Street art is our favorite genre of art, we like it because as visual art it is motivated by the artists want to communicate with the public at large and outside the bounds of formal art. It’s this counter-cultural, subversive, opinionated, and informal style which turns our urban environments into the canvas on which our societies issues are adorned.
While street art is something that many of us urban dwellers may see every day there is little thought put into how street art evolved into its current form. In this series we present to you the evolution of street art, from the very beginnings of graffiti, through the various styles of stencils, tags, and paste-ups, and to more modern developments that have shifted street art from vandalism to a genre of art in its own right.
Graffiti, or the act of writing or painting illicitly on a surface often within public view, has existed since ancient times. How ancient?... you might wonder. Examples of graffiti date back to the Ancient Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire. It seems that man has always had an innate interest in leaving their mark for others to see. The progression from cave art, to ancient graffiti, and to more modern examples from the World Wars show a common theme in graffiti, a commentary on the pressing issues of the time.
Back when we took shelter in caves, man graffiti-ed the walls of those caves with scenes of animals and the pursuit of food, as basic survival was paramount and featured prominently in their art. When lit by firelight the scenes painted on the walls would seem to come to life with the flicker of the fire.
In classical times the content of graffiti began to change, phrases of love, words of thought, political slogans, and literary quotes began to appear as man became more enlightened. Still though, people made their opinions known via graffiti, even an opinion about a tavern owner and his questionable wine in Pompeii...
Landlord, may your lies malign
Bring destruction on your head!
You yourself drink unmixed wine,
Water [do you] sell [to] your guests instead
-Olmert, Michael (1996). Milton's Teeth and Ovid's Umbrella: Curiouser & Curiouser Adventures in History. Simon & Schuster, New York. pp. 48- 49. ISBN 0684801647.
... or the ever-present dick graffiti, which in Pompeii was accompanied by the text mansueta tene ("handle with care").
In the twentieth century, the foundations of modern graffiti with its social and political statements, were laid during the two World Wars. Graffiti on a wall at a fortress in Verdun commented on the need for US intervention in Europe twice in a generation.
Austin White – Chicago, Ill – 1918
Austin White – Chicago, Ill – 1945
This is the last time I want to write my name here.
During World War II and for some time after it a popular phrase and illustration was “Kilroy was here” which became widespread due to American troops adoption of it and the eventual filtering into American popular culture. For an American over the age of 30, you might have seen this or versions of it growing up.
The advent of aerosol paints and paint markers allowed for the graffiti boom and turned what was typically messages scratched or crudely painted onto walls, into a vibrant colorful new form of art which begin to diversify. Until the 1960’s graffiti was mostly used by political activists to make statements and by gang members to mark their territory. Graffiti as a modern art form first came into being with bombing in Philadelphia in the mid 60’s and can be attributed to CORNBREAD and COOL EARL. In the 1980’s subways cars and walls in New York City became the ultimate canvas and graffiti writers were plentiful.
This progression through roughly 10,000 years of graffiti history shows that the desire to create and paint on walls is ingrained in humans. The next part of the series will look into the various styles of street art. Be sure to check out the next post where we will discuss bombing in more detail and look at how it took graffiti from quick tags and changed it into what we see today.