A global Street Art phenomenon is taking the world by storm, but not by surprise. Decades before this multifaceted art-form was so openly welcomed into museums, galleries and private collections, Graffiti Artists, or “Writers”, were labeled outlaws for spray painting their “tags” on the trains, walls, tunnels and pages of history. Early graffiti pioneers like Stay High 149, Taki 183, Cornbread and Phase 2, supplied the blueprint by which present day street art icons like BANKSY, Shepard Fairy, Mr. Brainwash and a multitude of next generation street artists have spawned their careers.
Many people consider prehistoric cave paintings and crude inscriptions found on ancient Egyptian and Roman ruins to be the origins of Graffiti. Others argue that it was the undeniably rebellious, yet creative genius of inner city youth who, like urban alchemist’s, transformed their self-proclaimed monikers into unlimited forms ranging from simple block and bubble letter “throw ups” to vivid, intricate “pieces” of art that define modern day Graffiti. Writers developed a complex society governed by abstract rules with an esoteric lexicon of words like “Toy”, “Beef”, “Rack”, “Crew”, “Bomb” and “King” codifying their movement, while keeping detailed “Black Books”, which became cornerstones in the progression of each crew and individual’s style.
Although most major US city’s lay claim to a particular “style” or contribution towards Graffiti’s evolution, the Bronx, NY is universally recognized as the Mecca and birthplace of Graffiti Culture, which along with BBoying (Break Dancing), MCing and DJing comprise the four major elements of a broader “Hip-HOP” culture. As the visual (art) component of Hip-Hop Culture, Graffiti has played an essential role in fusing underground with popular culture. Cult classic films such as Wild Style (1983), Style Wars (1983) and Beat Street (1984) introduced national audiences to an edgy world of music, dance and art previously unknown to main street America. The publication of Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s “Subway Art” (1984) exported New York style graffiti around the globe, with a follow up work titled “Spraycan Art”, by Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff, presenting a Rosetta Stone-esque comparison of US and international graffiti styles, galvanizing the Bronx born art-form and elevating New York writers like Dondi, Lee, Seen, Blade, Lady Pink, Zephyr, and Futura to aerosol royalty.
Downtown Manhattan’s art explosion of the 80’s gave graffiti writers access to a world of fame (and sometimes fortune) they had only imagined. Venues like Patty Astor’s FUN Gallery cross pollinated graffiti with a thriving art scene, causing many national and International galleries to follow suit. Breakthrough artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat (who started out tagging “SAMO”) further obscured the lines between graffiti and fine art, fueling the flames of New York’s graffiti/”POP ART” frenzy. However, the ultimate goal of diehard writers is street fame, which means “getting up” as much as possible, any and everywhere, legal or illegal…mostly illegal. This underlying principal sparked an all-out war on graffiti in New York. A mid 80’s, Military style “Vandal Squad” cracked down on writers, enacting strict laws that imposed stiff fines and even jail time for minor offenses, totally wiping out graffiti on subway cars (one of the art’s most symbolic attributes), and attempting to “buff” the city clean, but the spread of graffiti culture proved to be unstoppable.
Connecticut’s proximity to New York has always granted it’s residents first dibs on trends and culture coming out of the big city. As Graffiti Culture expanded from the boroughs of New York, one of its first stops was Connecticut. Writers from Hartford to Norwalk caught on early and developed styles in tune with New York influences. The absence of subways led Connecticut writers hone their skills in the tunnels and underpasses of Metro-North and freight train lines that crisscross the state. Abandoned factories of postindustrial “urbanized” city’s like Bridgeport became safe havens where crews of writers could execute large scale mural productions that eventually spilled over into the city’s landscape. One such crew (the DIE crew) has been painting as a collective for several years, with its core members ES, DRUE, PACER, GELI and REVENGE producing some of Connecticut’s most legendary pieces. In the past few years, the DIE crew has been responsible for two of Bridgeport’s landmark productions, a tribute to circus visionary and Bridgeport resident P.T. Burnum (at the corner of Main and Gold St.) and a thematic resurrection of the historic Majestic Theater (on Main St. between Congress and Arch St.). Both projects received vital support from Mayor Bill Finch and the City of Bridgeport, as well as outstanding praise from the admiring public, ushering in what could be signs of new development and renewed hope for an otherwise desolate downtown Bridgeport.
In addition to their civic activities, the DIE crew remains a well-respected pillar in the graffiti community, acting as diplomats of sorts, they’ve hosted world class writers like COPE2, WANE, TERRIBLE T-KID, CES, BUS, YES 2 and TATS CREW writers BIO, NICER and DMOTE at “piecing” sessions that established Bridgeport as a go to stop on the graffiti atlas. In fact, ES was a guiding custodian of the now defunct, semi-secret location known as FAME CITY, home to over a decade of local and international artist’s murals. Remnants of a character from the German writer “CAN 2” are still visible amongst the dilapidated layers of paint that reveal FAME CITY”S significant past. Members of the DIE crew often speculate on the great potential revitalization of FAME CITY could mean for the City of Bridgeport and the arts community as a whole. They sight numerous examples of how a central, public, legal wall forum would actually curb “illegal” graffiti and allow up and coming talent to develop their skills in the company of “Kings”. Such a project could even incorporate a skate or walking park with a community garden that would invite a diverse mix of people and activities. In an ironic twist, cities across America and abroad are enlisting what is now being labeled as “Street Art” to stimulate interest in re-building decaying environments into urban living communities. It’s as if graffiti has come full circle, from contributing to urban blight, to being a key resource in urban renewal.
Though the verdict is still out on what differentiates street art from graffiti, nuances in technique, subject matter and social politics are the only barriers that keep the two genres from melding back into one creative entity. As the street art craze rages on, so does the multi-million dollar industry created in the wake of its popularity. New spray paint companies like Montana, Ironlak and Belton have revolutionized the market; while a vast array of previously un-obtainable “urban” art supplies are now readily accessible in stores. And more than any other period in time, graffiti artists are capitalizing on their craft with large scale commissions, gallery shows and growing support from collectors that truly respect the culture.