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

CHAPTER 6. Rockin' (calligraphy - lettering)


““It was an identity crisis for youth in NYC

 in the 1970s”


- Lee Quinones -

(Brooklyn Street Art)"



Some might say writing your name in marker is a world apart from the flamboyant murals that started appearing as a result of the trend of tagging in the early 1970’s.  Within the new visual frenzy, came the development of lettering styles which would no longer reflect just the calligraphic nature of tags or throw-ups and would start to display pictorial content. Huge rolling murals, some taking up full train cars. The letters being written got bigger, bolder and more colourful. They had filled in colour, full backgrounds and characters included. These amplified forms were simply a reflection of what it now took to stand out from the crowd gathering around the new graffiti boom. The competitive nature of Bombing created another level to what was being produced by writers, many referred to these as ‘master pieces’, some as panel pieces, burners or wildstyle.  The latter half of the 70’s and early 80’s saw a second wave of artists build upon what had been created previously.  However to demonstrate how quickly writing your name in a marker turned to full colour pieces, Super Kool 223 has been credited as being the first to create a full-car masterpiece as early as 1972 ,  using wider nozzles, able to fill in pieces quickly. ( We know aerosol was the technology at the heart of graffiti art, we can see and identify that in both the strokes made and the documented historical evidence. When we talk about the content of art changing (subject matter), we must also look at the cultural influences as well as the technological ones.


We have already touched upon the importance of a name to a writer. A name represents a person and as such, a personality, an individual, an ego. Writers were proud of the names they wrote so they wrote them as well as possible to represent that individual ego and pride. The anoniminity that graffiti writing provided allowed the writers to become characters, unknown heroes within the community. This need for and expression of identity and expression was being demonstrated throughout society; within the pages of comic books and popular film with heroes such as Zoro and the Green Hornet and it was also embraced within the  organisation of a culture being created with graffiti, music, dance and all forms of creative at its core which also centered around creative style. Hip Hop.


The problem with describing what Hip Hop is by writing a document, is that it does not exist in the physical sense. It is not a tangible thing, we cannot carbon date Hip Hop to say when it came into existance, it has no parameters by which we can measure it. We know what it is and recognise it in music, art and dance, even into lifestyle, fashion and point of view - for these are the expressions of Hip Hop.  Hip Hop is best described as a set of creative ideals applied to existing cultural products in order to manipulate and create something new.


Innercity New York was a boiling pot of diverse cultural influences; The Jamaican music influence brought an understanding of the manipulation of sound systems and records of carnival culture  paired with the same espanic influences of carnival and dance. The American soul, funk and disco, paired with the acrobatic manuvouers of swing dancing. The vocal scat vocal styles of James Brown and Louis Armstrong and the spoken word of Gil Scott Heron.


Uptown New York and Queens had a thriving club music scene where DeeJay’s were already competing in a musical sense. DeeJay KOOL HERC, previously known as a graffiti artist, KOOL ASS CLIVE took the parties outside at 1520 Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx. Technology was providing the means for the array of genres and influences to be merged seemlessly from one to another. Belt driven turntables were replaced by direct drives. Records were manipulated and DeeJay’s were playing extended looped sections of tracks, first by drag and drop techniques and then later by use of the cross fader, an invention by electrician and amateur DJ, “DJ Flash”. Later to become known as “Grand Master Flash”. These loops were known as the breaks. DJ’s played the breaks of a record to drive people on the dance floor, extend a record or section and assist mixing and cueing of the next record. The technique of scratching would also develop as a by-product of cuing a record in this manner.


A looped break enabled an MCee to take a greater role eventually talking rhymes and scat throughout the whole record creating what we now know as rap. Some suggest that the phrase Hip Hop came from the scat style of talking over the breaks of records as the MCee started taking a greater role in the music. The first line of the first commercially released rap record “Rappers Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang demonstrates how this might be the case - “I said a Hip Hop, Hippie to the hippie, the hip, hip a hop, and you don’t stop rocking it”. The phrase Hip Hop came about 6 years before this record and is credited to Love bug Starski in 1974 by Hip Hop scholar and MCee KRS One.


