LEE, Graffiti 1990, 1981

American Graffiti: A journey to modern “Writing” and “Tagging” art

The text below is the excerpt of the book American Graffiti (ASIN: B016XN11HS), written by Margo Thompson, published by Parkstone International.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf are graffiti artists according to art historians and critics, and so are the painters, later featured in galleries, who began their careers ‘writing’ on or ‘tagging’ New York City subway cars.

The graffiti art movement began with shows at Fashion Moda, the Fun Gallery, the Mudd Club, and other exhibition spaces that opened in the early 1980s, and expanded into the established galleries of SoHo, 57th Street, and the Basel art fair. It ended just a few years later when critics, dealers, and collectors turned their attention to new trends. In the decades since graffiti art’s heyday, Basquiat has had retrospective exhibitions, a foundation was established devoted to Haring’s legacy, and Scharf continues to test the boundaries between high art and popular culture. However, subway writers on the whole have not received sustained attention from art historians and critics of art of the 1980s. Considering them as a distinct group of graffiti artists who gave the movement its name and lent it ‘street cred’, we can learn something about the way the New York art market of the 1980s assimilated a subcultural, vernacular art form produced for the most part by racial and ethnic minorities and the terms on which it was accepted.

Burglar, 1981, American Graffiti, Margo Thompson
KEY, Burglar, 1981. Aerosol paint on subway car. New York.

Haring developed a reputation for drawing cartoonish figures in subway stations. Scharf actually painted on a subway car or two with spray paint, after meeting some writers. Both men acknowledged, though, that they came to graffiti art ‘crossing over in the other direction’, as Haring said, from writers who began their careers by tagging trains and public walls and later translated their designs to permanent surfaces. They both studied at the School for Visual Arts in New York, and they shared a studio. Haring had arrived in the city from the hinterlands of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and Scharf came from Los Angeles. They were intrigued enough–Scharf said he was ‘hypnotized’–by the spontaneous art they encountered on the sides of subway cars to try their hands at similar public displays. Basquiat, by contrast, came to the New York art world from the same direction as subway writers: moving from public spaces to commercial ones. He had earned a certain reputation writing gnomic phrases under the name of SAMO in 1979. SAMO was ubiquitous in some neighbourhoods in lower Manhattan, especially near art galleries.

There are a number of reasons why subway writers have not received the serious attention their more famous peers have enjoyed. For one, the ‘pieces’ on which their careers were founded, the whole-car compositions that captured the public’s attention–both positive and negative–have all been destroyed. Another reason these artists are often overlooked is graffiti’s strong association with hip-hop culture, which ties it to the mass market, not high art. As interest in graffiti art waned, a number of former writers developed careers as graphic artists while Basquiat, Haring and Scharf managed to transcend their paintings’ allusions to the mass media and achieve recognition as fine artists. These distinct career trajectories were set early, as a consequence of the language critics used to analyse graffiti art: Basquiat, Haring and Scharf were awarded an art historical lineage, while subway writers rarely were. This is not to say that subway writers did not receive positive notices in reputable art magazines—they did. But their paintings remained strange and exotic even to their fans: as one writer, DAZE put it, ‘Graffiti was this language that they wanted to get to know on a superficial level, but they didn’t want to be able to speak it fluently’. This book seeks to correct that perspective, by taking seriously the writers’ ambitions and achievements.

MITCH 77, Pluto, American Graffiti, Margo Thompson
MITCH 77, Pluto, date unknown. New York.

