Written by Caleb Neelon
Illustrations by Sam Meyerson
A personal question: What was your very first recollection of seeing graffiti? Somewhere, there’s a memory. If your learning style leans toward language, then perhaps it is a phrase or word that comes to mind. If your memory is more visual, perhaps it is a gauzy image of the graffito in question. And if your memory is more cinematic, perhaps it is a clip or tableau.
I can offer mine: I was a boy in the early 1980s, and in what was probably early 1983, when I was in first grade at my school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I did a little exploring, making my way around the corner of the gym to a weed-filled part of the school’s grounds that was, like the other areas where a centrally located teacher could not see you, out of bounds. As I stepped my skinny little legs carefully into the overgrowth, there it was: a new, shiny, blue, orange and black graffiti piece. It was giant. It towered over me. It was scary. It was bad. It had a cityscape behind its letters, and I thought it said METRO. I probably ran away and spent the rest of recess playing with the good kids in a safe area right by a watchful teacher.
The other, very important thing to consider about this memory of yours: It is almost certainly inaccurate. I have spent what feels like a Proust-level amount of time reconstructing this particular memory, including walking the exact area of the school again and even digging up a photo of the graffiti in question. I can pin the date fairly closely for mine because at the same time, I remember huddling around a record player at school with my classmates and listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the first time. Thriller came out in late 1982, and it was warm outside (I remember that, too), so this would have been spring of 1983.
Your own memory probably hasn’t the luxury of such reconstruction. And finding that photo, of course, was the real luxury. The graffiti piece said KIF, as it turned out. I don’t know why I thought it said METRO. And it wasn’t very big. This is more easily explained: I was small then. Memories of first graffiti pieces are often exaggerated in size for this very reason — we were all pretty little then. It’s also good to mention that even a small graffiti piece is much larger than a child. And it is easy for a child to go a long time without encountering an artwork, crappy as it may be, that is bigger than him or her. That not-very-big, not-very-good and not-reading-what-I-thought-it-said graffiti piece still made a big impact in my life.
Everyone always wants to know who the first person to write graffiti was. Frankly, the correct answer gets a little ridiculous.
The conventional story of the history of American graffiti is that in the mid to late 1960s, young people started writing their nicknames on walls in Philadelphia and New York. Among them, CORNBREAD from Philadelphia and TAKI 183 from New York are generally accepted as the people responsible for popularizing graffiti in their respective cities. TAKI understands his role in the history but is quick to deflect any idea that he did it first, citing JULIO 204 and others as writing before him. CORNBREAD will claim credit for being first but contemporaries in Philly will quietly say that CORNBREAD, like TAKI in New York, was the one who made it popular but not necessarily the first.
By that magical year of 1967, graffiti was happening all over the United States. The Summer of Love brought political messages from coast to coast. For decades before that, neighborhood kids would write their names in parks and doorways, the stations of their youth. In 1955, one such Philadelphia youngster took his BOBBY BECK IN ’55 message to highway walls. By the end of World War II in 1945, the phrase KILROY WAS HERE and its little man peeking over a wall were the common property of the Allied forces. There was a story as to its origins, but it was not nearly as universally known and didn’t matter all that much, anyway.
Prior to the war, the Chicano graffiti movement, with its distinctive collection of Gothic-based fonts, was in full flourish as early as the 1930s. The hoboes of the 1920s employed a private language of symbols to indicate kindly strangers and tough cops to other hoboes who traveled in their steps. During the boom years of European immigration to the U.S., ethnic neighborhoods formed and graffiti to mark them followed. In the Reconstruction era, traveling Civil War soldiers, former slaves and other migrants picked up the rail workers’ trick of writing messages and monikers on freight cars, a practice nearly as old as the trains in the United States themselves.
Why stop there, though? Europeans certainly didn’t bring graffiti to the United States, nor did the African population they enslaved and brought over. Native Americans made cave glyphs still visible in the Southwest that date back millennia. Graffiti existed in both Europe and Africa as well. Mount Vesuvius preserved a wealth of graffiti in AD 79. Lots of it was about dicks. Egyptians, too, did graffiti. But they weren’t the first, either.
The earliest known human-fashioned objects with purely aesthetic or mystical function go back to South Africa 70,000 years ago. These were rocks polished and scored with crisscrosses. Certainly, there must have been ample practice drawing with sticks in the dirt before these more sophisticated objects were created — and, of course, archaeologists can only work with what they can find that has survived the ravages of weather and time. Acts like painting with water on dry riverbed rocks and drawing with sticks in soft ground must certainly have gone on for many thousands of years before this.
So that’s hand-manipulated objects; as for marks on walls, cave paintings and carvings have been found in both Spain and Indonesia that may approach 40,000 years old. The famous Lascaux cave paintings in southwestern France are 15,000 to 20,000 years old. Many of the earliest cave paintings the world over feature the silhouette of a human hand pressed against the wall, with a mouthful of iron oxide sprayed around it — the first stencil.
Now, that stuff isn’t graffiti, right? How is a handprint by an early human in any kind of line with CORNBREAD and TAKI 183? Like I said, the correct answer gets a little ridiculous. The handprint is a personal mark, as personal as a name. And names, by the way, are a more recent development, with the earliest examples of people with names appearing about 5,000 years ago. Three guesses as to what the first people with names did, and what survived for us to find?
Graffiti is so clearly a part of being human — in fact, it’s something that makes us human. We have a need to shout from the mountaintops. We have a need to say we were there. Our natural facility with language makes us do more than simply howl at the moon or lift our leg on trees. Graffiti is the Darwinian evolution we must expect given the combination of opposable thumbs and the capacity for language. We have taught ourselves writing, and our profit on it is that we know how to spray-paint SMOKE W33D on a bridge abutment.
What does distinguish the name-based graffiti of 1967 and onward from the graffiti of the millennia before it is that it is an opt-in culture. Graffiti of the past 50 years is a rhizome; everything is connected. Once you opt in, you find there are real and human connections linking every graffiti writer. Graffiti is profoundly social, or at least profoundly socially anti-social. And any time a writer catches a tag, their tag echoes across continents into that same culture of writing graffiti, 50 years strong.
Image above: Photo by Sisse Brimberg National Geographic Creative.
For more on the history of Graffiti be sure to check out the extensive WALL WRITERS: Graffiti In Its Innocence book available in our shop now!