Bubbled letters, bold colors, and eye-catching, thought-provoking messages decorate the walls of many urban areas today. The allure of graffiti—messages and images illicitly drawn on public property—stems from the fact that the act is both very noticeable and ultimately liberating. Its genesis occurred on the streets of Philadelphia because of the actions of a high schooler named Darryl McCray. In 1965, McCray was sent to a juvenile detention center, where he adopted the nickname “Cornbread” because of his hatred of the white bread served in the center’s cafeteria. After being released, he began writing “Cornbread loves Cynthia” in simple black and white ink throughout the city to woo a girl he had a crush on. He and his friends continued “tagging,” or writing their nicknames all over the city, and eventually attracted the attention of the local media.
It is unknown whether tagging spread to New York from Philadelphia or whether it began independently in New York, but the mass popularization of graffiti in New York was instigated by a foot messenger nicknamed TAKI 183, who introduced tagging into the subway systems he frequented in the late 1960s. People became more and more curious about this mysterious figure, and the charm of graffiti increased as TAKI became more widely known.
Young New Yorkers catalyzed the spread of tagging, perhaps seeking a similar claim to fame. The practice became a competition to be noticed, as people began to use spray paint, rather than the original medium of black marker, to create their own unique styles. The desire for recognition pushed artists to attempt to outdo one another in terms of creativity, style, and size of their signatures. More colors and embellishments were introduced, and graffiti moved on from the simple style of tagging into more intricate designs with special fonts and word outlining.
The use of graffiti for political purposes started in France around the same time graffiti began to appear in Philadelphia and New York. French protesters in the May 1968 protests scrawled a famous declaration across Paris city walls, claiming “Sous les paves, la plage,” meaning “Under the paving stones, the beach.” This statement reflected the French protesters’ sentiments that freedom could be found under the restrictions of French society.
About a decade later in 1980, the French artist Blek le Rat first incorporated images into graffiti art when he painted rats on city walls using stencils. Like the French protesters of 1968, Blek le Rat was similarly passionate about the pursuit of freedom and described the rat as “the only free animal in the city.” The image of the rat became popular in graffiti culture, appearing again in the 1990s in Banksy’s early work. Perhaps the most well-known graffiti artist, Banksy is credited with the introduction of street art into professional art galleries. Banksy’s work usually features striking images and slogans that employ anti-war, anti-establishment, and anti-capitalist messages.
In a way, all works of graffiti are political statements; even the simplest tagging of names is “a political statement against what we consider public property and its restrictive laws and the regulations of a normalizing society,” says Emily Colucci, a New York University graduate student with a Masters in art history. Ever since the concept of legal property ownership came about, graffiti has been seen as a defiant act. Roger Gastman, co-author of The History of American Graffiti, says, “There’s also an intrinsic subversion and vanity to an art form that defines itself by writing one’s name over and over again on property.” Yet this defiance is necessary in a world that continues to implement restrictions and suppress individuality. Graffiti was born out of a collective desire to be seen—to proclaim, “I was here.” While it may seem vain, the sentiment of leaving a mark is delightfully human. Graffiti is, perhaps, the most tangible expression of freedom.