Roots of New York City Grafffiti Movement (1970’s)

The shrinking of not only economic opportunity, but also the very spaces available for impoverished inner-city residents colluded to create the ghetto as a space of containment. The decline of both social and spatial mobility for people of color goes hand in hand. Anderson

“The New York City ghetto in which graffiti finds its roots during the late 1960s and early 1970s differs markedly from the ghetto of prior decades. Two intertwined social-historical processes drove this change: suburbanization and deindustrialization. In the post-war years, white flight from cities across the nation occurred at remarkable rates, as the perceived “disorder” of the urban environment was abandoned for the control and homogeneity of racially exclusive suburban towns and districts. This spatial reconfiguration left inner cities populated predominantly by people of colour and of lower income, who were prevented from accessing and living in suburban spaces by racially established financial disadvantages, discriminatory real estate practices and white violence” (Anderson).

“When graffiti advocate Hugo Martinez states “‘graffiti writing is a way of gaining status in a society where to own property is to have identity,’”34 he points to the symbolic understanding of graffiti as claiming space and marking ownership. Graffiti’s use of space designated as “off-limits” fundamentally appropriates that space, and allows writers to “continuously acquire new space by labeling it with their name.” (Anderson).

Since this was the only way at the time for youths to show ownership in a society that stopped them from claiming property legally, the public cry came out in the form of art.   Klausner explained that …”However, when a self-aware subculture rose out of the urban core to embrace plurality, fragmentation, and indeterminacy, something clicked. In retaliation they shaped an honest reflection of their lives from a fundamentally post-modern lens that pitted them against larger forces that had denied them individual value and cultural identity. Adventurous teens did this with no capital and no organizational power. They fought back with one of the few things they could control, words”

“Hegel wrote that, “To learn to read and write an alphabetic writing should be regarded as a means to infinite culture.” The post-structuralist French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that, “Language is oppression,” because it is developed to allow only those people who speak it not to be oppressed. During the late 1960s overcoming socio-emotional hurdles necessitated both Hegel’s key to unlocking infinite culture and Foucault’s understanding of language’s deeper power. Once harnessed, an unusual torrent of creative, language-based experimentation and expression flowed from inner cities like New York and Philadelphia. It turned tables, oppressed the oppressor, and lit the fuse for a contemporary graffiti movement” (Klausner).  It all started with artist tagging his/her name around the city.

Tagging has clear underlying meaning and purposes. Tagging allowed individuals to shape an identity and belong to a particular community. We came to understand the alternative lifestyle that tagging opened up, such as one way to escape
gang membership. Youths exhibited ease with language, including drawing upon their English and Spanish into their everyday literacy practices.  Findings in this study highlight tagging’s varying purposes to sustain relationships, carry on dialogue,
provide social commentary, and establish an identity by being recognized and known.  Becoming known was achieved by the quantity and quality of tags. To be a knowledgeable participant required talent, skill, and competency (Curwen).

Tagging gave way to throw-ups, pieces, characters and graffiti art which eventually spawned the creation of street art.  In many ways graffiti artists and street artists are similar.  In many ways graffiti artists may view street artists as “sell-outs” because they no longer take action illegally, making many graffiti artists say they have lost the fundamental element of a being a subversive artist.

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