Graffiti Art
Definition, Types, History of "New York Street Aerosol Art".

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Graffiti Art



Art Work

Fallen Angel (1981)
Jean-Michel Basquiat

Shop Until You Drop (2011)
Stencil graffiti. London.
By Banksy.

For definitions, meanings and
explanations of different arts,
see Types of Art.

See: Plein air Painting.

Definition, Meaning

One of the most radical contemporary art movements, "graffiti art" (also called "Street Art", "Spraycan Art", "Subway Art" or "Aerosol Art") commonly refers to decorative imagery applied by paint or other means to buildings, public transport or other property. Although it may be said to derive from Classical Antiquity or even Prehistoric times, the term essentially describes the post-1960s craze for decorating/defacing the urban environment through the use of aerosol spray paint and markers, which emerged in New York and Philadelphia and which has since developed strong links with underground hip hop culture and b-boying. The B-boys, the first exemplars of hip-hop, reportedly used graffiti art as a means of expressing their frustration with life. Using marker pens, aerosol spray cans, industrial spray paint, acrylics and stencils on all types of surfaces, their 'canvases' included subway trains, walls, industrial wastelands, subways and billboards. Although Graffiti art was (and is) common throughout Europe and Japan, its historical centre has been New York City. One should note that in most countries, this form of public art is regarded as vandalism, and is punishable as a criminal offence.

For a safer form of public expression, see Street Photography.

For an explanation of the
aesthetic issues surrounding
the creative visual arts, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For a list of the best examples of
Fine Art Painting, by the
world's top artists, see below:
Greatest Paintings Ever
Oils, watercolours, mixed
media from 1300-present.

Types of Graffiti Art

There are several ways of classifying this genre:

Street Gang Art
In the early days, graffiti art was used by gangs in LA, Philadelphia, and New York - like the Savage Nomads, La Familia, and Savage Skulls - to mark their territory.

Anarchist Street Art
Personal graffiti art - by far the largest category - is often described as the work of political or social activists, with complex cultural agendas, while sceptics maintain it is no more than anarchistic self-expression. It embraces pioneer artists such as Cornbread, Topcat 126, Cool Earl, TAKI 183, Tracy 168, and hip-hop sprayers like the celebrated Jean Dubuffet-style New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as the work of the famous UK graffiti artist known as Banksy.

Political Protest Art
This category, embracing authentic political protest, is exemplified by urban murals painted in Belfast and Derry by Protestant and Catholic protesters during the Northern Ireland Troubles, and by similar works painted on the Berlin Wall before the collapse of Soviet East Germany.

Techniques of Graffiti Art

"Tagging" refers to the simple act of applying a "tag" or signature to a surface, although these tags can be highly complex in content and calligraphic in appearance. Jean-Michel Basquiat used the tag SAMO (same old shit).

A "throw-up" is larger than a "tag" and is usually painted very rapidly in no more than two or three colours.

A "piece" (masterpiece) is a far more elaborate "tag", with greater intricacy and a wider range of colours. Although these "pieces" are often highly impressive as works of visual art, they can be obliterated in a matter of minutes by a rival graffiti artist with a simple "throw up".

A "blockbuster" or "roller", is a large block-shaped work often performed with a paint-roller and executed simply to cover a large area in order to stop other graffiti sprayers from painting on the same wall.

"Top-to-bottoms" are works of graffiti art that cover an entire subway car. These became popular among New York subway graffiti artists during the 1970s.

"Stencil graffiti", using cut-outs for the rapid creation of complex shapes, first appeared during the early 1980s, courtesy of the Parisian graffiti artist Blek le Rat and, later, Banksy.

"Wildstyle" is a more elaborate form of graffiti art, typically marked by interlocking letters and connecting points, creating a more complex, occasionally indecipherable "tag" or image.

History of Graffiti Art

The movement emerged amid a flurry of urban street protests on both sides of the Atlantic about 1968. In Europe, it arose during student protests in Paris and Berlin; in America it appeared in Philadelphia, then New York where it blossomed into a major form of urban contemporary art.

