GRAFFITI AND CONTEMPORARY ART

The street art's influence runs deep.

Graffiti is arguably the definitive street art. Though its origins extend as far back as ancient cave paintings, the word graffiti – a derivative of the Italian graffio, which means “scratch” – usually conjures images of urban sprawl, train cars and bridges covered in colorful, bulbous script. But the past few decades witnessed this radical outdoor artform inspire groundbreaking paintings, which in turn have made their way into some of the world’s top galleries and museums.

Pioneered by Black and Brown youth in Philadelphia and New York in the late 1960s, graffiti blossomed in New York during the ‘70s as the city experienced massive socio-economic change. The city faced uncertainty as it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy as an older generation fled to the suburbs (and took their tax dollars with them) while a younger generation started to replace them. This served as the setting for artists like Lady Pink, Min and Bil Rock who covered New York in their work, often tagging it with their signature in the process to gain recognition. The defiant atmosphere fostered art unencumbered by traditional rules and acted as a training ground for a new generation of artists.

One of the most prominent artists to emerge during this period was SAMO – pronounced “same-oh, a shortening of “same old” – who gained clout painting graffiti throughout Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood starting in 1978. Press outlets like The Village Voice began faithfully documenting his projects and trying to learn his identity. The artist’s real name? Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Basquiat garnered increasing recognition and transitioned to becoming an artist whose work was exhibited in galleries and museums. By the early 1980s, his style had started to reshape contemporary painting as he applied the energetic lines and contrasting, layered pigments associated with graffiti to his work. This new work bridged the divide between the two and caused initial unease before finding acclaim with critics and audiences alike. But he wasn’t alone in adapting the style. Contemporaries like Keith Haring and Elizabeth Murray also drew on the street art’s heritage and helped integrate it into the contemporary fine art world.

The impact of their generation proves enduring. The anonymous artist known as Banksy may be the most prominent example of how graffiti has shaped the current art scene. Though multidisciplinary, some of his most recognizable artworks are stencil graffiti depicting things like Kim Kardashian wearing the garb of Mother Teresa or of a young girl reaching for a heart-shaped balloon. Many are surreptitiously produced in public spaces, but Banksy also paints miniatures of these pieces in the same style. In 2018, his painted version of Girl with Balloon was destroyed by a shredder hidden within its frame when it was sold at auction. It may have generated a tremendous amount of press for the artist, but the act also went to the heart of graffiti’s origins as something vulnerable to being washed away by the elements and time. Just as with graffiti, the underlying message was clear: nothing is permanent.