The Advent Of New Expression
By Alfredo Madrid
(Disclaimer—Full names and other revealing information of individuals mentioned in the words below have not been included as the nature of the act described carries certain legal ramifications in some jurisdictions.)
The close to the 20th century saw the impressive near half-century marking of a relatively novel international art form: graffiti. The contemporary urban landscape is immensely rich in that it abounds in providing ample ground for such grand display of artistry. Although the practice dates back, in evolutionary terminology, rather distant into human history, the shape that this medium has currently transformed into is rather awe-inspiring.
Seminally, modern graffiti as we currently understand it hails from North America, primarily New York and soon after heralded by San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. During the tempestuous 1950s-60s, the Latino “cholo” sub-culture of Southern California began to have a direct influence upon urban art. Taken directly from “the cholo” genre, calligraphy was instituted into the display of words on any surface in relation to street art in Los Angeles.
New York revolutionized the manner in which the attention of the targeted gawkers was directed during the 1970s-80s. By exploiting the city’s notorious subway and transit system, and “tagging,” or writing their street monikers on the railroad cars, the artists’ audience members were thrown open to include residents from all points of The Big Apple. As the new art form rapidly blossomed, it began attracting global attention, sprouting up on the five major continents seemingly simultaneously.
Although the actual act of writing on a wall or bus bench with a spray can, marker or pen has been ostracized into the so-called criminal aspects of deviance in polite society, it still manages to have a persistent and strong underground following that has led many graffiti-artists to purposely remain anonymous.
Intricately stemmed in street graffiti is the urban advent of Hip Hop music. Poetically molded with overt messages of poverty, racism, gang stricken locales, and a rebellious attitude that challenges authority almost as directly as the philosophy that supports the rock ‘n’ roll thought pattern, the genre of music seemingly goes hand in hand with street art.
As with the progression of any art form, street graffiti has undergone significant changes, most notably the fact that the craft is merging with the commercialism similar to that of other mainstream creative outlets. This area has led to widespread consternation by those graffiti practitioners who feel that the art form should remain loyal to its roots within the rugged, raw, unforgiving street culture and there remain grounded in a dignified manner.
Street graffiti undeniably has a link to crime in general, and in its worst case scenario gang violence. Although such a statement can be rebuked by several of those practicing the craft who feel that it is much more closely akin to art, the fact remains that several criminals, notably young and inexperienced ones, choose defacing public and private property as a stepping stone or gateway into the underbelly of street crime.
Until the law chooses to loosen its grip on its perception of street graffiti, in whatever form it takes, those adhering to the practice will have to endure the several, and often times severe reprimands for disobeying the standard rules.
As graffiti continues to grow and attract more and more devout followers worldwide, on a yearly basis, it can be hoped that at some point the law will be able to accurately discriminate between those “taggers” who are in fact true artists, and those ruffians, hooligans and rogues who are out not only to destroy private property, but who are in fact dangerous criminals that may need to be institutionalized.
A zealous graffiti extraordinaire since extreme youth, “Brief,” has developed a rich and detailed understanding of contemporary graffiti:
“The history of modern graffiti can be traced to mid-1960’s and early 1970’s New York City,” said Brief. “During that era, the Pop Art movement had captured the imaginations of many Americans through the use of vivid color and youthful subject matter. Notable pop-artists included Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist, to name a few. As with any popularized art movement, Pop Art attracted reputable art dealers with equally reputable art galleries, many of which were located in upscale neighborhoods:
“As such, disenfranchised youth throughout the city began to feel marginalized by the perceived elitism of Pop Art (many of the galleries were far away from the Bronx and Brooklyn, and many of the art patrons made inner-city youth feel unwanted). Thus, kids within those two NY Burroughs (mostly African American and Puerto Rican Americans) began to experiment with their own versions of a pop art, as evidenced by the vivid colors and sharp edges of those early works. Interestingly, graffiti was just one element of a larger urban collective movement known as Hip Hop, which incorporated dance, music, and poetry into an amalgam of expression. These combined elements are what have made Hip Hop, and graffiti, a long-lasting and socially important urban movement.”
