The Origins of Graffiti: From Hip-hop to Gun Shots

The year is 1980, South Bronx, NY, NY. In a smoky project apartment, an unknown DJ loops a soul sample on his turntables. A few measures later, the MC breaks out and unleashes the first verse. Across the East River in Queens, a dope fiend steps out of the rain and into Big Mac’s Deli. A few brief words are exchanged with the man at the counter, and the two head for the storage room in the back. Over in Brooklyn, groups of hooded teens break out the bolt cutters, slide the chain off, and slip into the subway yard under the cover of darkness. Other than the cacophonous drone of city life in the distance, the only noise comes from frantic footsteps and the distinct hiss of a spray can; the number five train needs a new paint job.
During the height of the civil rights movement, activists would use graffiti to lash out against anyone or anything on their mind by painting slogans in easily accessible public areas where many people would see the work. For instances, slogans such as “Free Huey”, referring to co-founder of the Black Panthers, Huey Newton, who was accused of murder in a controversial case, and “Dick Nixon Before He Dicks You”, showcased the lack of sympathy inner city youth felt towards an inherently flawed social, legal, economic, and political system. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, African American communities across the US found themselves at a bitter-sweet crossroads: although institutionalized discrimination against them ceased, the greatest challenges to progress began burst through the cracks in the very communities they called home. Considering how white Americans had a two hundred year head start on the competition, the process of catching-up once the playing field was finally “leveled” seemed like another insurmountable peak. It was like throwing a nest filled with newly hatched chicks off a cliff and expecting them to fly. Despite the constant storm cloud that hung over the slums of NY in the 1980’s, a few managed to escape.
These were the parts of town that your parents told you to avoid. The parts that the bright lights of Time Square and the Manhattan skyline did not reach. In these forgotten and neglected areas, those that did make it were one of two breeds: the famous or the infamous; those that earned it versus those that took it. Lacking the educational and financial privileges that many other Americans enjoyed, African-Americans were severely limited in their ability to follow the traditional path to success.
With the fragmentation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1976, African-American communities lost a powerful voice and one of the few organizations dedicated to their welfare. In the ensuing power vacuum, Hip-Hop and gangs began to emerge and fill the void. While many associate the term “Hip-Hop” exclusively with the musical aspect, in its original context, it is in a fact a term used to denote an entire cultural movement. Hip-Hop can be broken down into several sub-sections: MCing, or rapping, DJing, B-boying, or break dancing, beat boxing, and graffiti writing. In each one of these manifestations, the goal was the same: to express one’s concern over the socio-economic injustices that the disenfranchised lower-class communities faced. Early graffiti artists, like Phase 2 and Taki 183, left their tags on the sides of buildings and alleyways as a beacon to the world. Sociologists “Ernest Abel and Barbara Buckley contend that graffiti markings have historically been ‘announcements of one's identity, a kind of personal testimonial to one's existence … scratched, carved, or painted onto some surface seemingly for the purpose of leaving one's mark.’ Such imprints, they point out, have traditionally been the preoccupation of adolescents from lower socio-economic backgrounds, those with the least power and voice within society and the group most attracted to graffiti (Christen).” From a stylistic standpoint, the works of these artists were not very complicated. An individual would create a pseudonym and throw it up on the side of building. Early tags often used one color and did not require much artistic talent, since leaving a permanent mark was the primary objective.
Around the mid-1980’s, graffiti began to evolve and grow as an art form. As time went on, the bar was continuously raised. Individuals soon began banning together to form cliques, which would often “battle” rival groups for respect and bragging rights. Whereas MC’s competed with each other and expressed themselves verbally, artist visually did the same on subway cars, trucks, buildings, overpasses, and increasingly conspicuous places. moreover, the scale and complexity of the work also began to progress exponentially. Writers began to create “masterpieces”, or “pieces”, instead of simply writing one’s name on a wall. All across NYC’s urban landscape, stunning murals, which incorporated three-dimensional words and images, as well as multiple colors, began to blanket the concrete.
One of the first to burst onto the scene was Fred Bathwaite, better know by his moniker, “Fab 5 Freddy”, gained notoriety for works of art like the tagging of a subway car with Campbell’s chicken soup cans, as a sort of tribute a similar work of art by Andy Warhol. Other artists, such as Puerto Rican-born Lee Quiñones, also a member of the Fab 5, were catapulted into the spotlight for elevating the scale of graffiti. Quiñones is remembered for being one of the first ever to paint an entire 10-car subway train with graffiti murals. Other notables include Julio 204, and Frank 207, Top Cat 126, Stay High, Super Kool, Phase 2, II Crusher, Tasar 32, Kaves, SJK 171Skeme, Dondi, MinOne and Zephyr. Through music, film, and other medians, the art of graffiti soon began to seep out of the inner city slums and gravitate towards mainstream culture.
While some took up art, others took up arms. The ever present threat of police brutality and racial tensions running high, street crews began to ban together for protection. These early gangs bear little semblance to the street gangs we know today. They were originally vigilante movement geared towards protecting people that the law would not protect, and that society had forgotten about. At this point in time, money still wasn’t a factor; only protecting family and friends through strength in numbers. However, once the money from trafficking drugs and arms, racketeering, and extortion rolled in, gangs became increasingly violent and belligerent in their efforts to expand and push out rivals block by block. “Entrepreneurs” like Frank Lucas and Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols found that the easiest way to make a quick buck (or a few million) was to flood the streets with marijuana, heroin, and crack. Throughout this entire process, it is important to keep in mind that overlapping between gang members and Hip-Hop innovators was not uncommon. Consequently, elements of Hip-Hop culture rubbed off on gang culture, and vice versa. One of the many sets of eyes graffiti artists would capture were those of gang members. But, even though gangs began to spawn their own brand of graffiti, the messages they conveyed and they way that illustrated them strayed drastically from the original intent graffiti pioneers.
Today, gang culture in the arts represents a complete turnaround from the initial reasoning behind their establishment. To understand how and why gang culture, a relatively marginalized sector of society, has managed to permeate into popular culture/the arts, it is necessary to view the subject from a historical lens. One commonality shared by both Hip-Hop and today’s gang is a general outcry for social change; however, the similarities end there. The means that Hip-Hop and gangs used to bring about this “change” could not be further apart. The Civil rights movement of the 1960’s and 70’s gave birth to both gangs and Hip-Hop at roughly the same time. Graffiti in the Civil Right’s movement was an outcry against the institutionalized social injustices against the black community, and other salient issues of the day. However, just because the movement ended, and the legal discrimination against blacks was outlawed, many of the socio-economic conditions remained the same; enter Hip-Hop and street gangs. The first graffiti artists of the Hip-Hop movement carried on the tradition of voicing concern for the plight of America’s disenfranchised, inner-city masses by painting their message in locations where all members of society could see. Around the same time the Civil Rights movement came to an end, so too did the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement, creating a power/leadership vacuum that needed to be filled in the back community. Throughout this evolution, we must keep in mind that Hip-Hop and gangs were developing in the same areas, and often overlapped with each other. However, whereas Hip-Hop utilized art, music, and other forms of non-violent expression to voice concern, other factions within these communities took matters into their own hands. Initially, gangs such as the Crips, an acronym for “community restoration/revolution in progress”, united with other street crews for protection and means to uplift the community. However, once the lucrative drug and arms trade were discovered, these gangs turned into the violent and coercive institutions that we know today. By looking at graffiti as an example, we can highlight the disparities between the two cultures.

Ammar A.