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History of graffiti and street art: the 1960s and the 1970s

At STRAAT, we showcase some of the most amazing contemporary graffiti and street art. But there is a long history that predates these artworks. What were some of the key events that would eventually lead to graffiti and street art finding their way to museums such as STRAAT? That's where this extended historic overview comes in. This overview aims to introduce crucial moments in the development of both graffiti and street art, which paved the way for the artworks we currently have on display. While we are aware that name writing and art in the public space is about as old as humankind itself, we deliberately start this overview with the birth of ego-oriented name writing graffiti.

The ‘60s and ‘70s mark the birth of graffiti and street art culture. In these decades, we see the cultures develop out of their infancies and take their first steps towards adulthood. On the one hand, graffiti and street art have always been and continue to be met with great resistance. But the stylistic developments within graffiti, and the first explorations of the public space by conceptual artists, lead to people from outside graffiti and street art to also notice the artistic potential of the movements. This would result in, amongst many other things, several mainstream media items on graffiti and street art, and the first taste of high brow art success. 

History of graffiti and street art: the 1960s

1967 / Philadelphia / Early tags by Cornbread mark the birth of the graffiti movement. After first putting up his name everywhere in a youth detention center, Cornbread continues his dedicated name writing once he returns to the Philadelphia streets. To impress his love interest, he writes his name everywhere along her bus route. He then continues these endeavors on other big bus lines as well. This makes him the first writer to achieve all-city fame, sparking the idea of ‘writing your name everywhere to make it big’.

1967 / Philadelphia / Cool Earl uses the arrow as an element in his tags. Many writers would follow this example, adding arrows, stars, copyright icons and much more figurative elements to make their tags stand out.

1968 / New York / Early tags by Julio 204. Although he was only on the scene for a couple of years, Julio 204 was very important for the development of graffiti, as his tags were a major inspiration for graffiti legend TAKI 183.

Taki 183
Cornbread / TAKI 183

1968 / Europe & USA / Large-scale protests by university students. Students from the Sorbonne University in Paris and New York’s Columbia University are the first to adopt the visual language of graffiti for their slogans.

1969 / New York / Early tags by TAKI 183. As a delivery boy, TAKI visits all five boroughs of New York and beyond, and leaves his name and street number - 183 - everywhere. He does it in such a dedicated way, that mainstream media aims to track him down, which eventually results in the 1971 New York Times article ‘Taki 183 spawns pen pals’.

1969 / ‘Names, Graffiti and Culture’ (Urban Review, April Issue) by Herbert Kohl is the first scientific article about the graffiti movement.

History of graffiti and street art: the 1970s

1970 / Paris / French artist Daniel Buren goes around flyposting in the Paris, New York and Tokyo metro – a site-specific project that becomes known as ‘Affichages Sauvages’, arguably the first series of poster art.

1971 / New York / SJK 171 - currently on display in our Quote from the streets exhibition - introduces his squiggly lines. These radiant energy lines were later popularized by iconic artist Keith Haring.

1971 / New York / Super Kool 223 paints the first masterpiece on a subway train. The idea of pieces - the larger-sized graffiti works - gives writers more creative opportunities to separate themselves from their competition through the use of (amongst other things) color, connections between letters, shadows, highlights, backgrounds and figurative elements such as arrows and stars. Quality - or having style - starts to gain importance, which helps people from outside the subculture recognize the artistic potential of the movement.

1971 / New York / Birth of WC188 (Writers Corner 188), the first graffiti crew. The corner of Audubon and 188th Street became a popular meeting point for graffiti writers to exchange stories.

1971 / New York / The New York Times (July 21st) publishes Charles Don Hogan’s story of TAKI 183 (‘Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals’). This article inspires countless graffiti writers to have a more thorough, strategic, citywide approach to their writing, as they hope to make their name as big as TAKI - the writer who wasn’t only up in all five boroughs and beyond, but also made it to the New York Times.

1972 / New York / The City College, although not an art gallery but an educational institute, hosts the first graffiti exhibition; it features works by the collective ‘United Graffiti Artists’. This happens after sociologist Hugo Martinez brings together some of the top graffiti writers of the early ‘70s and convinces them to create graffiti art on canvas. This eventually leads to the first art gallery graffiti exhibition.

1972 / New York / Graffiti has become a political issue and the ‘Anti-Graffiti Bill’ gains council approval, making it illegal to carry aerosol cans into public facilities. Meanwhile, many citizens line up against what is widely regarded as vandalism and help clean up the city.

1973 / New York / The collective ‘United Graffiti Artists’ exhibits at the Razor Gallery in SoHo, New York, which makes for the first art gallery show with artworks by graffiti writers. The show even attracts several art critics from highly respected New York newspapers, some of which would write raving reviews about the artworks. Graffiti first enters the high-brow art playing field.

1973 / New York / Writers start painting whole train cars. By painting every inch of the subway wagons, writers eventually focus on more than just their names, as we start to see portraits, characters, background scenery, sociopolitical messages, abstract graffiti and more appear on the trains.

Lee Whole Car
Amsterdam punk graffiti
LEE whole car / Punk graffiti in Amsterdam

1973 / New York / Choreographer and dancer Twyla Tharp performs on stage with graffiti writers painting in the background, bringing graffiti into other forms of ‘high’ culture.

1974 / Chicago / The collective ‘United Graffiti Artists’ exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry.

1975 / New York / The Transit Police Graffiti Squad is constituted and all the subway trains are cleaned, only to be painted again shortly thereafter.

1977 / Europe / Birth of punk graffiti in the UK and the Netherlands; punks write slogans, band names and their own nicknames on walls. Even though multiple European countries were familiar with sociopolitical graffiti slogans, this marks the start of a more ego-oriented graffiti writing. Most writers had no clue something similar was taking place in the US.

1978 / Paris / Ernest Pignon-Ernest pastes silkscreen portraits of Arthur Rimbaud around the romantic poets’ favorite locales in Paris. 

1978 / Publication of the book Graffiti a New York by Andrea Nelli. As a student in his early twenties visiting New York City, Nelli documents tons of graffiti and makes it the subject of his thesis in Literature. 

1979 / Rome / Galleria La Medusa opens ‘The Fabulous Five / Purest Form of New York Art’, the first European art gallery show with artworks by graffiti writers. This event took place after gallery owner Claudio Bruni responded to Fab 5 Freddy’s ‘advertisement’ of buying graffiti per square foot in Howard Smith's Village Voice article.


By Giulia BLocal and Alex Pope

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