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

Text in Art 7. – Graffiti Part 1 – Train Bombing



While the ‘High Art’ Pop Art movement was enjoying public and financial popularity in the galleries of 1960s America and Europe another, more underground art movement, was growing: Graffiti. In the American streets of the late 1960s, political activists wrote their beliefs on walls and gangs used tagging or signatures to mark territory, especially in the streets of Philadelphia. This movement spread rapidly to New York where graffiti taggers “bombed” trains (To bomb or hit is to paint many surfaces in an area). The first ‘bombing’ of trains consisted of ‘regular’ writing styles but as the popularity of tagging grew so did competition amongst the taggers and each graffiti artist needed to distinguish themselves. Initially ‘bubble lettering’ replaced regular writing but this was soon replaced in its turn by “wildstyle”, a form of graffiti writing that would come to define the art. Wildstyle is a complex and intricate form of graffiti writing. Its multi-layering of interwoven and overlapping letters and shapes, arrows, spikes and various decorative elements make it one of the most difficult and complicated tags and when mastered define the artist as a ‘king’. Wildstyle graffiti writings are known as “burners” or ‘hot’ writing. Because they are so complex and time-consuming to apply they are challenging to write in the limited time given for execution before being discovered. Time is an important element in graffiti writing due to its illegal nature, large fines and risk of being caught. In “whole train” tagging all train cars were completely covered with paint on both sides. This difficult task was often done by multiple artists or crews and with limited colours – often just black and silver. The limitation of time to accomplish this before being caught was the challenge and the test of tagging ability – often the writers had 30 minutes or less to complete their task. This required tight teamwork amongst a great many accomplished taggers, but when successful has become one of the more respected forms of graffiti writing. Wildstyle, as opposed to regular, early graffiti writing, can be considered artistic text – letters and words that are also art. In their sensitivity to colour and form they meet all criteria for art, despite their social illegality. This form of graffiti is considered to be ‘outsider art’ but is art none-the-less. Throughout the history of western art the public and state have always denigrated all new forms of visual expression. Graffiti is no exception. In this exploration of text in art I begin by looking at graffiti on trains as an early stage of this art form.