In discussing the growing popularity of graffiti, his initial interest in the activity and its effect on the law, Brief expounds rather succinctly. His foresight into its coming trends is also gleaned over:
“I was however, artistically inclined at a much younger age, which is perhaps why graffiti came so naturally to me,” said Brief. “I was first exposed to graffiti by the older brother of one of my childhood friends; he would create elaborate sketches and drawings and hang them on my friend’s bedroom wall…I can earnestly say that many of our country’s anti-graffiti laws are misguided and place a heavy burden on our criminal justice system…in this sense, people’s rights act more as a deterrent than the law…out of the understanding that business owners and tax payers should not have to pay for my need of expression.”
“An important contributing factor to the spread and prevalence of graffiti has been the Internet. Through social, entertainment, and marketing media sites, many countries around the world can now see and learn about graffiti and the urban culture.”
Experienced street artist, “Panic!” has a long history with the craft. In fact, his linkage to graffiti extends over a couple of decades and crosses some of the topics enumerated above, including aspects upon the appealing lure of the art form down to its colored history:
“My rendition of today's graffiti is like most versions,” said Panic. “Los Angeles had a graffiti influence from the Cholo, Pachuco-Era. Stylish blocks and wicked writing goes back to the ‘60's, or maybe even earlier. New York and its ‘Subway Crushing Movement,’ with letter styles more associated with what we know as ‘contemporary graffiti’ began and exploded like wildfire in the early ‘70's till the present time. Philadelphia was also impactful with its unique style of writing around probably the same time as New York.
“When the Internet was introduced, it created an avenue for the world and its many styles to begin to mesh. Now you can see more world-wide influences throughout all the participating countries and cities. I was introduced to graffiti in 1985…as a child, I always drew and had a passion for art. My mother, uncles and most importantly, my brother were also always artistically inclined. This really facilitated in my participation in the art form.
“I find graffiti attractive primarily because of its colors,” continued Panic. “There are no limits to what can be done, and no rules to follow. This makes it ample for creativity. Secondly, I really enjoy the many ways that a simple letter can be manipulated. This is the only art form where so much emphasis is placed on the alphabet. I really enjoy that and find it very attractive.”
Another graffiti adherent, “Ricks,” feels a nearly supernatural connection to the art of the public spaces in a modern architectural sphere. Having rich ties to both the underground network of skateboarding and graffiti, he hails from the area of two splendid and grossly thick sub cultures.
“I've been painting for roughly about 22+ years now,” said Ricks. “I first got involved around 1993, but didn't really start pushing it until 1997'ish. It all started from skating the streets of Los Angeles while seeing graffiti on the walls and it became a natural progression.”
In compiling a short rendition of what exactly it is that gets the creative elements and gears riled up and ready for movement as far as motivation for urban art, Bob Edelson, in “New American Street Art: Beyond Graffiti,” enumerates below:
“The artists who produce street art are, indeed, ‘artists’, though of a certain ilk. They learn their craft like other graphic artists, somewhere, somehow, and when they think they’re ready, they want the world to see what they can do, but now. They have no patience for gallery games, or commercial constraints, so they take their quite individual passions directly to the public, right out on the street, certain their labors of love will not survive, sometimes even risking the law. And like great jazz artists, these yardbirds of color and form must improvise to fit their art to the beat of whatever wall and street they find to play.”
In the monumental effort of taking tangible innovative effort right out onto the contemporary landscape and risking life and limb (sometimes literally both) in the realm of urban graffiti, is an emboldening craft with a likely lustrous future ahead. Its history is already rich, and its participants are found the globe over. The next logical step would be in founding a more legal niche for the activity, but should it not, it will still stand for what it has from the outset: an outlet for a mind delivering its inherent and preconceived notion of modern art to the public on an inviting platter, ready for all to relish.