I’ve spent a lot of time practicing the art of seeing graffiti. After a few years, my eye is now automatically able to seek out those sweet spots on buildings or signs where graffiti ought to be—and in the right parts of town, it usually is. I’m good, but there are still times that graffiti, or something pretending to be graffiti, will surprise me.
In the late 1940s, a Midwestern salesman named Edward Seymour was looking for a better way to demonstrate his line of aluminum radiator paint to prospective buyers. Seymour and his wife hit upon the idea of combining the paint with a can of propellant, so they could spray the paint quickly onto a radiator’s surface and not have to spend the time using more tedious methods.
The idea of putting a propellant and something else into a can wasn’t new. Bug bombs specifically targeting malaria-infected mosquitoes were used in the Pacific during World War II.
Graffiti is always a political act, whether overtly or accidentally. The very nature of vandalism requires some kind of confrontation between a disruptive actor and established structures of the status quo.
While throwing a brick through a window is also vandalism, it differs from graffiti in that it is a subtractive form of vandalism—that window is no longer there—while graffiti is inherently additive: structures become augmented with new political or social meaning.
Chaz Bojorquez has been called the O.G. Godfather of Cholo graffiti. He started writing graffiti in Los Angeles in the early 1960s-- his first letters were that of his own name, but soon he moved on to writing placas, or roll-calls, of Latino gangs that were prominent at the time.
Since the early 1990s, the hyper-anonymous street artist Banksy has been upending our collective notion of art, vandalism and politics with both formal and informal exhibitions across the world.
The mystique that surrounds Banksy certainly adds to the hype—only a few people have actually seen him—but it’s his artistic lexicon that has carried him from a graffiti writer from Bristol to the force of art that he is today.
A couple of years ago, the Los Angeles-based graffiti collective known as The Seventh Letter put together a gallery exhibition themed around Muppets. Forty artists, including the internationally-known Revok, produced more than 100 pieces depicting the iconic citizens of Sesame Street.
More than 40 years have passed since the beginning of the modern graffiti movement, and it shows no sign of slowing down. Heightened security in train yards, and technological innovations such as graffiti-proof paints and metals, have moved the scene from subways to the streets. The first writers have either disappeared, or moved their craft from the streets to the art gallery. And an entire generation has grown up in a world that has always had graffiti showing up somewhere in their cities.
At its most basic, "tagging" is the act of writing your name on a wall, on a newspaper stand, on a lamp post, or, let’s be honest, anything else that doesn’t belong to you.
The medium doesn’t particularly matter: marker or spray paint will do. In a pinch, and on the right surface, maybe even a ballpoint pen. The point is to put your mark where it wasn’t before, and to put it in a place where other people will see it.
And, like everything else in graffiti, the most important point is to do it with style.