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Although regarded by many as an act of vandalism or visual pollution, graffiti has been gaining recognition from the art world more and more as a legitimate art form. The man often credited with starting this colorful, provocative art movement is Daryl McCray, better known as Cornbread. In the late 60's, he started graffiti writing thanks to a girl he had a crush on, Cynthia Custuss, which led to him writing ''Cornbread loves Cynthia'' all over North Philadelphia, then continuing with his own tag. Another Philadelphia tagger was Top Cat 126 who moved to New York and helped spread the graffiti trend there. Soon enough New York became a hot spot for the graffiti scene and a number of artists started tagging their names, usually an alias combined with a street number such as Julio 204, CAY 161 and the infamous TAKI183. He gained notoriety when The New York Times wrote an article about him in 1971 and tagging became a game of who gets the most recognition for his work. It was also the year when subway trains started to get tagged, becoming the scene for some of the most iconic artworks to have come out of the early graffiti movement. By the late 70's, street art evolved into a much more complex and unique art form, spreading across the USA and making its way into art galleries.
Punk culture also saw an opportunity to spread its message through graffiti writing. UK anarcho-punk band Crass regularly had stencil-like images on their releases and undertook a graffiti stencil campaign on the London Underground system in the late 1970s and early 1980s, promoting anarchist, anti war, feminist and anti-consumerism messages. Seeing how graffiti was gradually becoming an important part of the punk scene, Amsterdam produced a magazine called Gallery Anus to document and discuss graffiti work. In the USA it was the band Black Flag and their fans who frequently stenciled their classic logo.
In the 1980s, graffiti became a vital and vibrant component of the emerging hip hop movement. After being given a prestigious exhibition in Rome, graffiti writer Fab 5 Freddy received further recognition when he was name-checked in the hit song Rapture, by Blondie in 1981. He appeared in the video of the song alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat and the song became the first so-called hip hop song to be aired on MTV. But the attention received from the media and the public didn't always have a positive outcome, many believing graffiti incites crime and fear. It was a booming decade for graffiti , with the release of the documentary Style Wars, the fictional Wild Style and a shift towards conceptual graffiti and urban artworks by artists like Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton. With the fall of the USSR in the 90's, graffiti made its way into Eastern European countries and the rise of the internet helped spread the word about the movement.
Graffiti writing and street art are closely related contemporary art movements, however, they differ in term of function, technique and intent. While street artists are more conceptual and want the general public to see, understand and interact with their work, graffiti writers are mainly concerned with other graffiti writers who can decipher the coded tags and appreciate the style of the writing. Because of this particular difference, it's fairly easy to visually distinguish street art from graffiti writing. Just like pop artists, street artists have built on the notion that popular culture or even mundane objects can be elevated into symbols of expression. In addition to symbolic language, street artists use materials like stickers, stencils and wheat paste posters to create their work, which is often juxtaposed against functional signage and advertising or ingeniously blended with the environment to captivate their audience. The legendary street artist Banksy, who is known for his humorous, absurdist concepts, painted inside the elephant enclosures at the Bristol Zoo ''I want out, this place is too cold: keeper smells; boring, boring boring'' in giant handwriting. Here, Banksy seeks to engage the common zoo visitor by mixing humor with empathy for the caged animals. Handmade stickers are popular among street artists because of the speed and efficiency with which the message is spread. Shepard Fairey is a world renowned street artist best known for his iconic image of Barak Obama for the 2009 U.S presidential campaign. His ''Andre the Giant Has a Posse'' sticker campaign from 1989, featuring a magazine picture of the well known Russian wrestler put the sticker concept into public attention and gained him worldwide recognition. When the WWF threatened to sue Fairey on behalf of the deceased wrestler, the now-famous ''OBEY'' stickers began to appear, showcasing a more stylized version of the Giant without using his name. Some street artists work similarly to traditional artists, creating immersive, complex and stylistically intriguing artwork that only differs from traditional art in terms of setting and scale. Jorge Rodriguez Gerada's work looks like realistic charcoal portrait drawings, with the only exception of them taking up the entire side of a building. The most important thing to Gerada is how the look changes as they degrade over time. He states that'' The blending of the charcoal and the wall surface with the wind, rain or the sudden destruction of the wall is ultimately the most important part of the process. My intent is to have identity, place and memory become one.''
The world of graffiti and street art has come a long way since Cornbread and metropolitan landscapes all over the world are infused with these vivid and popular art movements. They can be found on buildings, trains, sidewalks, street signs and even trashcans. These movements have become an integral element of contemporary art. Galleries around the world are starting to appreciate graffiti writing and street art and are finding new ways to collaborate with the artists. Their unquestionable impact on our urban culture is supported by websites, artist communities, books and magazines.
Lindsey Bourret is the Managing Director at Mearto. In addition to overseeing the daily operations of the business, she also enjoys sharing her extensive knowledge of the fine art and antiques market with our customers through our website, blog, e-newsletter and social media accounts.