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

CHAPTER 9. Street Art



Pictorial graffiti pre-dates written forms. I say this with confidence based on the origins of the word graffiti. Graffiti needs the modern concept of property ownership to exist. I am positive that once our ancient ancestors painted on a wall, they would have felt some kind of ownership of the site and be affronted if someone marked their territory by defacing their work. But in this scenario, who owned the cave? The victor of the impending confrontation? The same primal, hierachial conflicts still exist and created the societies in which we can now trade property and ownership for money or power and settle disputes of ownership with written, legal documents. Access to written language has been a privilege and not a right for the majority of humans until fairly recently in our history and, under some regimes, is still a freedom considered not to be encouraged. The fact graffiti is a matter of property ownership, someone must have the power to grant or withdraw permission for it to exist meaning pictorial forms would have served the same purpose of anti- establishment communication for those who were not literate and had no access to writing (the lower classes).


Artistic graffiti is not and, never has been, exclusive to New York, America or even to Hip Hop culture. What was special about the Hip Hop movement, is that it organised artistic pursuits into levels of skill and measured achievement. It made graffiti writing into a creative vocation of self promotion rather than an impromptu act of vandalism. The organisation of the elements of Hip Hop were simply a reflection of how people were communicating and expressing themselves globally. Written names were not the only form of art published as graffiti at the time. and we can see art of all manner taking to the street at the same time.


(1970) NYC born poet and artist, John Fekner, famous for installations and environmental works using stencilled slogans. John Fekner was a writer of poetry, who published his words on the streets, on location. Writing is to be read, pointless without an audience. Many of Fekners pieces would make no sense if it were not for the location they inhabited. (Expand)



In 1971 the artist, Xavier Prou visted New York and taking influence from the art on the street he took these ideas back to Paris. He would become known as Blek Le Rat and by the beginning of the Eighties whilst New York City was endeavouring to eradicate subway graffiti, Blek was stencilling rats aound Paris. Xavier described the rat as “the only free animal in the city” and also used the anagram of art in his name taken from a comic book called ”Blek le Roc” (ref high gloss day glow culture).


We know that young people in European cities were using graffiti as a format for art, but art applied looked different having not developed from style based writing in the way that writing did. Graffiti influenced by Hip Hop culture was stylistic and identity based. Much of the work being produced as graffiti in the rest of the world served a communicative function which was political or satirical and instead trended towards illustrated forms. The Punk movement created a wave of individuals who stencilled anarchaic slogans and band names names upon walls - Comparable in motive to identity based graffiti, it did not wholly serve the function of being an attack on the system, but also enabled individuals to identify themselves as being Punks and the graffiti format represented the anti-establishment ideals they held. an English art collective and punk rock band formed in 1977 promoted anarchism as a political ideology. The band used and advocated a DIY punk ethic approach to its sound collages, leaflets, albums and films. Crass would paint stencilled graffiti messages in the London Underground system and on advertising billboards, coordinated squats and organised political action. Crass promoted an anarchism which became more common in the punk- music scene. Their use of tape collages, graphics, spoken word releases, poetry and improvisation was much like the elements of Hip Hop happening at the same time. Indeed Hip Hop as creative elements not exclusive to any cultural demographic.


(1976 to 1979) Richard Hambleton, a Canadian born artist, noted for series such as Image Mass Murder and Shadow man published on the street as graffiti, labelled his work as being “Public Art”. A new generation of artists coming up within the New York City art scene during the booming market of the 1980’s; Hambletons collections on canvas such as the Marlboro Man series are often likend to “graffiti art” in form and movement. Many pieces of Hambleton’s public works were graffiti, but not in what had become the familiar guise. Using Graffiti as a format for art forcibly exposes the content on to the viewer, a public platform which enhances both the accessibility of the communicative content and communicative potential. Through public reaction or provocative placement; Location allows artists to impart further symbolism and expressive value through the illustration.


As writing made it’s journey from simple stokes to create highly specialised forms of amplified calligraphy; so would the illustrated characters become suited to the purpose of public production. Sophisticated in their simplicity, as was the calligraphic form of the throw-up. One difference that came about with the application of illustrated forms was the methodology behind the production. Whereas writers would produce their pieces freehand on location, illustrators more commonly relied on pre-production. A stencil might be cut and prepared before-hand, and the image sprayed over within a few seconds once placed in location. Posters could be illustrated or screen printed then the finished artwork taken out and pasted in position on the street. This is one of the factors which many regard as being a fundamental difference between what is considered “street art” or “public art” and being graffiti. But is there a difference?


Producing an illustration on a sticker is not graffiti, but once the sticker is placed on a surface without permission, it might be deemed so; depending on the property owners opinion. Otherwise the charge might be Fly Postering. The boundaries of what define ‘street art’ are non existent and like the term, graffiti, the phrase street art does not always refer to pieces, where you might expect to see them - on the street. It is not uncommon for a street artist to get large commissions, see street art exhibitions in galleries, on canvases, in clubs on clothing. Does this sound familiar?


Visually and culturally, Street Art and Graffiti are considered to be different things. Wrongfully defined by style or the production method. However there seems to be a tolerance towards the title Street Art that Graffiti has never fully gained. Regardless of form, media or culture, the difference is only permission. If we remove all labels, what we can still see as being the unifying factor is that it was unsolicited art on the streets, and it was happening in communities across the World simultaneously.


Within Hip Hop, Fab 5 Freddy and Futura 2000 took the art of Writing to Paris and London as part of the New York City Rap Tour in 1983, inspiring more young people to take it up. All around the world the processes of expansion that New York had seen in graffiti was taking place. People started tagging, inspired by New York graffiti artists and the course of events repeated themselves. People would write their names where ever they would go. In large cities across the UK, France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, graffiti writing was exploding. The competitive nature of Tagging gave birth to a 3rd generation of graffiti writers, but this time the writers were already knowledgeable about Hip Hop culture, they had all seen style wars, they had all read Subway Art and started doing graffiti, with artistic intent.


Many illustrators and graphic artists would find fame through a graffiti format, the most widely recognised name being the stencil artist, Banksy. Hip Hop influenced the careers of many popular musicians at the time including Robert Del Naga a member of the band Massive Attack who goes by the name 3D and Drum and Bass DJ, Goldie. Both of whom wrote graffiti and appeared in the UK graffiti documentary, Bombing. Banksy is an example of how Hip Hop influenced graffiti artists to explore the communicative art outside of writing. He is also a prime example of the acceptance of graffiti under the title of street art. A popular enigma who still remains anonymous to many, producing illegal work and often seen as the face of graffiti and street art in the mainstream arena.

There are many artists who have manipulated the style of illustration to a graffiti format; Futura, The London Police, Akroe, Flying Fortress and Swoon. There are also those who stepped away from the realms of drawing and painting into relief work and installations such as Space Invader and ZASD.


The affect modern graffiti production has had on art is in form and accessibility. Every form and discipline can be applied as graffiti, has been applied as graffiti and as such, has seen a manipulation in its forms, influenced by graffiti production. The label of street art offered the legitimacy and justification which the phrase graffiti never possessed. It acknowledged artistic content whereas graffiti insinuated criminality. As we enter the mid nineties we would start to see ever more diverse mediums used  for street art.


Meanwhile efforts were still being made to combat art under the label graffiti.


What’s in a name?...


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