People have been creating art on walls since the beginning of time. The first ever drawings on walls appeared inside caves thousands of years ago. It appears as though our early ancestors used pictures as symbols as a way to communicate and tell stories. Later, in ancient Rome and Greece people wrote their names as well as protest poems on the exterior walls of buildings for all to see. Modern graffiti seems to have started appearing in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, and by the late sixties it had travelled to New York. The relatively new art form really took off in the 1970s, when artists began the practise of tagging – writing their names artistically on buildings all over the city. In the mid seventies it was occasionally difficult to see out of a subway car window, because the trains were all almost completely covered in spray paintings known as ‘masterpieces’.
Back in those early days, the ‘taggers’ were often part of street gangs who used tagging as a way to mark their territory. They usually worked in groups called ‘crews’, but they called what they did ‘writing’. The term ‘graffiti’ wasn’t used until later on. It was first used by The New York Times and the novelist Norman Mailer. It wasn’t long before art galleries in New York began buying graffiti still in the early seventies. But at the same time that it started to be seen as an art form, John Lindsay, the mayor of New York at that time, declared the first war on graffiti. It was a while before the city could dedicate enough resources to assist with the clean up. But the practise was made illegal and by the 1980s it became much more difficult to write on subway trains without being caught. So instead many of the more established graffiti artists began using roofs of buildings, walls or canvases. It was at this time that graffiti art went underground and became a more secretive practise that artist had to hide to do. Many artists began working during the night when there was less chance of being caught.
Whether graffiti is an art form or vandalism is a never ending debate. Peter Vallone, a New York city councillor, thinks that graffiti that is carried out with permission is definitely art work, but if it is on someone else’s property without their consent then it becomes a crime. ‘I have a message for the graffiti vandals out there,’ he said recently. ‘Your freedom of expression ends where my property begins.’ On the other side of the debate, Felix, a member of the Berlin-based group Reclaim Your City, says that artists are reclaiming cities for the public from the advertisers, and that graffiti represents freedom and makes cities more vibrant and diverse.
For decades graffiti has been a springboard to international fame for a few lucky individuals. Jean-Michel Basquiat began spraying on the street in the 1970s before becoming a respected artist in the ’80s. The Frenchman Blek le Rat and the British artist Banksy have achieved international fame by producing complex works with stencils, often making political or humorous statements. Works by Banksy have been sold for over £100,000. Graffiti is now big business for some.