Text in Art 9. – Graffiti Part 3 – Early American ‘Writing’

Tag or scribble writing is usually a one colour, simple stylized signature. Tagging began in Philadelphia with spray painted messages on walls and freeways. The first “king” (a writer especially respected among other writers) was “Cornbread“, a Philly writer who is regarded as the father of modern graffiti. He is known for writing his name on an elephant at the Philadelphia zoo and on the side of a private jet owned by Jackson 5, an American popular music group.

Early American graffiti can be dated back to hobo writing on rail cars in the early 1920s but the pioneering era of true graffiti took place during the years 1969 through 1974. Graffiti artists during this time sought to put as many markings up as possible around their turf. When New York City became the center of graffiti the media began to pay attention to this new urban art form. The New York Times wrote an article about TAKI 183, a prolific tagger. TAKI 183, like Cornbread, wrote his tags on subways and city walls but in simple lettering and without images.

Other notable names from that time include PHASE 2, one of the most influential and well-known New York City aerosol artists. He is credited with beginning the ‘bubble letter’ style of writing (known as “softies”).

Phase 2 'bubbler'

As competition increased amongst taggers the next development in writing was size. Writers began to make their tags larger and began to increase the thickness of the letters. This led to the development of the masterpiece or ‘piece’ (Most often placed on walls, billboards, train cars, and other large objects found throughout metropolitan areas, “Pieces” are the main focus of competition among graffiti artistry). Pieces are almost always large, filled in artworks that are full of colour. Large works of ‘Wildstyle’ (see previous graffiti post for definition) are typically the type of art found within this category. The first ‘wildstyle masterpiece’ is credited to SUPER COOL 223. Writers decorated the interior of the letters with what are termed “designs.” They used polka dots, crosshatching, stars and checkerboards. Wildstyle designs were limited only by an artist’s imagination and it is here we see the beginnings of text and art merging.

Broadly speaking, innovation in writing leveled out after 1974. The artistic foundations had been set and a new generation took advantage of New York City’s bankruptcy of these years. This fiscal crisis meant that the transit system was mostly unguarded and this led to the heaviest bombing in history.

During the early to mid 1980s the writing culture dropped dramatically due to several factors: The climate on the street became increasingly tense due to drug wars. Laws restricting the sale of paint to minors and requiring merchants to place spray paint in locked cages made shoplifting more difficult and legislation was in the works to make penalties for graffiti more severe. The major change was the increase in the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s anti-graffiti budget. Popular writing areas were more closely guarded and many painting areas became almost inaccessible. More sophisticated fences were erected and were quickly repaired when damaged. Graffiti removal was stronger and more consistent than ever, making the life span of many paintings months if not days. This frustrated many writers causing them to quit. However, many “hard-core” graffiti writers thought, and still think, that graffiti is illegal by definition. They are not interested in having their work sanctioned by society, particularly if that would lead to commercial exploitation of the art form. It is nonetheless true that some of the most detailed and intricate pieces were and still are done on legal walls, where writers can work undisturbed.

Legal walls - '5 Pointz' building, Long Island, New York
Legal city walls

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