There's no doubt that kids were scratching their initials into the walls of the Roman Colosseum and hastily sketching a penis or two on the sides of Greek temples. Kids love to draw penises and boobs. That's just a fact.
But organized street art as we now know it didn't come into existence until much more recently. A lot of different things factored into the rise of modern graffiti in the US and New York in particular. There were socioeconomic factors and political statements to be made and even just the advent of new developments in the supplies and the mediums (like subway cars) that artists could use all contributed to the growth in the form. Political and social commentary has always been a part of public art, but sometimes it's simply about the work. In many ways, one of the most exciting things that street artists have done is the way that they have built a community that exists on its own terms, thus bypassing the establishment and keeping the art their own.
Graffiti started to take a form that is familiar to the general population of today. In New York, the evolution of political slogans and things like peace signs and Black Power references into tags celebrating crews and individual taggers had begun to take place. Subwayoutlaws.com notes that "the first generation of New York Graffiti writers were distinct in that they assigned a number to the name they had chosen." Brooklyn artists of note in this era were Friendly Freddie and the group the Ex Vandals. They would hit up different neighborhoods all over the city and mark up subways and buses, throwing up their tags wherever they could.
A big development in the graffiti scene of the time was to hit subways as a way to communicate with other artists. The Redbird subway lines (long gone now but not forgotten by anyone who rode the IRT line in the 80s, which, do people even know what the IRT is anymore???) were so thoroughly covered in graffiti, that the MTA had no choice but to introduce new subway cars. Of course, for the "super crews" of the time, all that meant was they had new, fresh canvases to work on.
Even though there was a crackdown by the MTA, subway art continued in this decade and some artists were getting some serious acclaim and validation in the more traditional art world. Brooklyn-born Fab 5 Freddy was part of the Fabulous 5 Crew and gained a lot of fame in the early 80s with his subway paintings of Warhol's Campbell soup cans. He's also featured in the music video for Blondie's "Rapture" which is a ridiculous song that I know a lot about because it used to be featured on VH!'s "Pop-Up Videos" in the 90s. Also, Basquiat is in that video. Which, is pretty incredible.
With the success of the MTA's project to keep subways graffiti free, artists had to find a new medium to work on. Popular choices included walls and rooftops, concrete highway supports and empty billboards. As had always been the case, sometimes the inherent dangerousness of the spot chosen was more important than the tag itself. Storefront gates have also been a popular canvas and have been used to memorialize everyone from Biggie Smalls to Princess Diana, whose connection to Brooklyn remains tenuous at best.
WIth the era of subway bombing long gone, the present-day Brooklyn street art scene has been both an extension of what was happening in the 90s and also has welcomed a new group of artists who work on a larger scale and have artistically-driven motivations. Basically, for every "BACKFAT" there is someone, or a group of someones, who are putting up real art, whether with paint or wheat-paste.
A Night Out with ND'A
If I could do it ideally, I'd do it all legally. I'd like to work on a legal, large scale, but to supplement those times that I get to work in that kind of environment, I've got to go outside. It's studio work that I put up afterwards. I've tried to put things up in a gallery context and it never felt right. This is a way I don't have to go through any channels, I can do exactly what I want. The curation is in the actual physical nature of the work. The communities that we work in, some people get really upset and some people get really happy when they see what we're doing. But there's always a lot of skepticism in any form of public art. The night that I got arrested was weird because the people in the community were very positive about the work but someone called the cops. Even the cops were positive for a while, and taking pictures, but then two vans pulled up and all of a sudden it was 8 or 9 cops for 2 skinny kids.
We were joking around with the cops inside the van but we got to the Bed-Stuy precinct and the sergeant clearly didn't know what we'd done. He thought it was just regular graffiti and he tore into me. He said something like, Would you like it if I came to your house and spray-painted all over it? How would you like it if I tagged you? Which really made no sense but he was just angry. And it got worse. What are these prisoners doing without handcuffs? Throw these motherfuckers in cuffs!
Then we were in a tiny little cell, 10x10, with twelve guys. We were the only tiny people there. These were big men. Most of the guys were pretty nice. One guy was in for robbery but almost all the rest were in there for minor drug possession. The whole experience wasn't so bad except for the waiting around and the terrible, terrible sandwiches. And the dirty toilets. And it was pretty bad because they'd bring in women too and I saw some guys make a prostitute cry.
I'm a little more paranoid about putting work up now. I still go out and do it though. Doing this means I can work with a specific neighborhood in mind or just go out there and let the space activate some new component in my art. I don't have to answer to anyone else.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen