Graffiti is an age old practice that holds special significance as one of the building blocks of the hip hop culture. Though the exact starting point of graffiti cannot be established with accuracy, the 1950s are presumed to be the earliest years when graffiti art started taking shape. In the late 1960s and the whole of the 1970s, graffiti developed fast and its concept was felt in many countries.
In hip hop, graffiti began simply as a way of tagging for gangs or crews. In the 1970s, the urban art became established in subways of New York and later on it expanded to the city walls. This movement of graffiti from trains to walls was inspired partly by the efforts of the Metropolitan Transport Authority in New York to resist the art and make every attempt to eradicate it on their properties. In 1989, the authority officially declared the transit graffiti-free.
The Earliest Forms of Subway Graffiti
Subway graffiti has evolved significantly from the marker signatures also known as tags to the large and elaborate calligraphy we are witnessing today. The color effects, shading and artistic impressions slowly began to define the aesthetic in urban areas.
There are lots of hip hop artists who have made themselves famous through graffiti. Some of these artists include Black Spades from the Africa Bambaataa crew. By 1976, artists such as Lee Quinones started painting entire murals using advanced techniques.
The mainstream public were first introduced to graffiti through literature such as Subway Art, a book published by Henry Holt & Co, 1994 and Style Wars, a TV program which was first aired on the PBC channel in 1984. Soon after, the rest of the world imitated and adapted the culture and trend of hip hop graffiti. Today, there are lots of strong scenes in South America, Europe, Japan, and Australia.
For a long time, graffiti has been condemned by those in authority and even associated with violence gangs, drugs, and street crime. In many countries and jurisdictions, creation of graffiti art especially on public properties without permission amounts to a criminal offence punishable by incarceration or fines or both.
Graffiti as a Hip Hop Element
Graffiti is therefore considered one of the four elements of hip hop alongside Djing, emceeing, and B-Boying. It is a major form of creative expression which came from Bronx, New York and spread to the rest of the world. Graffiti is the visual, DJing is about musicx production and B-Boying covers the dance element.
In the early days when hip hop was still taking root, all these elements were intertwined deeply. They were often executed at the same time. However, this has changed slightly today as hip hop is commonly associated with rapping or emceeing while DJs, B-Boys, and graffiti writers are slowly fading into the background. There have been efforts to revive this and hopefully things will pick up again.
Graffiti is an urban art open to all writers regardless of their ethnicities. Initially, graffiti was for the teenagers but evidence has shown some of the hardcore writers from the 70s are still around today and going strong. Writing was inclusive and based on skill not your religion, color of your skin or anything else that didn’t translate to the pieces you made.
Graffiti is multicultural and represents the ethnic diversity of New York, the cradle city of the urban art. Still existing even today, graffiti forms a major part of the urban environment and while some see it as a representation of societal decay, to the hip hop culture, graffiti is a visual inspiration that encourages the other forms of creativity and expression.