The History of Graffiti

         New York City is well-known for its plastered walls and subways by graffiti, but surprisingly, graffiti originated in Philadelphia. In the 1960s, the first graffiti writers “Cornbread” and “Cool Earl” started to use their black markers to tag themselves on all public property. In 1970, “Topcat-126” copied their practices and brought graffiti tagging to New York City (Masilamani 5). He used his nickname and street number as his tagging signature. Many other writers used this same model, such as “Taki-183” (“History Part One”). The graffiti writers of New York City started by the trains, including subway cars and areas under the tracks. Their main goal was to see how many places they could “bomb” with their signature. This illegal act became popular among working-class teenagers, specifically the Latinos and African Americans in Washington Heights, the Bronx, and Brooklyn (Ehrlich and Ehrlich; Masilamani 4). Even though graffiti was male dominant, some females were involved too.

TOPCAT-126’s tagged signature on a NYC subway car (collections.mcny.org)

         In the beginning, graffiti was solely an act of signing one’s pseudonym on public property with a black marker. However, graffiti started to become more sophisticated. The famous fonts seen today, Bubble Letters and Broadway Elegant, erupted all over New York. This graffiti style has become known as Wild Style or “throw-up.” These letters were fast and easy to “throw-up,” helping them avoid getting caught. Graffiti took its next leap when color spray paints were utilized, transforming graffiti into a whole art form (Masilamani 5). Notable names of that time were Tracey-168 and Cliff-159 whom were among the first artists to go beyond tagging and add colorful drawings to their work (“History Part One”).

The alphabet of “throw up” graffiti
(highletter.site)    

           As graffiti art became more developed, so did the escape methods of the artists. They started to plan everything very carefully to flee the scene of the crime without getting caught. Graffiti artists trespassed to their “canvases” late at night or early in the morning, making sure no one was around. Furthermore, some artists even obtained MTA uniform as their disguise to enter and leave smoothly. Working in groups started to become more common, having a lookout as the others painted. United Graffiti Artists and the Fabulous Five are examples of graffiti groups that evolved then. In addition, sketches were planned out in their “black books” to save time. These artists went above and beyond to plan every detail of their act merely to receive acknowledgment and “self-promotion” (Masilamani 5).

“Black books” used by graffiti artists
(graffitilib.com)

         In 1982, the MTA started to combat these artists by having commercials and posters with celebrities stating “Make your mark in society, not on society.” These efforts were useless, until the Clean Car Program (CCP) was started in April 1984. The city proceeded to clean all subway cars from any tags and throw-ups. In addition, to prevent any further crimes, subway cars were now fenced in with dogs for protection, and the city started investigating the patterns of different graffiti attacks (Masilamani 5-9). Furthermore, there were restrictions on paint sales to create difficulties to purchase the needed equipment. Paint could not be sold to minors under the age of 18 or placed on open shelves (“History Part One”). The CCP was highly successful. In 1989, graffiti was removed from all trains (Ehrlich and Ehrlich). However, graffiti became more rampant on New York City’s streets and buildings. There was also an increase of legal graffiti where works were featured at different platforms, including museums and social media (Masilamani 12).

The MTA’s attempt to combat graffiti in 1982
(pixelizerphotos.com)

 

Works Cited

Ehrlich, Dimitri, and Gregor Ehrlich. “Graffiti in its Own Words.” 2017. Nymag.com.

“History Part One.” 2009. www.at149st.com.

Masilamani, Rachel. “Documenting Illegal Art: Collaborative Software, Online Environments and New York City’s 1970s and 1980s Graffiti Art Movement.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, vol. 27, no. 2, 2008, pp. 4–14. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27949489.

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