Graffiti is considered one of the four elements of hip hop, along with emceeing (rapping), DJing, and b-boying (breakdancing). Graffiti, like the other three elements, is an artform, a means of cultural expression. Like the other forms of hip hip, it also expresses resistance. Graffiti challenges, for example, mainstream notions of what counts as art, what counts as public space, and what counts as property, just as emceeing/DJing challenges what counts as music, and bboying challenges what counts as dance.
Graffiti, unlike the other forms of hip hop, is more easily misunderstood because it is often done illegally and the artists are often secretive about their real identities. As such, it has not received the kind of positive mainstream recognition afforded to rappers, DJ's, and dancers. Some professionals in the art world have embraced graffiti, but that doesn't mean that the public at large understands and appreciates what graffiti is all about.
Graffiti has a long and proud history. The subculture surrounding graffiti has existed for several decades, and it's still going strong. The graffiti artists (or "writers" as they prefer to call themselves) are passionate, skilled, community-oriented, and socially conscious in ways that profoundly contradict the way they've been portrayed as common criminals and vandals.
Graffiti, if we define it as any type of writing on the wall goes back to ancient Rome, and if drawn images count, then we could point to the first graf artists. But the style of urban graffiti that most people have seen and know about, the kind that uses spraycans, came from New York City in the late 1960s, and was born on the subway trains. Taki 183, who lived on 183rd street in Washington Heights, worked as a messenger who traveled all throughout the city. While he did so, he would use a marker and write his name wherever he went, at subway stations and also the insides and outsides of subway cars. Eventually, he became known all throughout the city as this mysterious figure. In 1971, he was interviewed for an article by the New York Times. Kids all over New York, realizing the fame and notoriety that could be gained from "tagging" their names on subway cars (that traveled all over the city, naturally) began to emulate Taki 183. The goal was to "get up" (using the slang of the day), to have one's name in as many places as possible, and as kids competed against each other to get famous, the amount of graffiti on trains exploded.
For tagging on the insides of trains, permanent markers worked, but using spraycans of paint quickly became popular as well, especially for tagging on the outside of trains. Graffiti became so much more than simple tagging, however. Graffiti writers, in addition to getting their name around as much as possible, would try to outdo each other in terms of style. At first, writers would try to make their tags (or signatures) more stylish than anyone else's. Later on, they would add more colors, special effects, and they'd make their name bigger. Spraycans allowed large pieces of graffiti to be created fairly quickly which was important because writers didn't want to get caught by the police or people working for the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority). As you will see in the Graffiti Styles section of this wesite, graffiti really evolved into a complex artform with its own techniques and vocabulary. From simple tags on the insides of trains to throwups to masterpieces that spanned multiple subway cars, the art and science of graffiti grew in leaps and bounds.
The "style wars" in the 1970s between graffiti artists trying to get famous and creating bigger and better pieces resulted in the emergence of an entire subculture surrounding graffiti. Graf writers would gather at what they called "writer's benches" at subway stations to look at each other's sketchbooks, to plan "bombing" runs, and to watch as trains passed by so they could discuss the latest pieces they or other writers had recently produced. Older writers would take younger writers on as apprentices and assistants to help on larger pieces. Whole writing "crews" would form to collaborate on pieces, to help each other "rack up" paint (by any means necessary), and to watch out for authorities. Some crews would travel together to avoid gang troubles, but they were rarely violent. A common misconception is that graffiti is all gang-related. Most graffiti is not gang-related. Gang-related graffiti is most often used to mark territory, and not as much time or effort is spent in its creation.
NYC subway graffiti became world famous, and its style and sensibilities were transplanted to other parts of the country and the world, mixing with local traditions and styles in new ways. The 70s were the golden age of subway graffiti, but for the MTA, it was a problem that had long gone out of control. Graf writers did not just battle each other in their quest to be the "King of all Lines" and all the other titles they bestowed upon themselves. They had to deal with police patrolling the trains and the yards where they worked, their masterpieces being washed off of cars, barbed wire fences, and guard dogs, not to mention concerned parents who sometimes did not understand.
What these kids did, however, was to find a way to express themselves creatively in a society that told them that they didn't have the talent or drive. They came from ghettos that many said were devoid of culture. Graffiti and hip hop in general proved the world wrong. The graf writers (and emcees, and DJs, and bboys) proved that they could create something beautiful that required skill and dedication, something that contributed to the city even if people didn't always understand what it was all about. They expressed their identity in a society that tried to keep them anonymous, that tried to ignore social problems as if they didn't exist. Mayor Ed Koch (in the 1980s) once inquired why the NYC youth couldn't be given brooms and sponges to help the city instead of using their energies to write all over it. Clearly, he didn't understand the difference between being a janitor and being an artist. In our culture, where self-expression is becoming more and more highly regulated, graffiti plays an important role in brashly symbolizing unfettered individuality and resistance.