The Beat of the Street

The Beat of the Street  

Earliest Graffiti

The earliest graffiti was created prior to written language and the first drawings on walls appeared in caves thousands of years ago. “Cueva de las Manos”, located in Santa Cruz, Argentina, offers one of the first fascinating ancient graffiti. The painting dates from 13,000 to 9,000 BCE.

Cueva de los Manos. Cave of the hands, cave painting

Another early form of graffiti was found in the Hagia Sophia. A Viking mercenary is the author of the graffiti and it contains a sentence meaning “Halvdan was here”.  Graffiti was a statement that proved to the world that you existed and that you were making your mark.  

Viking grafitti in the Hagia Sofia

Graffiti War

Around the 70s, art galleries in New York began buying graffiti but it was around that time when John Lindsey, the mayor of New York, declared the first war on graffiti in 1972.  The New York Police cracked down on taggers and artists.  Officers often followed suspicious youth as they left school, searching them for graffiti-related paraphernalia, staking out their houses, or gathering information from informants. The MTA received a significant increase in their budget in 1982, allowing them to build more sophisticated fences to better maintain the train yards and lay-ups that were popular targets for taggers.  

By the 1980s it became much harder to tag subway trains without being caught and more graffiti artists went into the streets and used roofs of buildings as canvases.  Over the next few years, new calligraphic styles were developed and tags turned into large, colorful, elaborate pieces. Artists realized that different spray can nozzles (caps) from other household aerosol products (oven cleaner) could be used on spray paint cans to create varying effects and line widths. It did not take long for the crude tags to grow in size, and to develop into artistic, colorful pieces that took up the length of entire subway cars. 

Zephyr (Andrew Witten) is a New York City graffiti artist who emerged in the 1970s. He is one of the graffiti artists who helped jumpstart the freight train graffiti movement and is often credited as the inventor of numerous graffiti styles still widely used today. Zephyr began his street art career in 1977 by writing his tag on freight trains and subway cars.  

Zephyr tagging a freight train

Phase 2 (Lonny Wood) is a New York graffiti artist who is often credited as the inventor of bubble letter graffiti. Phase 2 began writing graffiti in 1971 by tagging his name across the city. It took him only a year to create an early version of his signature bubble letters, which were quickly picked-up and copied by other street artists.  


a Phase 2 tag on a subway car

Indoors vs. the Street 

Street artists who experience commercial success are often criticized by their peers for "selling out" and becoming part of the system that they had formerly rebelled against by creating illegal public works. The act of creating graffiti is both a celebration of existence and a declaration of resistance. 

Street Art's status as vandalism often eclipses its status as art. Many artists are finding more opportunities to create artworks in sanctioned situations, by showing in galleries and museums, or by partnering with organizations that offer outdoor public spaces in which street artists are permitted to execute works. However, many others continue to focus on unsanctioned illegal works. Part of the allure of working illegally has to do with the adrenaline rush that artists get from successfully executing a piece without being apprehended by the authorities. Moreover, carrying out illegal/unsanctioned tags on privately owned surfaces serves as a direct confrontation with the owner of that space and often has political motivation.

street art covers a corner garage. One side is Lichtenstein inspired.

Current Debates

One major issue currently is the gentrification of street art and murals.  One primary example is the Bushwick Collective.  A study conducted by the rental listing website RentCafe.com this past February listed Bushwick among the top 20 fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States: In the past decade, the neighborhood now boasts the highest concentration of murals and graffiti art lining the walls of its warehouses, abandoned buildings commercial storefronts and even some public schools. 


largescale street art in Bushwick. Writing on a garage door asks "where is the real NYC"


These beautiful and expansive murals have been painted by some of the most respected, up-and-coming artists from around the world, part of a large and ever-growing graffiti exhibition known as The Bushwick Collective.  Some brands and advertisers also are benefitting from the area’s street art. During the Bushwick Collective’s annual block party, dozens of businesses, local and international, promoted their products to the approximately 2,000 attendees, all of whom were eager to gather and take photos in front of the dozens of freshly painted new murals.  The painted walls are also a huge tourist attraction, especially for people that are visiting NYC.  Many companies have tried to capitalize on the artworks and offer walking tours.  Ironically having these murals in most places unsanctioned is still illegal, yet people will go and see it in a different neighborhood.  



glossary of street art terms. Tagging, stencil


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