Articles

Thinking About the Origins of Street Art, Part 1

by Jorge Martin on December 16, 2010

Editor’s Note: We originally promised the second part of “Interpreting Blu’s Mural” today but we will published it tomorrow (Friday) so we can present this post by writer/curator Jorge Martin, which will help familiarize people unacquainted with street art with some historical moments that have to varying degrees influenced the movement today.

A street poster from the May 1968 protests in Paris. It reads "the struggle continues." (via newstatesman.com)

Setting a time and a place for the birth of street or urban art is always a tricky question, as one could argue that its history is as old as humanity. Besides, it’s not that easy to find documentation about the development of street art and graffiti before the 1980s because of the way technology has transformed the way we study the past. Any episode before the advent of the internet or digital cameras isn’t as easy to track down, particularly in regards to underground scenes. Sure there’s the library but only academics, writers, and intellectuals tend to venture into the hallowed halls of learning to spend a whole day (or days) researching.

Street art as a global art style has used different parts of the world for it’s own evolution. In fact, we find the first examples of street art and graffiti on many continents, which is an extraordinary fact since at the time when it all started the mass media was not yet global and there wasn’t the fluidity of information exchange we enjoy today.

Kyselak Was Here

Kyselak is considered by many as the grandfather of modern graffiti and street art. Left, an artist's interpretation of Kyselak at work (via br-online.de), and, right, an actual "tag" by Kyselak in Austria (via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

No matter how far we go back in time, there’s always examples that prove this plural birth and growth of urban interventions. Starting from the very first documented individuals that used the cities as canvases for their art. Take Joseph Kyselak (Vienna, 1799 – 1831), who is clearly one of the first precedents of modern graffiti, though not necessarily street art. He wrote his name throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 19th century.

From what we can tell, he never had any intention of transforming his vandalism (was it even considered that then?) into art when he started “tagging” his name on countless surfaces. In fact, it all started as the result of a friendly bet with friends. He was given a period of three years to be known throughout the Empire, so he started to write and scratch his name and the sentence “Kyselak was here” everywhere. Bitten by the graffiti bug, he couldn’t stop after winning the bet. The last ten years of his life were his most prolific.

It’s said that his hobby became so profuse that Austrian Emperor Francis I called him after he “smeared” an imperial building. The emperor made him promise to stop, and so he did. But as soon as he was gone from the Palace, his name and date were already engraved on the Emperor’s desk.

Miraculously, some of his tags have survived the passage of time and there’s even a group of people in Austria working to persevere the work of the grandfather of modern graffiti.

Unusual Precursors

Various train monikers from, left, 1971 (via billdaniel.net/moniker), right, and more recently (via robotswillkill.com/streetspot)

Another possible precedent, which also didn’t have any artistic pretensions though it did incorporate different graphic elements, were the monikers drawn by hobos in England and the United States.

This visual culture, also known as boxcar, is created with oil bars, mark alls, or wax pencils, and usually consists of single color drawings. The actual markings vary from artist to artist, some simply sign their names while others draw elaborate pictures or include poetry.

While it’s unclear when this all started, author Jack London does mention seeing these markings on trains in the 1890s. Despite the railroad industry’s claims that train hopping ended in the 1930’s, both train riding and boxcar art not only continue to exist today, but they just keep on getting more and more elaborate.

Mr. Eternity doing his thing in Sydney (image via ocal-legends.net) (click to enlarge)

Arthur Malcom Stace (Sydney, 1884 – 1967) also known as Mr. Eternity, was another of those curious artistic links. He was a reformed alcoholic who converted to Christianity and spread his faith by writing the word “Eternity'” in chalk on footpaths in Sydney over a period of approximately 35 years.

Evangelist John Ridley’s words, “Eternity, Eternity, I wish that I could sound or shout that word to everyone in the streets of Sydney. You’ve got to meet it, where will you spend Eternity?” would prove crucial in Stace’s decision to spread his faith in public. Starting in 1932, and for several mornings a week for the next 35 years, Arthur would leave his home in Pyrmont around 5am to chalk the word “Eternity” on footpaths, train station entrances, and anywhere else he could think of in Sydney. It is estimated that he wrote the word approximately half a million times over those years.

It’s important to point out that Stace never looked for personal notoriety with his tags, and always considered his campaign a religious mission. But today it’s considered iconic of Sydney, to the point that the city has registered the word “Eternity” (written in the same Stace script) as intellectual property, has installed commemorative plaques around the city, and has used it as a civic symbol during the 2000 New Year’s Eve celebrations over their famed Harbor bridge and again during the opening of the Olympic Games some months later.

Revolutionary Tool

An Italian fascist stencil from S. Falasca-Zamponi's "Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini's Italy" (click for source)

Street art has been influenced by some unexpected things, but its rebellious character seems partly derived from European revolutionary politics, which often used stencils to communicate propaganda.

The king of the stencil was Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who used it to spread his fascist propaganda across Italy. Pioneering French street artist Blek LeRat has even cited his memories of fascist stencils as a major influence on his work.

