A DISSERTATION OF THE POST GRAFFITI MOVEMENT
When they spray paint on canvas, it does not look like other art, nor does it much resemble the work they used to do on trains. —Calvin Tomkins, The New Yorker, 1984
When we talk about the origins of graffiti, we have to constantly ask ourselves, “How far back into human history should we go?” And then when we talk about where graffiti has been, where it has gone, and where it permeates into the human experience now, we have to ask ourselves: How broad of an umbrella are we ready to use? We could start with cave paintings, literal mark making, and writing on walls. That, in essence, was graffiti. Here we saw men and women writing on walls for thousands of years; centuries later that led to men and women writing on subway trains, tagging highway overpasses and tunnels, on and on. And though it feels like cheating, the existence of cave painting proves there is an eternal and evolutionary impulse to communicate, to leave a mark in the form of art on walls to be read and deciphered.
Times Square Show, 1980.
Then there’s graffiti the way we know it. Style writing, street art, posters, stickers—it has all become a cultural phenomenon that informs music, dance, fashion, politics, television, movies, advertising, marketing, and, of course, contemporary art. The culture borne out of Situationists and subway trains has now, in a way, elected a president (Shepard Fairey), earned an Academy Award nomination (BANKSY), materialized across Times Square billboards (Jenny Holzer), graced the runways of major fashion houses (KAWS, FUTURA) and memorialized in books, documentaries, hip-hop, pop-rock, the list goes on. If we ever needed a barometer of how far graffiti as a cultural touchstone has gone, The Simpsons, ever the etched-in-stone pop-cultural icon, has not only made Bart Simpson a tagger but also featured a slew of graffiti artists over the years.
So you might ask why BEYOND THE STREETS has spent years dedicating itself to the conversation about where graffiti came from and where it continues to go and grow. Why do we even think about a term like “post graffiti”? Why do we puzzle over how it can come to define the manner in which an art form can evolve from its rebellious intentions on the street into a curated yet renegade form when it reaches the gallery and contemporary culture? To answer both questions, it’s because graffiti is the rare genre of art whose creation never ceases. It is passed down through generations with folkloric passion, reinvented with every 16-year-old who dares to hit the streets and write his or her name, and then themselves pass the baton in the years that follow. Graffiti is both insular and incredibly wide-open. At its core it’s about freedom of expression, and that feeling is why it can be political and humorous, silly and life-affirming. It has code words, and yet it is connected to the innate instinct of human communication. It’s accessible and done in the shadows of the night. That brilliant dichotomy keeps the whole movement fresh.
Post graffiti is at the core of BEYOND THE STREETS, because it's the embodiment of a larger picture of how far this culture has gone yet how raw it remains. But there is something to be said about how it got here. So what does the term “post graffiti” even mean? As we’ve stated, graffiti still exists and the practice continues. In fact, as a result of the recent pandemic, there has been a perfect combination of idle time and eerily quiet city streets that has resulted in a proliferation of illegal writing the world over.
Tony Shafrazi Gallery. FUTURA2000 & Kenny Scharf, 1982.
There is a vague understanding that post graffiti indicates an artistic genre that draws influence from this modern cultural phenomenon commonly referred to as “graffiti writing”—or to some, “style writing”—but the artwork given this moniker is not quite the same illicit thing. Sometimes the work is by a former graffiti writer, or an artist uses the traditional tools of a graffiti writer, but almost universally the artists are working on the more traditionally accepted surfaces of paper, canvas, or panels. To understand this term, and to understand the artists typically associated with what we call the Post-Graffiti movement, it becomes necessary to dig deeper into the history of graffiti and examine the trajectory of a sometimes-parallel legitimate art movement.
The modern form of graffiti writing began in America in the late 1960s. Thanks to the inventions of spray paint and the indelible marker, a collective of diverse youthful individuals began covering walls, each with their own “signature” style. This wasn’t just a phenomenon seen on the streets of New York City, although it would always be the city that made it famous. Scenes were blossoming in Chicago, London, Philadelphia, and, of course, Los Angeles.
On the East Coast, writers quickly moved to buses and trains where they used both size and ornamentation to develop full-blown masterpieces. This burgeoning movement was rebellious and blatantly illegal, yet there was an unmistakable undercurrent of creativity. A culture quickly coalesced; a community with aesthetic criteria, slang, cooperative collectives, and even moral codes. As far back as 1970, Chaz Bojórquez was showing graffiti art at Pomona College Art Gallery in Pomona, California. Los Angeles was also seeing an explosive culture around skateboarding, lowbrow art, and car culture, all of which was informed by and enhanced by the graffiti tags seen around the city. C.R. Stecyk III was documenting the unique street language of L.A. in the mid-1970s, and after opening Zephyr Productions and being a vital figure of the Dogtown and Z-Boys skate team, he helped create some of the first genre-crossing moments that would make graffiti and skate/surf culture grow simultaneously around the world.
