The Rise of Graffiti: An In-Depth Look at Its History and Impact on Urban Culture

By: Jordan Meadows - Staff Writer

The early roots of modern graffiti can be traced back to the 1920s on boxcars, but its contemporary movement emerged predominantly in the 1960s through the initiatives of political activists and gang members. The pioneering era of graffiti occurred between 1969 and 1974, primarily centered in New York City. Graffiti artists during this period aimed to achieve maximum visibility by tagging numerous locations across the city.

Graffiti refers to writing or drawings inscribed or sprayed illicitly on walls or other public surfaces. It ranges from simple words to intricate murals and remains a persistent issue for cities due to its defacement of public spaces.

One notable figure from the rise in Graffiti was TAKI 183, a youth from Washington Heights, Manhattan, employed as a foot messenger. His tag, TAKI, derived from his name Demetrius (Demetraki), and his street number, 183rd. Constantly traveling on the subway, TAKI 183 began placing his tags throughout his routes, garnering media attention with a 1971 article in The New York Times. Another early graffiti artist, Julio 204, though less recognized outside the graffiti subculture at the time, also contributed to the movement's early development.

During this period, there was a shift from graffiti appearing mainly on city streets to becoming prominent on subways. Competition among graffiti artists also began to emerge, with the primary goal being to spread as many tags and pieces (known as bombs) across various locations.

Artists started to break into subway yards to paint trains, aiming to cover them extensively with larger, more intricate artworks on the sides of subway cars, often with reduced risk compared to painting in public spaces.

By 1971, tags began to evolve into distinctive calligraphic styles as the number of participants grew, necessitating ways for each artist to distinguish themselves. Alongside increasing complexity and creativity, tags began to scale up in size and detail. Many graffiti artists started enlarging letters, thickening lines, and adding outlines, marking the advent of the 'masterpiece' or 'piece' in 1972. Super Kool 223 is recognized as the pioneer of these elaborate pieces.

During this period, designs such as polka dots, crosshatches, and checkers gained popularity, fueled by a surge in the use of spray paint among graffitists expanding their artistic horizons.

'Top-to-bottoms', which spanned the entire height of subway cars, emerged around this time. The growing artistic maturity did not go unnoticed; in 1972, Hugo Martinez founded the United Graffiti Artists (UGA), a collective of leading artists aiming to elevate graffiti into gallery art. By 1974, graffiti artists began incorporating scenery and cartoon characters into their compositions. The Fabulous Five (TF5) crew gained renown for their intricately designed whole subway cars.

Graffiti served as a means of expression for political activists and urban gangs like the Savage Skulls, La Familia, and Savage Nomads to assert their territories. In 1969, Herbert R. Kohl published an article titled "Names, Graffiti, and Culture" in The Urban Review, detailing how New York youth had been tagging their neighborhoods with personal names and street numbers since the early 1960s. Towards the late 1960s, graffiti signatures began to emerge in Philadelphia by artists such as Cornbread, Cool Earl, and Sketch.

Graffiti stands as one of the foundational elements of hip-hop culture, alongside rapping, DJing, and break dancing. This connection stems from early graffiti artists engaging in other aspects of hip-hop and practicing their craft in communities where hip-hop culture was flourishing as an art form.

By mid-1986, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in NYC was successfully curbing graffiti, leading to a decline in active graffiti and associated violence within graffiti crews. During this time, rooftops became new canvases for some 1980s graffiti artists. The contemporary graffiti era shifted as many participants moved their art from train carriages to "street galleries."

The Clean Train Movement began in May 1989, marking New York City's explicit effort to eliminate subway cars defaced with graffiti from the transit system.

Fast forward to the 21st century, Graffiti remains illegal in many cities: sparking debate as proponents see it as a way to reclaim public space and showcase artistic expression. Critics argue that graffiti contributes to a perception of urban decay and heightened crime concerns, potentially impacting property values and reducing tax revenue for essential municipal services like schools, fire protection, and sanitation.

The terms "street art" or "post-graffiti" are often used to distinguish contemporary public-space artworks from traditional territorial graffiti, vandalism, and corporate-sponsored art installations.

In Charlotte, there is a "graffiti program" that emphasizes anti-graffiti education and pledges to remove reported graffiti within 48 hours. Mecklenburg County has a specific ordinance prohibiting any form of graffiti on public or private property, including buildings, structures, sidewalks, and other real or personal property.

For graffiti writers, consequences can escalate swiftly. First and second offenses incur fines and misdemeanor charges, but a third offense escalates to a Class H felony, carrying a jail term of 4 to 25 months—more severe than charges for making terroristic threats, classified as a Class I felony. Reaching a third offense is not uncommon within this subculture, as artists often sign their work, making it easy to track their history.

Charlotte showcases commissioned graffiti murals by international artists on numerous surfaces, with parts of Uptown embracing this vibrant street art movement. The city displays over 60 murals, some sponsored by large corporations for decorative, subtle advertising purposes.

In October 2018, Charlotte hosted the Talking Walls Mural Festival, a celebration that aimed to elevate the city's creative spirit. Organizers brought together nationally and internationally renowned artists along with local muralists to enhance Charlotte's landscape using spray paint.

Before these sanctioned street art celebrations, Charlotte was home to graffiti bombers refining their craft in the shadows. These hidden spaces — underpasses and abandoned lots — serve as the canvas where Charlotte's most vivid and expressive artworks thrive.

Following a decline during the COVID-19 pandemic, graffiti incidents on NCDOT walls and signs in the Triangle area have surged again. From June 2022 to 2023, the division spent approximately $225,000 on graffiti removal by contractors, tripling the expenditure from the previous year.

Graffiti removal for NCDOT begins by applying solvent to the scrawls and images for about 15 minutes, followed by using a pressure washer, which typically proves effective after a couple of rounds.

Graffiti along Interstate 540 and U.S. 401 in North Raleigh tends to be crude and vulgar, likely the work of young individuals. In the same area, messages on sound walls express disdain for homebuilders and developers. However, the highest concentration of highway graffiti appears to be in West Raleigh possibly due to its proximity to N.C. State University students.

According to state law, "graffiti vandalism" constitutes a Class 1 misdemeanor, which may result in a $500 fine and up to 24 hours of community service. Since the start of 2021, the Raleigh Police Department has received only 5 reports of graffiti within the city, according to spokesman Jason Borneo.

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