Also, let’s not forget that Street Art has soaked up a lot of the rebellious stance of skate and punk culture, and this last one used many of the same aesthetic weapons that were used by the fascists, but in their case, to spread the opposite idea.

The mid-20th C. European fascist stencil shares many of the basic features of contemporary street art. The function of these stencils was to speak directly to the masses in the streets. These messages were normally coded by simple symbols that helped make them more accessible and more effective. During the period, Mussolini’s face popped up on every corner of cities like Rome, Florence or Milan, three important bastions for Italian fascism. This sense of the image as an icon that gets repeated over and over is one of the basic characteristics of street art since its origin.

Protest graffiti at the Sorbonne in Paris during the May 1968 student protests. (via ina.fr)

One of the most important aspects of this fast production of icons in the streets is that they were done by anonymous people with no other intention than giving their support to the cause. Society was not only the target of this propaganda, but it started to be the producer of it, creating a very interesting and anonymous dialogue.

Ironically, the stencil was also the weapon of choice for all the European anti-fascists movements around the same period, including the White Rose resistance group in Germany and the May 1968 student movements in France.

This copy of Diggers' "1%" poster was on display at Exit Art during their "Signs of Exit: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now" exhibition in 2008. (via flickr.com/hragvartanian)

Posters, another prominent element of street art, also began to be used in an anonymous and nonconformist way in the 1960s due to their easy reproduction. An added feature of this form was that the creator had the luxury of being able to be produce the posters in private while being able to post them in public very quickly. A good example of this poster trend is the “1% free” (1967) offset lithograph by the San Francisco Diggers. This large poster, originally a 3-foot wide and 6-foot tall, was pasted on the walls of San Francisco during the period. The image depicts two Chinese assassins patiently waiting beneath a sign with the I Ching character for revolution. “1% free” was a slogan the Diggers used, part of their maxim that “everything is free because it is already yours.”

Congresso de Artistas Chicanos en Aztlan, "We Art Not A Minority" (1978), a mural at the Estrada Courts Housing Project, East Los Angeles (photo: Martha Benedict, via weareca.org & chicanoart.org)

One of the most clear examples of the mix of sociopolitical ideas with art and aesthetics in public spaces, was the Chicano mural movement also of the 1960s. It was particularly vibrant in California, Texas, and New Mexico were native-born Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants raised their voices, mostly muted at that time, in an effort to demand better representation at all levels of society.

Helped by student activists, the movement grew spreading information to the masses (literate and illiterate) in the shape of posters and murals. The creation of these murals in the different barrios (Chicano neighborhoods) was the result of a direct reaction to the social, economic, and political conditions that the Chicano community was living.

Public murals became popular because they were easy to understand and they belonged to everybody in the community. It was a way to show the identity and history of a forgotten part of society. Influenced by the Black Power movement, particularly in the demonstration of pride, it created an awareness of a cultural group and helped relay to a greater public various community struggles.

As we can see by its precedents, Street Art is only a logical evolution of art that plays with the idea of identity and public spaces. By 1960s all the pieces of the puzzle were almost in place; tags, stencils, posters, and murals were already setting the tone of what it was going to be one of the biggest art revolutions of the late 20th century.

Tomorrow: Part 2, Artists Take The Lead

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  • Anonymous

    With far hindsight the religious/political nature of the Christian graffiti of Egyptian temples might qualify as another rabbit’s hole for early reference points. I’m sure there are better images out there (I actually saw some first hand in ’08), but a quick search yielded: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tedesco57/3448849355/

    Regardless, nice read. Thanks!

  • Lawrence of Arabia

    I believe there is a considerable amount of ancient graf in Egypt, pre-christian, there are thousands of year old names scribbled into rocks along trade routs. I have read about similiar stuff along the trails to the western United States in the 19th century.

    • Anonymous

      Indeed. This was the first to come to mind, and had more of a socio-political impact on me…

  • http://twitter.com/cmonstah Carolina A. Miranda

    In terms of ancient graffiti, the Alexamenos Graffito is one of the most famous:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexamenos_graffito
    One of the earliest known depictions of Christ on the cross.

  • http://twitter.com/mariuswatz Marius Watz

    Vikings (specifically, some guy called Halvdan) left runic graffiti in the Hagia Sophia in the 9th Century AD:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/brokendrumphotography/2424121659/

  • Anthony Trece

    Great article and interesting references. Thanks!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/skrovan.peter Peter Škrovan

    Good article.
    Where are ancient cave paintings?

  • http://www.makepapereasy.com/visit-phoenix Michael @ Project Center

    Excellent article. Have you ever been to Montreal? It’s incredible the amount of professional caliber graffiti covering the sides of buildings, bridges, and public spaces. Frankly, some of the murals were so dazzling I wish I could find who created them and ask if the artists want a job! It’s different there… the local government actually promotes the thriving industry as a way to “beautify” the city. I say, mission accomplished! With so many inspiring, breathtaking canvases, the gangs and taggers don’t even try to compete.

  • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

    The reason they aren’t included is because it is unsure if early street artists were actually looking to them for inspiration. These other artists and things are more likely sources.

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