Fun Gallery. Keith Haring, 1983.
Surprisingly early in the movement, a parallel track of studio practice developed that combined the raw creative energy of writing on the streets with the associated tools of spray paint and indelible marker. In the fall of 1972, United Graffiti Artists (UGA) was formed by Hugo Martinez with, “the immediate purpose of organizing the best writers of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn and offering them the opportunity to redirect their work to legitimate surfaces” wrote Hugo Martinez in the first UGA catalog. The collective included notable writers including PHASE 2, SNAKE 1, COCO 144, and others. Their work largely followed the prescription of their street writing—stylized noms de plume that are “fat and sensual ... with the elaboration of flame and bubble motifs, stripes, checks, arrows, and stars, most of the paintings must qualify as abstractions” described by noted art critic Peter Schjeldahl. UGA exhibited at the City University of New York and Razor Gallery in SoHo, eventually painting live as a part of Twyla Tharp’s performance of Deuce Coupe at the Joffrey Ballet. It’s interesting to note that Martinez found as much value in the artists as individuals as he did with them working collaboratively. UGA became famous not just for the solo works of the pioneering writers but also the 40-foot-long collaborative works that resembled the exterior of subways. These paintings were usually anchored with a few large-scale names; as other writers entered the studio they would have to find a creative way to weave their name around the others. Working in this method allowed the artists to create something permanent, tangible (as opposed to the ephemeral nature of the street writing), and a commodity with value.
Critical feedback came swiftly. Peter Schjeldahl commented on the results, “Some people predicted that as graffiti writers began working on canvas, away from the perilous environs of subway rail yards, the vigor of their art would diminish. It hasn’t.” Despite this initial success, the collective soon floundered. In 1974 it was followed up by a similar organization called the Nation of Graffiti Artists, but the public’s appetite for works on canvas seemed to have dissipated. The illegal form of graffiti, however, continued to flourish. City officials and the Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA) fought an active campaign against the movement, and new outlets like the New York Times and New York Post lamented the anarchical state of affairs. Artists kept creating work, and interest began to gain momentum once again. In November 1979, art dealer Claudio Bruni mounted an exhibition of work by Lee Quiñones and FAB 5 FREDDY at Galleria la Medusa in Rome. But 1980 was the watershed moment, and a second wave of graffiti-based work on canvas took hold.
In New York City, writers of a new school from the early 1980s were more ambitious and technically more capable than many of their predecessors. They were also slightly older, and this left them with more options when they began working on canvas. For some, painting a name was still the core of their work, but others chose to incorporate elements of figuration and abstraction. Almost every writer that would take a shot at the gallery world in the early ’80s arrived on the scene with some kind of cursory knowledge of art in general. An awareness of the many genres of art history became apparent in the work. Some writers, like CRASH and ZEPHYR, used Pop Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol and low-brow psychedelic art from the likes of Peter Max and Rick Griffin as inspirations for their early canvases. ALI’s (SOUL ARTIST) canvases sometimes referenced Surrealists, including Salvador Dali. The writers who could not find their voice quickly, generally went back to the trains.
Art/new york Graffiti, Post-Graffiti, 1983.
In March 1980, graffiti writers ZEPHYR and FUTURA led a studio (underwritten by art collector Sam Esse) that provided an opportunity for many of the best subway writers to work on canvas over a two-month period. In reflecting on the studio’s impact ZEPHYR said, “In the studio environment we began to see ourselves in a different light. Most of us saw ourselves as artists for the first time. As corny as that may sound, we were previously conditioned to see ourselves as vandals and pariahs, because that was our societal niche.” FUTURA said of this time, “How do you transition from the street to the gallery? How do you do pieces on canvas? I was trying to adapt to what my perception was. The approach and the delivery of the paintings was much as it is now: I put something over here; I need something there to balance and counterbalance until the space is filled. That was the formula, and it’s still evolving.”
Meanwhile, graffiti writers with artistic ambitions were participating in exhibitions at alternative art spaces like Fashion Moda or with Collaborative Projects’ Times Square show. Some artists, like Kenny Scharf, CRASH, and FUTURA, showed in groundbreaking institutional exhibitions at the New Museum or P.S.1’s kaleidoscopic review of the East Village art scene, New York/New Wave.
By 1981, fledgling art galleries dedicated to the promotion and sale of graffiti-based art began to proliferate. In August, Joyce Towbin and Mel Neulander opened Graffiti Above Ground, hosting group shows in their Meatpacking District gallery, and in September, Patti Astor and Bill Sterling’s Fun Gallery across town in the East Village hosted its second exhibition with work by Kenny Scharf. Fun Gallery was particularly notable for mounting solo exhibitions of graffiti-based artists including FAB 5 FREDDY, FUTURA, Lee Quiñones, DONDI, LADY PINK, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and others.
