When I was younger, you would be hard pressed to find any public walls that were covered with graffiti. While I had visited New York and other huge cities of the northeast to study my craft, the small town that I was from offered no tolerance for unauthorized use of spray paint. My humble little burb fought the growing graffiti culture off for as long as it could. I took to the streets, throwing up Rock 639 on everything I could, and had tons of wall space available. Sure you might see a little rival crew, scribbling here and there, but the simple “Kilroy was here” left much to be desired. Millions of walls across the world were about to become an official scroll, as b-boys and girls of all ages would take their first steps into the hip-hop family. Graphein would lose its’ basic Latin definition, and explode into today’s dynamic graffiti, whether anyone liked it or not.
While the roads to Hip-Hop culture are many; few can escape the basic first steps of throwing your name up. If you were really nice, you had to catch an ill burner here or there. You had to get your skills and your nerves prepared for your first full car, top to bottom, billboard piece or wall. Instant fame is what it was all about. Graffiti started to spread like a virus. Like Trake with the tags and stickers on everything, from NY to CT. Like all the Vaughn Bode knock offs, all over NY in the ’90s. Like the wild style of west coast writers and crews, doing it real big from Venice to Inglewood, back up to Boyle Heights, and all up and down from The Bay to Long Beach. Like graffiti writers hitting up the Berlin Wall with messages of hope, long before the wall ever came down.Once it got overseas, it broke out severely, giving everyone enamel fever.
The pay off for writers hitting cars from the Bemont Tunnels in LA to the seven train lines in Queens, is immeasurable. The creativity expressed in such a simple and public format like a moving train car, cannot be taken lightly. Names like Futura 2000, Toomer, Zephyr, Crunch, Taki 183, Cope 2, Seen, Obey, IZ, REVOK, Sabre, Dondi, Mr. Cartoon, Seek, and COST and REVS are household names. At least in households that stock spray cans and fat caps. Regardless, the names are legendary, as these writers have achieved fame like they never imagined.
You know a culture is emerging when mass media starts to recycle and clone it, and the same is true of graf culture. In the late eighties, movies like “Wild Style” and “Beat Street” took the spray paint off the wall and put it on the silver screen. Soon there would be more movies and books to help propagate the form.
Music Video Distributors has released a series entitled “Graffiti TV” which contains live footage of writers telling their stories and catching wreck! Most of the clips are from the late ’80s, filmed mostly in New York. The series, by Attack Filmworks, has a low budget, VHS camera look and feel, with grainy, dim-lit scenes and audio ranging from good to oh my goodness! It doesn’t matter with this collection, as some of the footage is invaluable to graffiti heads. Wall legend Cope 2 is seen here, retelling some of his memories of bombin’ trains, running from cops, stealing paint, tagging up police cars, and more. One scene where Cope strolls into a subway car depot, right past a sleeping security guards is priceless. You get the feel adrenaline as you live vicariously, if for a moment, through Cope.
Other artists are filmed here as well, as they bomb the city at night while the rest of the world sleeps. The series shines the spotlight on breakdancers and brothers diggin’ the crates for loops, and overall the video looks like something your homeboy shot at his home, on a handicam, just for the hell of it. Yeah it looks like it was shot by a amateur, but it's hot! If you’re a graffiti fiend or just curious about the scene and want to get a real dose of what it’s to bomb the system, you need to check this video out!
The culture is being marketed like never before. MTV’s recent smash show, “Art Battles”, has captured the rush that empty aerosol cans bring, and packaged it into a reality show contest. Eight finalists have their paintings on display and the winner will be announced on the network soon. Pepsi has jumped on the fat cap bandwagon as well, with their wall murals in Chicago promoting their latest “Design Our Pepsi Can” campaign. While company reps may not want to say the word graffiti, they have no problem using the art form to hawk their wares.