One history of graffiti art would trace it back to the cave paintings of Lascaux, by way of Roman latrinalia, Kilroy, and similar acts of anonymous mark-making. The aesthetic this genealogy suggests, of letters and pictures urgently scratched onto public walls, connects with some mid-twentieth century painters whose brushwork resembles calligraphy, like Cy Twombly, or whose figures seem crude and untutored, like Jean Dubuffet. The palimpsest that graffiti builds up over time brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg, whose accretions of images from mass culture are rich and layered. Yet graffiti art derived from subway writing was in fact innocent of these influences, at least until the artists discovered them and, in Basquiat’s case, consciously appropriated them. Art historian Jack Stewart, in the first scholarly study of subway writing, argues persuasively that the tags and pieces that first appeared in New York City between 1970 and 1978 were a unique efflorescence, having no connection to any known high-art source. The writers agree: even those who harboured ambitions to be fine artists from an early age honed their skills within the highly organised writing subculture. They furthermore rejected calling what they did graffiti, a term imposed by the official state culture that wanted to eradicate it. ‘Graffiti’ designated what they did as criminal vandalism. They preferred to call their activity ‘writing,’ and I have used that terminology wherever possible to distinguish between what was written on the trains and what was painted on canvases. Writers insisted that their paintings should not be called graffiti, because they were made legally and for a different audience than their tags and pieces. As at least one writer recognised, calling their paintings graffiti suggested a limit to their iconographic and stylistic advancement: how much could the paintings change and still fit that designation? Nevertheless, art dealers, critics, and the artists themselves accepted the label ‘graffiti art’, albeit with various degrees of enthusiasm, and I use the phrase for its historical context. The following chapters establish the parameters of the movement by giving their pieces (to the extent that documentary photographs permit) and paintings the formal analysis that has been absent from existing accounts of graffiti art.

Various artists. Aerosol paint on subway cars, American Graffiti, Margo Thompson
Various artists. Aerosol paint on subway cars. New York.

Writers developed their styles in a hierarchical system of apprenticeship, where aspiring taggers made contact with more established ones, who critiqued their designs worked out in hardbound black sketchbooks, gave them tags to copy, and perhaps invited them to participate in executing a masterpiece–a large-scale composition covering most or all of a subway car. A young writer might join a crew whose writers he admired, and prove himself by advancing the group’s signature style. By devoting hours to his craft, he would master aerosol techniques, become familiar with the palettes of various spray-paint manufacturers, learn the subway lines, lay-ups, and yards, and develop a distinctive tagging style of his own. He might eventually be recognised by his peers as ‘king’ of a particular subway line, if his tags were ubiquitous enough and his style was impressive. Basquiat, Haring and Scharf did not participate in this well-established and self-perpetuating writers’ academy. With the exception of some tags on the inside of subway cars, Basquiat’s public writing was limited to the black block capital letters with which he wrote nihilistic aphorisms as SAMO. Haring drew pictures in chalk on the black paper covering expired advertisements in subway stations, using a lexicon of ideograms of his own devising. Scharf did spray paint some graffiti in imitation of the writing he admired, but cannot be said to have been a part of that culture. The frame of reference, source material, and aesthetic of these three artists differed significantly from each other, and from subway writers.

ZEPHYR, Venom, 1981, American Graffiti, Margo Thompson
ZEPHYR, Venom, 1981. Aerosol paint on metal, 240 x 240 cm. Courtesy of Henk Pijnenburg, from his collection, Deurne.

While graffiti trains no longer course along the tracks in New York City, most resources on graffiti art are there. I would like to thank Melanie Bower at the Museum of the City of New York, the staff at Fales Library and Special Collections of the New York University Libraries, and the New York Public Library for their assistance. Writers were exceedingly generous with their time: I am grateful to BLADE, CRASH, DAZE, LADY PINK, and ZEPHYR, and MICK LA ROCK of Amsterdam, for their patience in answering my questions and for flagging my most egregious misunderstandings. Carlo McCormick and Barry Blinderman shared their experiences with graffiti art and artists. Joe Austin offered moral support and references. Tom Check and Nancy Witherell provided room and board on my research trips to New York. Belinda Neumann, Dolores Ormandy Neumann, and Hubert Neumann shared their enthusiasm for graffiti art. In the Netherlands, Henk Pijnenberg, Vincent Vlasblom, and Steven Kolsteren and the staff at the Groninger Museum gave me access to their archives and collections. The University of Vermont’s Dean’s Fund partially funded my travels there in 2007. I thank Ernesto Capello, DAZE, Steven Kolsteren, Nancy Owen, Henk Pijnenberg, John Waldron, the indispensable Emily Bernard and ZEPHYR for reading and commenting on this manuscript. Any errors and all interpretations are my own. To Court Thompson, my appreciation and love…

Explore more on:

The Museum of Graffiti – Art Museum Miami – Wynwood

Graffiti Museum — Uptown Main Street

Wynwood Walls – Urban Graffiti Art Museum Miami

Unknown, date unknown. Aerosol paint on building, American Graffiti, Margo Thompson
Unknown, date unknown. Aerosol paint on building. New York.

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