CRASH, Private Eyes, Spray paint on canvas, 50 x 66 in, 2022.
If graffiti made its way into the gallery world in the 1970s due to the liberal mores of the time, in the 1980s it was propelled forward by money. In the early 1980s banks were convinced to give loans based on the value of a person’s art collection. If a borrower owned a $10-million Picasso, the lender would approve a loan for $5 million with 2 percent interest. Japanese investors went all in, and records were broken each year at art auctions. Art became the place to invest money; everyone invoked the names of Keith Haring and Basquiat, whining sentiments like: “If I had just bought them a little earlier.” If someone was building an art portfolio, including graffiti writers made perfect sense.
While the art form continued to gain attention in New York, opportunities in Europe emerged. In June 1982, Lee Quiñones, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat took part in Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. In early 1983, Yaki Kornblit’s gallery in Amsterdam held solo exhibitions for BLADE, DONDI, RAMMELLZEE, FUTURA, QUIK, and others, and later that year, the first museum exhibition of graffiti-based art took place in October, at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. This landmark exhibition featured a who’s who of American writers and duly announced the movement to the European institutional art world. Arte di Fronteira, another seminal exhibition, followed in March 1984, opening at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Bologna. It is worth noting that at this same time the graffiti writing in Europe took deep root across the continent and beyond, and artists like BANDO, SHOE, DELTA, and MODE 2 were creating both in the streets and studio.
Then came Post-Graffiti at the Sidney Janis Gallery, on West 57th Street in New York. It was at this moment that Janis coined the word (and exhibition title) that has since been used to describe this artistic genre, particularly in critical and academic circles. The invitation/catalog for “post graffiti” visually set the tone for the exhibition, using a drawing by CRASH that deftly combined an easily legible hand-style with camouflaged wild-style lettering on the cover, yet there was no essay or manifesto defining the movement.
Writing for The New Yorker, Calvin Tomkins noted, “The current season may be remembered as the one in which graffiti ascended from the subculture into art—or into the art market, at any rate. The actual moment of passage can be marked on the calendar: December 1, 1983. When Sidney Janis, the certifier of blue-chip art reputations such as Mondrian and Marisol, bestowed his formal blessing on DAZE, CRASH, FUTURA, TOXIC, A-ONE, LADY PINK, Lee Quiñones, and several other ex-graffiti writers, it was clear to everyone that graffiti art (as distinct from graffiti writing) was this year’s novelty hit.” Grace Gluck of the New York Times was not as encouraging in her assessment, saying, “Their compositions tend to tacky disarray …” and “By and large, their products are as much an eyesore on canvas as they are on trains.”
By 1984 there was a genre with a name and a reason to be optimistic. Former graffiti writers with larger artistic ambitions were getting opportunities, not just in New York galleries, but across the country and particularly in Europe. Yet, “post graffiti” was still a nebulous term that brought together letter-based writers, figurative painters, and abstract artists. But the road for this art form is long and winding. On October 17, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 22 percent. Known as “Black Monday,” the stock market crash had an immediate effect on the art market and devastated the emerging and still speculative market of post-graffiti art. Within a span of six months, the Lower East Side galleries that had helped pave the way for graffiti art shut their doors.
Felipe Pantone, CHROMADYNAMICA MANIPUTABLE 34, UV paint, UHS laquer, aluminum, lineal bearings, rubber, 47.25 x 39.25 x 4.75 in, 2022.
Opportunities evaporated. Promising young artists took jobs as copy shop assistants, bike messengers, or tow-truck drivers to make ends meet. Still the impact was made—the art already inspired a worldwide phenomenon, not just on the streets but also in the studio. In Europe, interest and exhibitions for an international slate of artists continued throughout the 1990s, perhaps most notably, the exhibitions Graffiti Art: Artistes Américains et Français, 1981–1991 at the Musée National des Monuments Français (Paris) and Coming from the Subway (1992) at the Groninger Museum (Groningen, Netherlands).
What could be described as a third wave of interest in post-graffiti artwork came in the first decade of the 21st century. In America, interest began to percolate with events like Street Market at Deitch Projects (New York) in October 2000, which featured Barry McGee, Todd James, and Stephen Powers. Around that same time, a street art that promoted iconography and muralism over traditional emphasis on letterforms rose to prominence. This direction is exemplified in the Tate Modern’s 2008 exhibition Street Art, which featured six international artists (BLU, FAILE, OS GEMEOS, NUNCA, JR, and SIXEART).