Graffiti has jumped off the walls of the city onto clothes via street smart fashion designers like Marc Echo. For those to afraid to paint outside, you can paint on your television, as graffiti based video games like Graffiti Kingdom and Getting Up are invading game consoles. Getting Up, Contents Under Pressure, Marc Echo’s latest venture, has already made history, as it is the first video game ever to be banned! Australian authorities have long battled against graf, while offering some provisions to the up and coming street artist, like the “Graffiti Tunnel” in Syndey University. The move to ban the video game was a first and it sent a strong message to everyone.
This is art for the masses, provided mainly for free. The rebellion has begun! But like most rebellions, the powers that be are standing at the ready, set to crush the uprising.
Often the cost is steep, as fines and jail time are all a part of the game. The reality of being a graffiti artist often comes crashing down in bold, red and blue colors. Police departments worldwide have entire divisions in place, whose sole purpose is to stamp out the aerosol menace. Many legends have been corralled into squad cars and holding cells, forever altering their lives. Graffiti is the only art form that may grant you a felony record for participating.
Some graffiti artists have become outlaws, with police ready to arrest them and piling up charge after charge, for each illegal piece that they know about. Being arrested has become a rite of passage for some artists, as any and all writers with any significant “fame” have been in the system at least once. Technology has also caught up with the graffiti game. There are reports of artists who posted their favorite pieces on their blogs or MySpace pages. The writers were later surprised with visits from police officers. The very pictures they posted have been used as evidence in their cases, sealing their fate. Some departments offer rewards for information leading to arrest. Other artist not only recognizes their lawless art form, they embrace it by becoming local heroes and speaking out on issues many people ignore.
One case in point is Ivan Martinez, a Miami artist, who started running projections on the beautiful towers of South Beach, in protest to the corrupt housing policies, recently exposed in the vacation hot spot. He helped bring attention to a growing problem of gentrification, but was ultimately shut down by gun-wielding officers.
Often graffiti writers who are caught receive the hardest penalties as law makers attempt to make an example of them. The numbers of artist that evade capture far eclipses the number of those arrested. Francisco Garcia, an artist from Montreal, was arrested after three years of graffiti and initially faced a fine of $250,000, with 53 counts. The charges were later reduced, due in part to a campaign headed by local gallery owner. Most artists don’t have such luxury.
Meanwhile, the world famous Venice Beach Graffiti Pit walls are being threatened. The long standing, graffiti friendly spot has become taken over by heartless taggers, aerosol bandits who are more concerned with momentary fame than they are concerned with contributing to the art. The crude tags are at an all time high and Venice Beach residents and officials have had about enough. Gone are the days of painting freely on the wall, as new laws have been drawn up prohibiting unauthorized painting on the sacred walls. If you want to paint at Venice Beach, you better have a permit in hand or it’s business as usual. And since the police precinct is right next door, I wouldn’t push my luck, if I were you.
The area is being renamed “The Venice Public Art Walls,” and in an effort to continue to support Venice Beach’s true graf artists, painting permits are being issued by ICU Art. ICU hosted the “Venice Art Walls Paintout 2007,” on Sunday June 3, 2007. The event began at 10am, with writers from around the city gathering for an all day spray can showcase. Cali party promoter and favorite reggae deejay Shakespeare held center court with his sound crew, playing underground hip-hop, and passing the mic around to hungry emcees, ready to give a verse of inspiration to the artists.
The event was an incredible reminder of what the graffiti game is all about. Fun, music, good times and self-expression are all cornerstones of the Hip-Hop element. Like most of the street born culture, it has many detractors and enemies who would like nothing more than to see it’s destruction. Thank God that new artists, b-boys, and writers are born everyday, to carry the touch and pass it along to the next generation.
While the artform still has its share of red tape, slowly choking it, the message behind the wildstyle cannot be ignored or denied. From the local corner wall to the metropolitan art gallery, from the crude school bathroom walls to Play Stations and Walt Disney movies (Check for the graffiti pieces in the new “Shrek the Third”, done by Cope 2), graffiti continues to leave it’s message. Long live Hip-Hop and the mighty pen that she carries along, leaving her name on everything in her way!