The earliest graffiti writers often employed markers — which could be acquired from their homes or schools — as the most effective and stealthy means of getting their names up, despite the accessibility and prevalence of spray paint at neighborhood hardware stores.
“We used markers on bus and train interiors,” recalls early graffiti pioneer BLADE. “They had a little bit of a smell, but not as much as spray paint, which had a smell, a mist, and was much more obvious. We used little Dri Marks, which are about the size of your thumb. The spray paint was for the outside of the train.”
That switch from doing graffiti on the interior of a train or bus versus doing it on the exterior perfectly illustrates the shift from markers to spray paint. Simply put, if a writer had the time or ability to use spray paint, he/she did, but outside factors like number of people on public transportation played a significant role in deciding which tool was best for a certain scenario.
“Markers were perfect for the inside of the train,” explains another one of the earliest writers, COCO 144. “They were a no-brainer and perfect for the panels. Also, depending on what time you were doing it, if the train was full, you could only use a marker. It was speed. I know that you can express yourself better with a marker and your penmanship than with a spray can. A marker signature was more personal than a spray-paint signature.”
Specifically, COCO recalls using brand names like Dri Mark, Pilot, MARKS-A-LOT and the Sanford King-Size, which would colloquially be adopted into terminology like “mini-wides” and “maxi-wides” — preferred because of their broad tip widths and their ability to easily be refilled. They also allowed artists to load different colors of ink to produce a “hit” or “tag” with a variety of tones.
“It was pretty much like warfare,” COCO says. “What weapon are you going to pull out to make your mark? It sounds romantic and poetic, but that’s the way I view it. I think the major ones we were going for were Dri Marks. It was roughly three inches, stubby, with a nice chiseled tip. They were refillable. They were glass. We would cut the plastic off of them and now you’ve got the guts of the marker — cotton and ink. You’d go out and get Flowmaster ink at art stores like Pearl Paints. It all depended on the neighborhood, what was available. For me, there was an overabundance of Dri Marks and MARKS-A-LOT in the hoods I would rack up.”
In addition to the markers you could steal from art stores or school, some artists even began fashioning homemade markers.
“In 1974, writers tried to make markers any way they could using school erasers, lighters, Tic Tac dispensers etc.,” says graffiti writer FREEDOM. “They rarely worked, but it was a good way to waste time until you got a real mini or uni.”
As markers took hold, writers also began to use substances other than ink that had a similar effect. “We used to use Griffin’s black shoe polish,” says COCO 144. “That’s where the idea for the mop came from.” The term “mop” refers to any such tool similar to a marker — like bottles of shoe polish with sponge or bingo dabbers, which left a bolder mark and were harder to buff.
While it would be nice to put an exact date or etch a specific graffiti writer’s name into the history books as the first to switch from markers to spray paint, the evolution was something that happened on an organic, macro level.