrupted, continuously dense stroke. The same cannot be said for a pot of paint and a brush where the writer would have to keep dipping the brush in the paint in order to keep writing. This meant that the characters could be amplified in size. The signatures could become huge, enclosing a large surface area in a few strokes. As an incremental step by step process it is easier to understand. One might write a signature. The signature gets lost in the crowd so a person might be motivated to write larger. To add more definition the writer might make the strokes wider or draw an outline round the signature. The signature becomes filled in with a different colour and so on. After this it is only a small step to becoming basic lettering rather than writing. As writing progressed more sophisticated methodologies of writing quickly in large-scale developed to enable the practice to continue beyond the restrictions that counter graffiti practices would present. Writers had to literally throw up their pieces. Which is where we get the phrase throw up from, which is a term to describe a quick piece of lettering


Many readers without the cultural knowledge to understand the amplified forms born out of the pursuit of fame, would see these images as an eye-sore or as unsophisticated scrawling: However it was the necessity of putting up work quickly in a covert way using aerosol that was the starting point of many of the iconic visual features which are now common place, not only within graffiti or aerosol based artwork, but also seen in the work of many modern designers and illustrators. The physical form of the letters and characters were being manipulated to the aims and function of graffiti writing.


It is said that there is no such thing as an original idea in art, that everything takes inspiration from another source and develops that idea to create a new one. There was something new happening however within the fundamental application of the letter forms that created some of the features we recognise today as graffiti; The formation of letters (or any other form) within the limitations of aerosol as a medium under the restrictions that graffiti (un-permitted) imparts.


One of the greatest factors in influencing what is achievable with art is the application of new technologies. Throughout history technology has influenced the texture of paint, colours available to an artist, how brushes were constructed and hence the stroke that was achieved. The uninterrupted stroke without the need to refresh a brush with paint that aerosol offers, was also fundamental in the development of the calligraphic forms of writing we see today. These factors created calligraphic forms uninfluenced by any other western calligraphy and completely exclusive to style-based graffiti.


Standardised, machine manufactured technology such as aerosol paint and the plastic moulded nozzle inserts produce fairly uniform results and as a result carry common features. A standard aerosol nozzle produces only 3 strokes; A dot, a rounded stoke and a faded stroke where the can is pulled away from the wall.  The width of the line produced can vary from nozzle to nozzle and also can be manipulated by the distance held from the wall. In turn this effects the density of the stroke and the dispersal of the paint on the surface.



It is often said that aerosol was at the basis of this art form as it was cheap and readily available, I’m not sure this is true. What is perhaps more important is that it was concealable, relatively mess-free and applied quickly, this cannot be said in the case of paint and a brush which is impractical to carry and use in a secretive manner. There are now a variety of products on the market to enhance what you can achieve with spray paint. With the right manual techniques and process of layering any effect is possible with practice. Originally the aerosol cans used were not designed for the purpose of creating a variety of artistic effects but simply repairing the paint-work of vehicles or D.I.Y tasks; the only variable between nozzles being the width of the stroke created and the pressure of the can which projects the paint.


The limitations of aerosol paint cans with a typical cap insert and the application of art as graffiti, where an element of speed is required, is what created many of the features which are now associated with graffiti in reference to the style of art. Images such as drips, a result of over-spray with an aerosol can - once considered the sign of in-experience, now an iconic image which is manufactured as an accent feature not just by aerosol artists, but graphic designers and illustrators. The traditional ‘Flare’ effect, the ‘Dash-Dot’ highlight, ‘Forcefield’ outlines and the ‘Bubble’ style splatters have all seen the transition from being a functional by-product of graffiti to becoming stylistic as art.


If you remove either the aspect of graffiti, or the medium of aerosol, the appearance of the piece will change. No other medium really looks like aerosol paint. Marker is similar in that it shares the property of a continuous flow of stroke; but doesn’t enable the writer artist to alter the density of colour and coverage as aerosol paint does.


As a result, we will often relate art to graffiti on the basis of these visual features. If you take away the factors involved in producing work quickly as graffiti, then it allows an artist time to alter and cut back the natural stroke using layers of paint; meaning the appearance is changed again from being natural to manipulated as a stylistic feature.


So we can see HOW graffiti writing became larger in form and what assisted that process in regards to technology. But WHY might the content of graffiti writing become artistic at all?



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