History of Graffiti

Though forms of graffiti throughout history have been numerous and variable, the graffiti that springs to mind when one hears the word today emerged in New York in the 1970s. It began as a way of marking territory; kids in the Bronx created ‘tags’ – signatures of distinct, yet anonymous personas – which they would use to mark walls and areas near their home and places of social interaction. The concept of graffiti was popularised when, in July 1971, the New York Times published an article about one infamous youth, known only as ‘Taki 183’. In this article, Taki 183 says; ‘”I don’t feel like a celebrity normally, […] But the guys make me feel like one when they introduce me to someone. ‘This is him,’ they say. The guys know who the first one was”’.

This reference to ‘the first one’ is crucial – not because Taki183 was the ‘first’ person to start tagging, but because of the respect tied to this position. As Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant write in their book, Subway Art, this respect was soon sought by many other budding graffiti writers:

Kids impressed by the public notoriety of  a name appearing all over the city realized that the pride they felt in seeing their name up in the neighbourhood could expand a hundredfold if it traveled beyond the narrow confines of the block. The competition for fame began in earnest as hundreds of youngsters, emulating Taki 183, began to ‘tag’ trains and public buildings all over town.

So the notions of fame and respect explain the initial appeal of graffiti to many young ‘writers’ (A ‘writer’ is someone who writes graffiti – a member of the graffiti subculture), and the writers whose names appeared most frequently and in the most inaccessible places earned a heroic status. After this initial birth of graffiti, different writing styles, the use of colour and of cartoon characters started to emerge, creating the new formed ‘piece’ (Graffiti with words or images painted in more than two colours constitutes a ‘piece’, which is short for masterpiece),  which broadened the original idea of tagging, in a competitive attempt to make individual tags stand out. This was the birth of the graffiti we know today.

And what happened to Taki 183? Well, he was last known to be the owner of a foreign car repair shop in New York, was married with kids and had given up writing graffiti. A rather apologetic demise, then, for the man who spawned modern day graffiti art!

  1. wordangell says:

    Can’t find the date this was posted but I really appreciate this post. For me it has a far greater impact as the mother of a graffiti artist. My son put his soul and love into every piece. A ruined wall- a piece of art and dedicated to someone special… Every time I see some of his work I can truly say… this is him…lots more to it but I know and respect the graffiti artist… Great post, than you. M

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