Graffiti: The Urban Canvas
The Development of Graffiti as Art
There are many ways in which the Graffiti we see today has developed over time to become known and recognised as an art form. However, it is a controversial subject often covered by journalists in the media as to whether Graffiti today is an up to date urban artistic development or simply mindless vandalism as often thought by society.
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The history of Graffiti can date back as early as prehistoric cave paintings and stone carvings created by early man to tell and record stories and news of the day. Using stone tools and natural pigments, which over time have developed into similar tools and materials that artists also use at present, produced these pieces. However, we can start to relate the conventional lettering we see today with the style of Roman Graffiti. The Romans would create signs and notices on the walls of buildings and businesses. An example of this was when Brothels would advertise business.
The most recognisable motif behind Graffiti, particularly from the twentieth century into the twenty-first century would be music. Rock and Roll music of the nineteen-fifties and sixties proved as influential to youth then as it does now. One of the most famously photographed pieces of graffiti during this time was the “Clapton is God” slogan that one young fan of Musician Eric Clapton spraypainted onto a wall in London. This proved music had become influential upon youth culture within society. Not only this, but the effects of American culture on the impressionable juveniles of London. Rock and Roll, many say was the start of younger people’s rebellion in their teen years and the Graffiti that occurred to publicise fans love for their favoured band is strong evidence of this. Although, not so much as the effects of American Hip Hop from the eighties continuing on until the present day. Hip-Hop culture truly became popular in the nineteen-eighties, originating on the streets of New York in the late nineteen-seventies. Hip-Hop Graffiti started to move from the subways to the streets in favour of the gang culture that started to arise with the increased popularity of the movement. Like many, the artist Jean Michel Basquiat started his artistic career in the music industry, associating with several Hip-Hop musicians who began in New York. In his time
Another popular theme strongly associated with the increasing popularity of Graffiti is Politics. Graffiti has always been a tool for people to speak their mind, but its power has evolved over time from simple war propaganda of World War One and Two, to heightened political ridicule focused on the English and U.S governments’ current involvement in the war in Iraq and combating Terrorism. Graffiti has the advantage of being read by thousands of people. True, that speech is also effective but it seems that Graffiti has that edge when it comes to putting a point across. Graffiti can last a lot longer than words and it’s almost eerie silence to say something yet simply appear in a matter of seconds emerges as a bold statement and can be as big or small as it’s creator insists. Of course not all political Graffiti that has emerged over the years has been positive. For instance, during World War two, Nazi occupancy in Europe encouraged the etching of Swastikas and Anti-Semitic phrases such as “schweizer wehrt euch, kauft nicht bei Juden!” meaning, “Don’t buy, Jews!” Which were scribbled on Jewish occupied businesses in bold lettering. Even still, such political and social prejudices still exist through Graffiti. An example of this being the murals that have been painted on the sides of houses, buildings and walls in Northern Ireland to represent IRA territory and power or protests against the establishment. Such pieces of Graffiti seem to be overhanging reminders of the current political situation that drastically effects the area.
Furthermore the subject of crime has always had a lot of association with Graffiti. Even though countless individuals see Graffiti as art nowadays, there is still very much the stereotypical belief that a spray can used on a wall to create an image constitutes vandalism. Sadly, crime is a contradicting element to Graffiti. An example of the law against Graffiti is a statement released by police in Norfolk, England, declaring “A neglected physical environment is unsafe as it undermines pride in the local community that can lead to further degradation. It can also trigger other anti-social behaviour activities. It is therefore very important that Graffiti crime is stamped out and offenders challenged and penalised for it. Graffiti should be removed swiftly and offenders prevented from doing it again.” which is clearly a tool of propaganda in recruiting people to stamp out Graffiti, whatever its purpose or appearance. However, there is a very important matter concerning chalk marks left by burglars on the walls of homes or residences to signify the significant details of the establishment. For example, a circle with a cross through it, to indicate there is nothing of interest here. Perhaps more disturbingly though an upside down triangle with a wavy line on top denotes that a burglar knows that women live here alone. This shows that seemingly harmless markings in chalk that to an innocent eye could be made by a child encourage burglary and perhaps other crimes on top of this. One of the most notable issues that occurred, however, from the late eighties into the nineties, particularly in New York with the Hip Hop gang culture, was the vast increase in drug crime and demise of safety on the streets. As a consequence, the amount of graffiti artists and writers diminished as it was deemed too unsafe to walk the streets for fear of being shot, for example.
It seems that within today’s society the main argument is finding the distinction between art and vandalism. Since the development of lettering and tagging, which is the technique of posting your nickname wherever, you have been, there has been the expansion into Graffiti artists creating murals and spray-caned images that look like they should be in galleries. Maybe that is the difference between a conventional painting and a Graffiti piece is that the aim of a painting is to be hung in a gallery, whereas a Graffiti piece is constantly viewed by a very public gallery around the clock.
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One of the more prominent developments of Graffiti over the past couple of years is the expansion of Graffiti into the art world by existing commercial artists experimenting with techniques often associated with this particular style. Artist Tracy Emin for example has completed etchings and paintings consisting of lettering, random brush strokes and figure outlines. Another element that has contributed to the influx in Graffiti around town is the increase in spray paint products, including various shape nozzles to achieve different spray effects. Therefore it is no wonder that people have started to create larger and more complex pictures and murals because the tools have evolved over the years to make the process easier. However there is an argument with the Graffiti world that there is a clear divide between the commercial artists and the average urban artist.
As we can see today, we have become a multicultural society in which we have taken on many different forms of artistic expression to convey issues that we feel matter to us. However, the ways in which this has come about has evolved through time along with the rights of man. Graffiti is a gateway to free speech in many aspects and we have become a lot more able to speak out. The Berlin wall was a good example of demanding peace through graffiti, insisting that divides in society are not the answer. Graffiti has definitely been able to become a form of artistic installation, with the widespread method of producing murals to decorate derelict or downtown communities around the world, such in Brazil and Spain, where it is a celebrated part of youth culture. Graffiti has definitely moved on from being a solely negative aspect of society and developed into a true urban art form, with walls becoming urban canvases of the modern age. Of course there are still those who do still use graffiti as vandalism, but many have now come to recognize graffiti as the major artistic genre of the 21st century.
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