How and where was STREET ART born?

It is already in the late 1960s that the first writers began obsessively writing their name on every surface. When Keit Haring arrives in New York in 1978, each subway carriage is signed or painted and the city has already for some time initiated intense struggles against a now rampant and out of control phenomenon.

Philadelphia is probably the birthplace of graffiti writing but New York has given a decisive boost to the phenomenon and it is precisely here that “writing” exploded.

It is the end of the sixties and New York is the center of rapid social and cultural changes: Julio, a boy from 204 ‘Strada, begins to write his name (Julio 204) on the streets and subways. In 1968 his signature appears throughout the city: he writes his name practically everywhere, even outside of his own neighborhood, but it will lose track of him when, after a taxi driver experience for two years, he ends up in a psychiatric hospital.

In 1971 Taki 183 (a seventeen-year-old Greek named Demetrios), starting from Washington Heights in Manhattan, filled all New York with tags and a New York Times reporter, trying to understand the meaning of his signatures, contacted him and published the interview “Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals”, making him a celebrity among his peers and paving the way for many imitators, often grouped in groups. Whoever writes his name several times, in the most inaccessible or most dangerous places, becomes a sort of “popular hero” among his peers.

Already in 1971 the city of New York spends about $ 300,000 a year to clean public places from writing.
The practice of writing your name on public spaces and, particularly, on the subway has been rampant since the early seventies: among the many names we can remember Greek, Bronson 1, Tree 127, Phase II, Lady Pink (the only woman in the group) and many others.
The name becomes essential as an affirmation of identity: Cay 161 claims that “the name is the creed of graffiti!”.

From the beginning the writers have been very fond of trains: the New York subway allows signatures to move throughout the city making them extremely visible (four million passengers per day) and has a role of connection and communication between the neighborhoods of the city. For these reasons, writers elect the preferred subway support for the so-called trainbombing. Some argue that the movement of the train gives graffiti an additional stylistic component, a dynamic effect difficult to obtain on the wall. Even the colors stand out better on the plate of a train.

The preferred lines by the writers are 2 and 5, because they serve a large area of ​​the city, spreading the name of the artists over a wider territory. Among the many risks that writers face while being able to spread their name on the subway are that of being arrested, stumbling on the third rail (600 volts) or being hit by a train.

As the trains are filled with signatures, it becomes necessary to differentiate to make their own signature more evident and legible. The artists begin to introduce variations in their tag and develop real recognizable logos instantly. Respect for the name is perhaps the only fundamental law of writers: never write over someone else’s name. The same goes for originality: copying another’s name or style means stealing his identity; infractions like this always incur social sanctions that go as far as physical punishment.

Among the novelties used by writers to stand out, the addition of an outline to the signature is certainly among the most noteworthy. Super Kool 223, first, makes a large signature with the outline (using two cans for the outline only) on a wagon, introducing what will be called the masterpiece. But Super Kool 223 is not limited to this because the next step was to paint the whole height of the car, even on the windows, from top to bottom. No one had ever done it!

These two innovations open the way to a different approach, to the passage from simple signatures to real pieces.

With the spread of styles in letters and symbols, the competition is accentuated for those who have the letters with the most original style, with the best colors. Around 1973 the wildstyle was born: the softie letters began to lengthen, twist, separate and adorn themselves with arrows at the expense of the legibility of the piece. The New York Budget Office estimates that 64% of trains, 46% of buses, 59% of homes have suffered from severe to extreme damage!

During the mid-seventies the struggle of the city of New York against writers tightened and the press also changed its position from favorable to contrary to graffiti, starting to define the artists as “animals“, “young vandals“, “public threat. ” But not at all discouraged, writers continue to paint adding many new levers to their ranks. The new writers, returning from the teachings of the “older”, add figurative elements to their works, placing them in a wider context and using more complex and elaborate pictorial techniques. The writers who emerged after 1974 seem to get to the tracks with the intention of becoming artists, considering this pictorial style a true art form.

Already in 1972 United Graffiti Artists held an exhibition at the Razor Gallery and many pieces, reproduced on canvas, were exhibited in the New York galleries. A break in the movement is inevitable: on the one hand the graffiti artists, who agree to paint according to traditional canons (including Futura 2000 and Lady Pink) and on the other the “real” writers, convinced that illegality is the only way to express yourself freely. Phase II claims that the thrill of painting on trains is impossible to recreate.

In 1977 the fight against graffiti began to get its first effects, when a combination of acids was developed to remove the paint from the cars. The carriages are passed through a giant “car wash” that sprays them with acid and removes all the pieces. This solution will be abandoned after discovering that the acids used were causing health problems for New York public transport employees and for the children of a school near the “car wash” plant.

In the following years the writers Ali and Zephyr propose to the authority that managed the transports to allow them to paint a train and make a survey on the public reaction, but this request was refused! The “anti-writer” policy intensifies and from 1989 the writing moves on the streets of the city, leaves the subway in favor of the walls.

Still today the writers go down the tunnels to paint the trains even if nobody will ever see their creations, which will almost always be canceled immediately after. However, the works are documented, filmed to demonstrate that “doing” the New York subway is still possible!

Bibliographic reference: “Graffiti Writing – Origini, significati, tecniche e protagonisti in Italia”, Alessandro Mininno, Mondadori Arte.