9 Important Moments in Graffiti History You

A Brief History of Graffiti Art by Billy Mavreas

Graffiti is one of the four components that make up hip-hop culture, along with DJing, MCing and B-boying. It’s important to note that graffiti is not tagging, which is writing or drawing your name on a surface without permission. Once again, I am speaking specifically about graffiti art , an elaborate form of lettering with rich visual effects achieved through one simple tool: spray paint . Whether it’s tagged on a wall, subway car or stadium seat , graffiti has truly transcended its original intent as an underground communication system among New York City subway riders back in the 1970s, to become a major part of today’s urban landscape of hip-hop culture. Here are some key milestones in the history of graffiti art:

1. New York City Subway Graffiti

Graffiti has been around since ancient times, but the practice really picked up in the ’70s when it got a boost from two major factors: aerosol spray cans and subway trains . It’s believed that modern graffiti began in Philadelphia in the early ’60s and quickly spread all over America and to other countries. But it wasn’t until 1971 when TAKI 183 (his name was an acronym for “taxi driver with number 183”) wrote his tag on a train car in lower Manhattan that we had our first glimpse of an icon whose presence would change subway travel forever. That same year, the New York Times published an article about graffiti art in their paper and Jean-Michel Basquiat made his first piece at age 17: a portrait of TAKI 183.

2. Hip Hop culture and Graffiti Art

In 1973, DJ Kool Herc held his first block party and Grandmaster Flash perfected scratching , while the legendary Afrika Bambaataa threw his first “Zulu Nation” party in the Bronx. This was also when Coke La Rock dropped the very first hip hop track, which featured him rapping over disco breaks . By ’78-’79, DJs like DJ AJ (who cut up songs using 2 turntables), Kurtis Blow (rapper) and Grandmaster Flash (turntable wizard) were blazing up the turntables , while graffiti artists like DONDI and Rammellzee started painting subway trains around town.

3. Hip Hop Records

The “T” in TAKI 183 stands for Tommy , who went on to train some of the most influential graffiti writers from ’79-’85, including ZEPHYR , TWIST and REVOLT . In 1980, Fab 5 Freddy was hosting Graffiti Rock on Yo! MTV Raps which featured a live jam with a boombox, DJ Easy Lee and rappers like Red Alert . That same year, Futura 2000 teamed up with Blondie for his first single “Hey Joe,” which became an instant classic that still gets airplay today.

4. Hip Hop Fashion

Graffiti art‘s relationship with hip hop fashion began in the early ’80s, when people started wearing “130 St Marks Place New York” t-shirts to show off their favourite writers’ tags (which were drawn by Futura 2000). By 1983, Tommy Hilfiger launched his company by selling preppy clothes to the hip hop market, using rap group UTFO as spokespeople for his new line called Freshjive . That same year, the Beastie Boys released “Rock Hard” and LL Cool J dropped his debut album Radio , which included an ode to DJ AJ entitled “Rock The Bells.” Around this time, Madonna was busy touring around America with her group “Prism” and the graffiti art scene in New York City reached a peak with artists like SMITH , NASH 77 , PHASE 2 & PEPE emerging onto the scene.

5. Hip Hop Movies

In 1984, Wild Style was released, which was considered to be the first hip hop feature film ever made. It featured appearances by Fab 5 Freddy , Grandmixer DXT (who cut up Herbie Hancock ‘s “Rockit” on turntables), Charlie Ahearn (director/writer), Lee Quinones , Dondi , Futura 2000 , Rammellzee and many others. The soundtrack for this movie was produced by rap legend Kurtis Blow . That same year, Run DMC released their self-titled debut album, which featured the song “Rock Box,” a rock guitar-influenced rap tune that became one of hip hop’s first crossover hits.

6. Hip Hop Icons

During this time in the ’80s, graffiti art was being immortalized in pop culture, with icons like TAKI 183 , Jean-Michel Basquiat , Keith Haring and Rammellzee making cameos in TV shows like Miami Vice . Meanwhile, RUN DMC was busy wearing Adidas tracksuits on stage (until they got banned for pissing off rival sports brand Nike), while LL Cool J wore green military fatigues in his video forI’m Bad.” This fashion trend would not only inspire hip hop artists like NWA , but also rock & roll legends like the Beastie Boys and Aerosmith , who both rocked camouflage in their videos.

7. Hip Hop Fashion Trends

By 1985, graffiti art was so big that there were even fashion trends inspired by it. This became evident when Madonna wore her infamous ripped up t-shirt with the words “High Energy” on front for her “True Blue” video . This look was replicated by Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club . Meanwhile, LL Cool J topped off his outfit with a bomber jacket for his video “I’m Bad,” while Run DMC did the same for their video “My Adidas.” That same year, KRS One’s debut album “Criminal Minded” featured a black and white picture of TAKI 183 on the cover, while Eric B & Rakim ‘s debut Paid In Full became one of hip hop’s most sought after albums in history.

8. Hip Hop Movies II

In 1986, Wild Style director Charlie Ahearn released a movie called Chinese Rock . This movie was so popular that you could hear graffiti-inspired songs from The Clash , Blondie , Hendrix and Led Zeppelin being played at New York City clubs like Negril and Danceteria . Meanwhile, Run DMC were busy working with Aerosmith for a remake of the rock group’s single “Walk This Way,” which became the first ever rap song to reach the top ten of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. That same year, Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie became rap superstars after releasing their debut albums .

9. Rap Music & Hip Hop Fashion

In 1987, Eric B & Rakim released their classic album Paid In Full . This became one of hip hop’s most influential albums ever made and its cover would inspire rappers like Big Daddy Kane to wear a suit on stage. That same year, rap artists were also influenced by rock acts like Guns ‘N Roses , who wore bandanas around their heads during photoshoots for their Appetite For Destruction album . Meanwhile, The Beastie Boys got a new member named DJ Hurricane and Russell Simmons became the first major black music executive by launching his own hip hop fashion line called Phat Farm , which was marketed towards teenage boys.

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