Driving through downtown is almost better than an art museum nowadays. With art displayed on highway bridges, tall buildings, and abandoned buildings, beautiful intricate art is everywhere you turn, but it left me wondering: Why risk your life to spray paint a word? And more importantly, how the hell did they get up there?
Graffiti has been known for being an art form that stands for everything art is supposed to stand for. Defying the typical social norms of conformity and being accessible to all. With this sentiment, street art has become an outlet for people, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc., to express themselves and let it be seen. Non-profit organization Art Story describes the central aspect of graffiti as, “No one can own it or buy it. Viewers are seeing a one-of-a-kind work that is likely not to last. This temporariness creates an immediacy and electricity around the work.” What may seem like just some scribbles on the wall is actually a whole entire world.
How Cornbread Shaped Modern Graffiti Art
Modern-day graffiti had its start in 1965 with the infamous Cornbread, the first modern graffiti artist. As a 12 year old, Daryl “Cornbread” McCray lived in Philadelphia’s Youth Development Center. Instead of adding more gang symbols to the center’s walls, Cornbread took to adding his signature. He’s even famously known for confessing his feelings to his crush “Cynthia” by painting “Cornbread Loves Cynthia ” along her bus route and neighborhood. From this, modern graffiti had its first style, tags. Graffiti writers sign tags as their starting style for graffiti and their “signature.” These tags are often something unique to the artist. For instance, Cornbread was given the name from a lunch server at the Youth Development Center after he kept begging them to make the cornmeal quick bread he remembered his grandma making. Once artists have a defined tag they go on to evolve their artwork and continue to include their tag in the piece.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, young people continued Cornbread’s legacy by spraying the sides of subways and buildings with bright pictures and his legacy flourished in the dawn of hip-hop and break-dancing in the 80s and 90s. Dancers would spray out a word/name and someone would go behind and fill them in, sometimes even adding extra designs around it. Thus, the art form spread like wildfire.
Advancing the Art
From tags, graffiti artists go on to experiment and perfect many different styles of street art. Here are the most common styles.
You have probably seen this style without even knowing it. This style is known as a thrown up. Known for being painted quickly, similar to a hollow, this style includes round, bubble letters that are typically filled with color. This style is usually the next step up from a tag because artists can get their tag bigger, while still moving quickly. For even more swiftness and sometimes used in tighter spaces, some artists opt for a two letter throw up style. This is where the artist only includes two letters from their tag (commonly the first two letters). On the other hand, the more difficult version of a throw up is a hollow. A hollow looks the same as a throw up however there is no fill in so it shows can control.
This style is known as the most intricate and advanced style of graffiti. It originated in the 80s when Tracy 186 founded the Wildstyle Crew in Bronx, New York. The complex nature of the style involves intricate elements, such as flares and sharp edges.
A Whole New World
To get a glimpse into the world, which is unknown to most, I sat down and interviewed experienced ATL based graffiti writer, Walz. When asked if it was inexpensive to be a graffiti writer, he explained,“ It really depends. Some people steal their paint. That’s how it was done generations ago. When it first started being a thing they weren’t paying for paint that would probably get buffed, which is when your stuff gets painted over. And they didn’t want to waste their own paint. So they normally did what they would call racking, which is to steal the paint.”
Although some people steal their paint, others may pay for their own supplies but in order to keep it inexpensive there are some things to consider, Walz describes, “The cheaper paint only works on certain stuff and stays for a certain amount of time. Then you got your expensive paint that stays longer, but it’s like $6 a can.”
The Culture and Its Rules
As graffiti has remained influential from generation to generation, it has become a different world and developed its own rules and traditions. “It’s its own culture”, Walz elaborates, “So you’ll have enemies and you’ll have to fight sometimes over graffiti. You wouldn’t think that people would beef over that but if you go over someone’s stuff, there’s consequences.”
An important part of graffiti culture is knowing how to respect the legends before you. Many writers in the past serve as an inspiration for writers today. Walz speaks to this when he describes how he developed his own tag. “You look at the people before you and get inspired,” he says. “I would just go get a sheet of paper and go write my tag over and over again.” Not only do legends serve as an inspiration for the writers to come, there are also rules to uphold the respect they earned. For instance, you cannot tag over a dead writer’s tag because they can no longer defend their spot. However there can be conflict if someone tags over someone else’s spot and that person is still able to defend it. “With graffiti if you didn’t take a picture of it, it didn’t happen,” Walz explains. “So people really be beefing over the graffiti.” However the shape and form of how this conflict is handled has changed over the years, especially with social media. “Social media made it all more mainstream. Back in the day you would go over one person and you would get beat up. They would take all your paint. They might write their tag on you or they would spray your eyes. Nowadays they hide behind social media.”
Even though graffiti comes with its own set of conflicts, it also serves as a passion and purpose for a lot of people. “I remember going out, trying it, and getting a rush from it,” Walz expresses. “Getting into that community, it’s different. There’s a lot of different people.”
He goes on to explain how the community ranges. ”Honestly it’s a lot of rich white kids who don’t have to worry. But of course there are some who don’t have anything,” Walz explains. “It’s a lot of homeless people who do it and don’t have nothing else to do. It makes their day better.”
Building a Hobby or Career
Of course with such talented hands, many graffiti artists go on to make art their career. Graffiti Writer, DONDI, was hired by director Charlie Ahearn to spray paint the subway car that appears in 1983 film Wild Style. His work became the basis for the film’s logo, which was designed by well-known artist Tracy 186. Artists are also known to be commissioned for murals, which is a large piece of street art that usually doesn’t contain a tag. However, not all murals have to be commissioned and some are put up with the goal to convey a message.
The Question In the Air
Now for the answer we have all been waiting for. How are these talented artists able to put their work in risky spots such as highway bridges and towers? These high up and difficult to reach areas are known as heaven spots, coined the name because the spots are high enough to touch “heaven” and because if you fall that’s where you will end up. These spots are known to get artists more recognition and respect. But it’s more than just the recognition. It’s about finding pride in yourself and accomplishing something as a writer.
So the truth of how they get up there. Graffiti writer Walz, who has accomplished many heaven spots himself, including highway signs, billboards and a MARTA building that had a thin ledge, answers the question best.
“You just gotta plan it out,” he says. “Some of those spots, they’re not easy to get to. And even though they’re not easy to get into, it’s easier than getting down.” When asked if he was scared, Walz confirmed with a firm “no.”
“Being scared that’s probably what’s going to make you fall off,” he says. “You gotta go up there with the confidence that you know what’s going on and you can’t let nothing deter you from that.”
So to answer the questions “Why risk it?” and “How did they get up there?” The answer is simple. Graffiti isn’t just writing on the walls. It’s a documented history of legends and the love they had for a lifestyle they live and breathe. And it’s that love and confidence that helps them do it. So getting up there, it’s just a purpose to fulfill what writers love. Walz puts it best,“It’s something I do because I like to do it. There’s other people who do it for different satisfactions. Some people do it because it’s like ‘f*ck the system.’ Some just want to get in a crew, and for some it just takes your mind off of everyday bullsh*t.”