And there was SWOON, floating her own raft into the Venice Biennale in 2009, a completely original presentation that placed the potential of street art into the vantage point of the most contemporary and hallowed grounds of art. This didn’t look like graffiti or street art, and although SWOON’s wheat pastes around Brooklyn in the early 2000s were part of a larger movement that evolved the genre alongside the likes of FAILE and BAST, SWOON was looking at the language of the street to challenge how the art world could approach a more DIY mentality. This was akin to the groundwork laid out by other graffiti and street art revolutionaries working in San Francisco in the 1990s, where Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, and the other Mission School artists were looking at literature, American folktales, and American music as inspiration to create work in the dynamics of the street. This was a new angle of this Post Graffiti movement: bohemian culture brought to vandal culture. There were other, subsequent exhibitions that have often brought these analogous forms together, such as Alan KET’s curated Born in the Streets at Fundación Cartier (Paris) in 2009 and Art in the Streets at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2011.
LADY PINK, Untitled, Acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24 in, 1984.
While many artists on the street created an identity and moniker in terms of a name, such as Revok or Twist, the 21st century saw an emergence of the use of a birth name when it came to gallery and studio works. This created a schism in the culture, with some artists drawing a line as to what they deemed their identity as a graffiti artist and contemporary artist. Artists like Rashid Johnson, Tomokazu Matsuyama, and Ruby Neri shed their street monikers for gallery representation. In many ways, this drew a line in the sand, but kept street work mythical, a more anonymous craft for many artists. Others who kept their graffiti names were bringing with them a historical movement to the galleries. Yet as more and more galleries turned to street artists and graffiti art, there came more acceptance that a moniker was, indeed, attractive to collectors, thus enhancing the culture’s impact on contemporary art. But many kept that dual-personality intact, creating a separation that allowed a freedom in both studio and street works as well as maintaining graffiti as a unique and special art form that was meant for the street. Today this is a trend that we continue to observe.
What is fascinating about this transitional time period are the wild turns the art form took along the way, thanks mainly to a pop-cultural explosion rather than a boho connection. Artists like BANKSY, KAWS, and Shepard Fairey helped reshape the narrative of what the culture of graffiti could look like when applied to film, fashion, politics, social media, and the blue-chip art world and auction houses. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, three of the most famed names in art came from graffiti and street art roots. Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” (Obama) poster took the world by storm in 2008. BANKSY’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was nominated for an Academy Award in 2010, and KAWS continued to create high and accessible fashion and collectibles alongside a robust fine art career.
As these artists ascended, another movement grew from within, one that focused on public art and the adoption of social media as the primary public outlet. Murals took off in and around Europe, with the likes of VHILS, Conor Harrington, BLU, ESCIF, Felipe Pantone, POSE, ARYZ, and others that were like a massive light bulb shining on the culture. Not only were street art and graffiti going to coexist within the gallery system, both were going to have a public audience that propelled the work to new heights though sheer visibility. This attention afforded new approaches to the gallery work. Murals gave a massive audience a chance to see the potential of how street work could be contained in the studio. Artists continued to experiment. “I learn things from walls that I bring into the studio and vice versa,” Maya Hayuk has said of her numerous murals and exhibitions she has had around the world. Conor Harrington has said, “I started painting portraits of male identity as a metaphor for graffiti. I was looking at themes of anonymity and tribalism—a motif I found quite relevant to graffiti.”
POSE, Dollie 4, Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 57 in, 2022.
Artists associated with this movement today continue to absorb all that has come before. They incorporate technology, the Internet, fashion, film, photography, and often use new techniques to apply to the original spray-can art foundations. KATSU uses drones to paint. Felipe Pantone makes interactive Op-Art installations that channel the use of spray paint. The 1UP crew creates almost cinematic short films of synchronized vandalism. CHITO collaborated with Givenchy with his raw airbrush and spray paint characters. Even Takashi Murakami found inspiration and freedom with a spray can, adorning his precise flower paintings with graffiti tags in his own hand. The universality of the spray can and the freedom that it elicits and represents made it a tool that began to be more utilized in the arts more than ever before. If graffiti’s impact could ever be summed up after decades and decades of style writing being seen around the world, it's that the spray can represents an independence that no other tool in art could ever achieve.
The many exhibitions that have been organized over the last few decades demonstrate an expansive but ever-changing meaning of “post graffiti.” Today artists working in this genre form a loose coalition of artists that draw energy from the international community of graffiti writing and street culture with far-reaching artistic ambition. Some continue to utilize letter-based graphics while others create figurative and abstract forms, but all use the mediums of drawing, painting, sculpture, or installation to blur and elevate their source inspiration— graffiti.
“On one hand I’m looking for this alternate identity and sense of freedom through anonymity.” KATSU has said. “But I’m also just obsessively thinking about spray paint, markers, composition, color, gesture and the public. I sit in the shower tagging over and over and over on the condensation driving myself mad. It’s just a bizarre way to spend a life.”