People who danced to the breaks, would become known widely as break dancers, in Hip Hop we say B-boys and B-girls - those who dance  to the breaks of a record. Visually, graffiti started to manipulate popular culture too using brand references such as characters and logos and slogans, the methodolgy of advertising media of the time for the same purposes; drawing attention of a viewer to an identity or an image. The respective participants shared the same aim of being seen, being known and utilising the best locations to do this.


Hip Hop was becoming organised as a cultural movement by pioneers like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambataa who brought the party out of the disco and on to the street with the four core principles of peace, love, unity and safely having fun. There is so much more to the story of Hip Hop, but the undelining point is that what became known as Hip Hop was happening in a big way and creating huge changes to  the way people started expressing and identifying themselves in the inner city. This influence would later echo through culture  for decades to come, from the street to the high end market.


Hip Hop embraced the concept of competing with styles. This exists and dominates all elements of Hip Hop. Comparable to improvisational styles found in Jazz, where a musician might improvise on a theme; Rocking styles is similar in principle. Projecting skill, and personal style, having pride in your name and what you can do, whether you play music, dance, rap, write graffiti - Self creation through style. Even outside of art and into sport these principles can be seen in the same neighbourhoods: Basketball in Rucker Park, Harlem was famous for the game being about style as much as points. Graffiti already had the competitive element of getting your name seen in as many places as possible. Hip Hop brought with it the principle of competing with Style.


The New York Subway trains travelled across the whole state, millions of people used the Subway everyday. Art would be produced whilst the trains were laid up over night in the yards or tunnels by graffiti writers. The work would then roll out to the public the next day. As the visual quality of the work improved many members of the public started to gain an appreciation of graffiti art, but still opinions were divided. Many thought the work on the outside of the train wasn’t nearly as damaging as the inside of the trains which were also covered in tags, created whilst people travelled on the trains. The authorities and train companies started to loose face as they felt graffiti was a sign they were loosing control of the city and started initiating campaigns to combat it. Despite the visual difference in the complexity between a large piece of painted graffiti compared to written graffiti, -  One doesn’t exist without the other. The same writers would be tagging and bombing as would be producing full car pieces. The piece had just become larger, more pictorial, and far more visual as time allowed.


Like all movements and cultures there are divides within. Not everybody holds the same principles. Similar to the rebellious and intellectual divide between Dada and Surrealism; there were those who wrote graffiti simply to bomb the city, there were those who only painted pieces in pursuit of style.  The styles born out of getting up and those who were rocking pieces existed together, but not always peacefully. The quantity of people putting work up meant full colour murals were being painted over with the calligraphic forms adopted by those trying to get their name up as much as possible. As with all forms of communication there are manners which are maintained to retain order and a right of opinion. When these protocols are not observed he quality of communication becomes progressively negative and the result is ultimately conflict. An artist would see their piece which had taken significantly more time to produce as a tag or a throw-up as being of more value. Hip Hop installed values to govern the activity - painting over a piece without stepping up to the quality was seen as disrespectful to a name or location, vandalism of art. In other words the artists had pride in what they did, where they did it, and invested much time and effort in doing it. The motive of graffiti had become postive. Neither trying to damage the surface of the reputation of those who controlled it.


Artists competed for the space they needed to be seen within the city.  Unlike the forms artists were using to get their names up quickly, the more complex pictorial pieces of lettering, were no longer shaped soley by the natural properties of an aerosol can as the calligraphic forms were. The stokes were no longer applied directly in a series of movements but were layered,  altered and worked upon to draw a stylised form. The rounded edges were cut back to create square edges and sharp lines. The main property aerosol now lent to graffiti artists was filling a large space very quickly. During this period of history the content of graffiti was shaped by the potential for art rather than the art being influenced by the limitations of graffiti.


The typical images that people associate with lettered graffiti of this time are big, bright, multi coloured fades, patterns and bold outlines. As the art grew and spread across the globe,  manufacturing of aerosol and accessories specifically for art production made any effect or colouring scheme possible to achieve, so as art,  this notion became another generalisation. However the basis of the ‘traditional’ colouring does have several influencing factors in graffiti’s humble roots.


