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From vandalism to street art: The history and people of graffiti universe

Once upon a time, writing on the street was considered vandalism, acts of criminals, and uncivilized efforts to communicate. It was (and, sometimes still is) sanctioned by law with penalties up to 1-3 years of prison.

Then, how did mural “stains”  end up on museum walls?

Longer-than-life graffiti

Drawing on walls is not something new. On the contrary, it is a practice that has been around for more than 40,000 years ago. Cave art was the first form of human storytelling ever recorded in history.

The first painted cave is known for being Paleolithic (from the stone age) was found in Altamira, Spain. The artists [experts believe] were our fellow beings Homo Sapiens. These are considered being the first form of symbolic communication of their beliefs.

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It wasn’t until the mid of the twentieth century that writing on walls became recognized as a rebellious act endorsed by gangs and criminals.

By 1965, things got interested when 12-year-old Darryl McCray covered the Philadelphia’s Youth Development Center walls with the word “cornbread.” He had pestered the center’s cooks so much cornbread meals, he was nicked named after the bread.

And she passed his time leaving his unique signature at the walls of the YDC  instead of getting involved in the drug dealing as his mates did.

No need for violence to make himself known.

Upon his release, Cornbread took the streets of Philadelphia and tag his name across the city.

Soon he was using it to communicate his other deeper messages. And messages like “Cornbread loves Cynthia” started to become not only popular but effective. His name became widely known and appreciated, his messages spoke for themselves (literally), and he became a celebrity under Philadelphia’s eyes.

These inspired others to do the same and in no time the city’s walls grew dense with names and numbers. Each writer writing their name to glory.

The urban problem

Soon, New York City’s walls and subways were covered in color with tags and names and new pieces. It became a form of expression and an essential aspect of the formation of a subculture.

Naturally, as being an extraordinary form of expression, graffiti art became a political target. In the mid-1970s New York mayors, John Lindsay and Edward Koch saw the movement as “a symptom of a larger urban problem.” Thus, washing graffitis off became a symbol of political control.

But writers fought back, using their own elaborated systems with subway maps and shared intelligence warned each other about the spots that were safe to write on.

This gave birth to both, a “Guerrilla War,” that drained the city’s resources and a counter-movement of collective efforts that provided writers a platform to speak against some of the government’s oppressive systems.

Superkool 223, Phase 2, and Kotter became popular writers. They became an active and valuable part of popular culture. Tracy 168, for example, appeared in John Travolta’s classic sitcom Welcome Back. 

These fostered a climate of creative innovation and matured into a subculture of artists and innovators.

From the street to the museum

Yet, during the 1970s, art was still seen as part of the bourgeoisie, high class and it was sealed inside museums, protected from the “unworthy.” Although people were getting used to the idea of having the walls of their cities colorfully painted, graffiti was still considered acts of vandalism endorsed by criminals and uneducated people.

Then, how did it leave the streets to museum walls?

Perhaps two key figures for the movement to flourish into an art form are Keith Haring and Jean Michael-Basquiat, kings of street art.

During 1970s, still studying at the School of Visual Arts, Haring started his career using  New York’s subway walls as his canvas. He wished to communicate with a larger audience in a less formal way. Bringing art to the streets and breaking the exclusivity of the museums.

At the same time, 17-year-old Basquiat, together with his high school friend Al Diaz, started to write cryptic phases, easier to read and digest than other graffiti.

“It was supposed to be a logo, like Pepsi,” explained Basquiat.

Basquiat and Al Diaz became known as SAMO. The ad-like phrases, became interactive as people started to cross them and add their own ideas. And people reacted to their messages as it spoke about the mundane in an organic way.

The medium became the message for both artists, trying to reach a popular audience where they could connect with the ordinary in a creative way.

Haring and Basquiat attracted the attention of commuters and the city’s authorities, but most importantly also of art critics, dealers, and other artists. As their career expanded they gain recognition and respect from one of the most prestigious industries of all.

And, after being endorsed by the public eye and prominent artist like Andy Warhol, graffiti became accepted as “street art.”

Both artists inspired and contributed to the modern narration that “art is for everyone” by going against the belief that art should only be for the educated. And graffiti was no longer vandalism, rather a rebellious form of art.