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Jun 18th
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Home Art Art Gallery The Link Between Hip-Hop and Graffiti
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The Link Between Hip-Hop and Graffiti

 link-between-hip-hop-and-graffitiDating back well over 30,000 years, the evolution of graffiti from prehistoric cave paintings and pictographs has been monumental. Strategically fashioned in ceremonial and consecrated areas, the ancient images often displayed scenes of animal wildlife and intrepid expeditions involving hunter gatherers. Primordial graffiti regularly displayed declarations of love, political expressions, and philosophical musings. Researching the ancient form of artistry has helped us gain a deeper understanding of the lifestyles and languages embraced by past cultures.

Graffiti has become a bone of contention, the word alone conjures up many different questions - is it artistic expression or mere vandalism? In the past, has it contributed to urban decay or is it a by-product of social disquiet?

New York City is often labelled the birthplace of contemporary graffiti, an artistic element that is principally associated with the eruption of inner-city gangs. The Bronx, Washington Heights and other deprived areas within the city were the melting pots of this creativity. The younger generation, rebellious and vociferous, clamoured territorial possession, and this desire was initially met through stylized signatures of names, known as tags.

The swinging 60s was a time of liberation and free thinking; political activists began using graffiti as an innovative form of expression, and gangs such as the Savage Skulls, La Familia, and Savage Nomads used it to mark territory.

A decade later, and these pioneers were joined by artists like Dondi, Zephyr and Lady Pink, people who realized the enormous potential of graffiti as an expressive art. By the mid 1970s, most principles in graffiti writing and culture had been firmly set. Most notably, during this time, “top-to-bottom” displays progressed in complexity, now taking up complete subway cars.

Branching out from a somewhat singular, individualistic style, graffiti quickly became competitive; artists began to enter subway yards all in the hope of “hitting” as many trains as possible, often opting to create elaborate displays along the subway car sides. Largely due to the number of competing artists, tagging quickly began to take on its literal meaning, as individuals and groups needed a way to separate themselves from the proverbial herd. Towards the end of the 70s, rather notably, the MTA (Metro Transit Authority) decided to take on this surge in creative expression, mainly by repairing yard fences and vigorously removing graffiti whenever possible.

However, as much as the MTA tried, the innovation could not be stopped, and in 1979, artist Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy were given their own gallery exhibition by art dealer Claudio Bruni. The display took place Rome, a historic city and a historic moment for graffiti. Quite simply, for many outside New York City, it was their first encounter with this form of art.

With an increase in efforts to reduce “vandalism” coupled with the sharp economic downturn, people referred to the 1980s as the “die hard” era. Just as the communicative culture was making its way overseas, the enriching characteristic of graffiti in New York was said to be dwindling almost to the point of disappearance. Previously preferred sites for creative display were now guarded heavily, yards were patrolled regularly, and far more resolute fencing was introduced. Subways were far more difficult to access for an artist, so pioneers took to the streets, which, along with commuter trains and box cars, quickly became the most notable platform for displays.

In May, 1989, The Clean Train Movement began. New York’s plan to forcibly remove all of the subway cars found with graffiti on them out of the transport system led to this revolutionary faction. Now, rather than bow down to the system, many graffiti artists found new ways to express themselves, primarily through gallery exhibitions and in their own private studios.

In the 90’s, graffiti truly evolved, as many artists created particularly intricate murals. Often these depictions paid homage to recently deceased idols, with Tupac and Biggie receiving particular respect. . In essence, one could argue the following point: Pac and Biggie’s deaths spawned a new era for graffiti, as hip hop graffiti and gang graffiti became entities in their own right. The intricate relationship between graffiti and hip-hop culture arose from the manifestation of fresh and sophisticated forms of the practice in areas where other fundamentals of hip hop, like emceeing, were evolving as art forms. For the first time, there was a clear overlap between those who practiced graffiti and those who practiced other aspects of this culture.

As DJ'ing and breakdancing grew in relevance and popularity, hip hop graffiti also evolved. Extremely elegant stencil depictions and multi-coloured spray paint murals became more prevalent. The link was pretty obvious, as numerous DJs, emcees and break-dancers were also highly capable graffiti artists. Additionally, as opposed to gang related artists, the hip-hop innovators were companions, people eager to share similar techniques, people eager to take the art form to exciting, new levels. Through a combination of vibrant music, expressive language, and even more expressive clothing, hip hop graffiti grew in eminence, thus clarifying hip hop as an overall philosophy, a way of life. Remarkably, many of these pioneers became renowned professionals.

Through hip hop graffiti, thankfully, fantastic tales of street artists going on to design the artwork for Run-DMC and Snoop Dogg album covers have been recorded. Through esteem and its partial legitimization, graffiti has come to a level of commercialization. Thirteen years ago, technological titans IBM launched an advertising campaign in Chicago and San Francisco. Nothing strange about that, right? Well, it came with a twist; it involved people spray painting peace symbols on sidewalks, people spreading positive messages, street artists being encouraged and supported by a global brand.

All thses decades on from the 1960s funky, psychedelic haze, oh how the culture of hip hop has evolved. The relationship between graffiti and hip mirrors that of a single piece to an entire jigsaw. You see, if you subtract graffiti from the equation, then, undoubtedly, hip hop can never be fully complete.

John Glynn

Photo/model: X-Man Lucas
Photographer: Steven Arredondo


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