What are the aims of graffiti? Written graffiti aims to be seen. Bright colours provide the visability required to be noticed. Especially in an urban landscape. Size and location also act to the same effect. Advertising media uses the same tactics of ‘high gloss, day glow’ cultural reflections. The visual influences absorbed daily by artists, will have played a part of forming the final effect and elements from pre-existing images would have carried through and adapted into individual styles. However it was not as simple as deciding ‘I want to paint this in these colours’ for most writers in the  70’s and 80’s. Filling a full coloured piece takes a large amount of spray paint, many of the original writers did not live in the economical position where they could go to the local art store and buy large amounts of spray paint in the colours they required. Graffiti and Hip Hop were born within poverty. Some writers stole paint . Meaning the choice they had in deciding the colour scheme might be limited. Pieces are often painted according to what is available; adapting content and combining a variety of tones was often a necessity in filling a piece.


Many colours were highly treasured in the early days of amplified styles as the paint was generally for automotive repairs; Pinks and Bright Greens not being the colour of choice for most motorists, meant they were not on the shelf of your average garage or hardware store. What was achievable within the varying width of the nozzles and application of spray paint as a medium played its part in forming the pattern styles which became iconic of this graffiti based movement. The refined styles created still reflected the original aims of graffiti writing in the form of calligraphy, yet morphed within the limitations of format, form and applied technology.


In modern society we are taught to  place  a lot of emphasis on names; We see someone who can wear a t-shirt with one name on it as being of a different class as another person with a different name on their t-shirt.  The story behind the person is not instantly apparent but the logo is. The name represents the persons lifestyle or values. This is the result of brand marketing. Brand marketing and modern graffiti have much in common; The artists created identities, a recognisable style, used large text, bright appealing colours, work was often accompanied by different recognisable cultural or brand references such as characters, slogans and lyrics. The work was placed on major transport routes and in prime viewing positions. These kids, who would not have been able to indulge in high end brands, had learnt how to market themselves large scale! Using the techniques and imagery learnt from the popular media, whose billboards competed for space on the same transport routes, in the same positions, for the same reason, they too wanted to communicate their identity clearly and had pride in their product.


I have read that IZ THE WIZ, an iconic New York graffiti writer, took inspiration for his name from a billboard, for a modern interpretation of The Wizard Of Oz, called ‘The Wiz’, the poster read: ‘The Wiz iz A Wow’. The ‘Warhol’ style soup can piece by Fab Five Freddy featured in Style Wars became an iconic piece of that era and we observed CASE checking out the poster for the ‘Beast Master’ in the same documentary. These are but a few examples of incidents documented on film of influence being taken from brand images or popular culture and applied as graffiti. The idea that Hip Hop  as a movement promoted an aspect of remixing and referencing existing popular culture can be recognised in all elements of Hip Hop.


Visual influences were all present and ever increasing in the home, on the street and in all forms of media, these were absorbed and reflected by the artists within their work.


The application of the artwork was graffiti, the objective of graffiti being to communicate, the most effective, direct and personal form of visual communication, is writing. The cultural influences on graffti being Hip Hop, popular visual media and advertising.


Labelled undesirable as graffiti but not unnoticed or ignored by the media with which it was competing as the divide between rich and poor great larger in the 80’s economy. For the first time in thousands of years the purpose of graffiti had become largely artistic and positive. No longer directly anti establishment,  the message of graffiti was no longer a tool only for political protest. So what was the message of modern graffiti, what’s in a name? The french graffiti crew, 123 KLAN summed it up perfectly with their slogan “Style is the Message!”.


Next Article >>


ALLWEATHERARTIST.COM | Art and Design Manchester | Mural Production Manchester | Murals Manchester | Graffiti Art Manchester | Interior Art Manchester | Live Art Manchester | Aerosol Artist Manchester | Art Projects and Initiatives In Manchester | Street Art Manchester | Artist Manchester | Live Art Demonstrations Manchester | Art Events Manchester | ALTO | GECKO | KEAS | 30DZ

All images, concepts and properties are copyright of Rik Cheetham or the respective clients of