New York Street Art: 1970s

This was the main evolutionary period for creative graffiti. Competition for visibility was intense as graffiti artists struggled to put up as many tags as possible. This led to a surge of graffiti on New York subway cars, that - once painted - would carry the artist's tag across the city. Tags became more and more complex and colourful: bubble-style works gave way to designs with polka dots and crosshatches. "Pieces" and "Top-to-bottoms" appeared. In 1972, Hugo Martinez started the Razor Gallery and the organization United Graffiti Artists (UGA), to help members achieve representation in mainstream art galleries.

Meanwhile, in 1973-74, street artists began to include additional features in their works, such as cartoon characters into their work. Famous New York graffiti artists from this period included TAKI 183 (Demetrius Taki, Julio 204, PHASE 2, Cay 161, Stitch 1, Stay High 149, Super Kool 223, Joe 182, Junior 161, TF5 (The Fabulous Five), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Barbara 62 and Eva 62.

The mid–late 1970s, a period when municipal budgets for New York City had insufficient resources to combat the graffiti craze, saw a massive proliferation of the movement. Subway "top-to-bottoms" expanded to cover entire cars; "throw-ups" made their first appearance, as did the "wild style" of painting, and "all-city" artists, whose works could be seen in all five boroughs.

It was during the 1970s that graffiti art began to be strongly associated with hip hop culture, eventually becoming one of its three key elements - along with music (rapping, DJing) and dance (break dancing). By the turn of the decade mainstream art dealers (apart from Hugo Martinez) were beginning to respond: the Italian art collector and dealer Claudio Bruni staged an exhibition of works in Rome by American graffiti painters Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy.

New York Street Art: 1980s

This decade witnessed a number of developments. To begin with, it saw the appearance of the first stencil graffiti genre. Also, New York's Metro Transit Authority (MTA) decided to make graffiti eradication on the subway a top priority, causing many artists to quit writing altogether - a response further encouraged by new restrictions on the sale of aerosol spray paint, and extra street violence caused by the crack cocaine epidemic. By the late 1980s, only the most die-hard artists were still active in NYC, and in 1989, New York city authorities instigated the Clean Train Movement to remove all defaced subway cars from circulation. Although highly successful in removing traces of graffiti from the subway system, it led to a major increase in aerosol art on the streets of America. Noteworthy graffiti artists of the period included: Mike Bidlo, Blade, Blitz, Claw Money, Cope2, Crash, Daze, Dondi, Keith Haring, Jayone, Lee, Min 1, No 167, Quik, Rammellzee, Sane, Kenny Scharf, Seen, Skeme, Smith, T Kid, Toxic, Zephyr and Rhonda Zwillinger.

At the same time, it was during the 1980s that several graffiti artists made the move into conventional art venues, achieving international recognition in the process. The most famous postmodernist artists who achieved this were Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) and Keith Haring (1958-90), both of whom enjoyed meteoric rises before abruptly self-destructing - from a heroin overdose and AIDS, respectively. See also the collages and street art of New Yorker David Wojnarowicz (1954-92). Since then, a significant number of graffiti artists have achieved success in mainstream postmodernist art - including: Blade, Daze, DZINE, Futura 2000, Mike Giant, Pursue, Rime, Noah, The Mac, and in particular the 123Klan, The Badbc, and the Force Alphabetique crew.

In 1989, a Museum of Graffiti Art opened in New York.

Anti-Graffiti Programs: 1990-2010

In 1995, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani founded the Anti-Graffiti Task Force to combat graffiti vandalism in New York. Also in 1995, the sale of aerosol spray-paint cans to anyone under the age of 18 was made a criminal offence.

In Britain, the new Anti-Social Behaviour Act (2003) introduced a number of anti-graffiti measures, and was followed in 2004 by a series of campaigns recommending a ban on the sale of aerosol paint to anyone under the age of 16, as well as "on the spot" fines for graffiti artists. All of which has increased pressure on the UK graffiti terrorist Banksy - now believed to be Robert Banks, or Robin Gunningham.

Exhibitions of Street Art

The polite name for "graffiti art" is "street art", under which label it has enjoyed a number of exhibitions in some of the world's best art museums, including: The Tate Gallery London (2008) and the Grand Palais in Paris (2009).

• For details of major movements of painting and sculpture, see: History of Art.
• For a chronological list of important dates, see: Timeline: History of Art.
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