Graffito means “scratch” in Italian, and graffiti (the plural form) are drawings or images scratched into the surfaces of walls. Illicit graffiti (of the “Kilroy was here” variety) dates back to ancient Egypt. Graffiti slipped into the studio as a subject after World War II. Artists such as Cy Twombly and Jackson Pollock were interested in the way it looked, the Frenchman Jean Dubuffet was interested in what it meant as a kind of outsider art, and the Spaniard Antoni Tàpies was interested in the ways it could be incorporated into his imagery of urban walls.
During the early 1970s—soon after aerosol spray paint in cans became readily available—New York subway trains were subjected to an onslaught of exuberantly colored graffiti. The words and “tags” (graffiti writers’ names) were soon augmented with elaborate cartoon-inspired images. Most graffitists were neither professional artists nor art students but streetwise teenagers from the Bronx and Brooklyn.
Several milestones marked graffiti’s move from the street to the gallery: the United Graffiti Artists’ 1975 exhibition at New York’s Artists Space; Fab Five Freddy’s widely discussed spray-painted homage to Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans in 1980; the “Times Square Show,” also in 1980, which galvanized the attention of the New York art world; the ongoing support in the form of exhibition opportunities and career counseling provided by Fashion Moda, an alternative space in the Bronx; and, ultimately, the development of a graffiti style by professionally trained artists such as Keith Haring. The year 1983 saw the zenith of graffiti art, with its first major museum exhibition at the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam and the “Post-Graffiti” exhibition at Sidney Janis’s blue-chip gallery.
The popularization of graffiti raised questions of unusual aesthetic and sociological import. Was graffiti vandalism? Or urban folk art? The writer Norman Mailer romanticized it as the anarchic manifestation of social freedom, while such critics as Suzi Gablik charged that ghetto youths were being exploited by a novelty-crazed art market.
Graffiti’s move to the galleries proved fatal: by the mid-1980s, it already seemed outmoded. Underground “tags” and images designed to be rapidly painted on metal and seen in motion had been transformed into self-parody. Like the latest trend in fashion, graffiti was imported from the streets, commercialized, and then quickly pushed aside.
Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.