In our last post on Street Art, we discussed a few places in the United States where street art was particularly prevalent or had a significant impact on the surrounding community. Today, we’d like to delve a little bit more into the history of street art and examine how it has evolved over time.
Street art is, very simply put, public art that is available to view by anyone. Like most artistic media, street art has evolved over time, and it, as well as graffiti, can trace its roots back to ancient human civilization. An early example of graffiti was writing one’s name on a surface, a process known as “tagging.” One of the earliest known practitioners of this form of graffiti was Joseph Kyselak, who in the early 19th century “tagged” his name throughout the Austro-Hungarian empire. Beginning with a friendly bet to be known throughout the empire within three years, Kyselak ultimately continued “tagging” his name even after the three years were over. Some of Kyselak’s “tags” still exist and they are significant enough that there is actually a group working to preserve his work.
Another early example of graffiti included markings created by wanderers, known as “hobos,” in the United States and England, which most frequently occurred on boxcars in the early 1900’s. Such markings were most often created with oil bars, mark alls, or wax pencils and were single color drawings. Like much graffiti, it was part of a communication system. This one in particular was designed to connect and share the whereabouts of wanderers, as well as their experiences, with one another. This graffiti is viewed as significant because it represents the ideas of a marginalized group in society.
Beyond “tagging” and markings by wanderers, graffiti and street art were also utilized by gangs as a communication tool. This type of graffiti first became prominent in New York in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and has continued since. Although used in a similar way to the graffiti of wanderers, such graffiti was viewed negatively and even as dangerous by some due to the criminal association with gangs. Over time, this perception of gang graffiti has affected how graffiti is viewed in general; graffiti has often been associated with criminal activity.
“Tagging” was also popular in different parts of the world during World War 1 and 2. During World War 2, the phrase “Kilroy was here” was written by U.S. servicemen as they traveled. The phrase likely was originated by James J. Kilroy, a shipyard inspector from the United States, as a way of marking a completed inspection. It was then later found by servicemen in various places on ships, and they began writing the phrase themselves. The “tagging” became a way for the soldiers to mark where they had been so that when others came along, they would know they were not the first to have been in a certain place. The phrase became so well-known that it has been referenced numerous times in popular culture.
Modern street art began to take shape in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s as younger people, responding to the social and political landscape of the time, used the medium of street art to express themselves. This expression began to fundamentally change the way in which street art was viewed; people began to see it as a medium of artist expression. This change was likely due to the fact that much of the early graffiti was not easy to relate to; as we discussed above, graffiti was in a language and form that many people had difficulty understanding. When the art began addressing concepts that people could relate to, the perceptions of street art as an artistic form also began to change.
When discussing street art, its relationship to graffiti is a topic that is hotly debated. Both share a number of similar qualities – graffiti is often seen as a precursor to modern street art – but there are also significant differences. One major difference between graffiti and street art is that graffiti is word or letter based, while street art is image based. The word-based nature of graffiti often results in a language that is only understood by certain groups of people, and this creates a division among viewers; those who understand the graffiti language use it as a method of communication between taggers, while those who do not understand it do not recognize its meaning or importance and tend to view it as of little value or even vandalism. On the other hand, street art, which is image based, is often more widely understood by its viewers and thus is more widely accepted.
For example, let’s say that someone writes a message about love in French on a wall in New York City. The small number of people there who speak French notice and understand it instantly, recognizing its message. However, the majority of people who see it do not speak French and thus see a group of words that they do not understand. Instead of recognizing its value, they view it as an act of vandalism. Now let’s consider the same situation, but instead of a message in French, there is a large mural of a heart. Now, while not everyone may gain the same meaning out of the mural, everyone understands that it is talking about love and can see the value in it.
Other differences include the fact that graffiti is usually illegal and unwelcome, while street art is usually sanctioned or commissioned and its images are intended to communicate in some way with everyone in the neighborhood. When discussing street art and graffiti, it is also important to understand that the perception of street art differs in different parts of the world. It’s not unusual for certain areas of a city to be designated as a street art “district,” where street art is particularly prevalent. One such area in the United States is San Francisco’s Mission District, which has many of its walls, fences, and alleyways decorated with Chicano inspired art.
The areas in which graffiti and street art have been created have also changed over time. For example, in New York City, subway cars had long represented a medium for artistic expression. However, in the mid-1980’s, the city began its Clean Train Movement, which effectively eliminated the artistic medium of subway cars. As a result, these artists began expressing themselves on street level, which helped to further shift the perception of graffiti and street art. Instead of being underground in the subway system, the art was now created at street level for everyone to see. This is turn resulted in more street art being created and an increased acceptance of the artistic medium.
Despite this wider acceptance of street art, there are still some issues facing it. Some still consider street art to be illegal. In fact, the city of Los Angeles actually banned murals in the early 2000’s, although this ban was overturned in 2013 and many early murals are being restored.
Street art has changed tremendously over time, and it will be interesting to see how it evolves in the future.