The late sixties and early seventies saw the transformation of graffiti from humorous or political scrawlings on walls and public lavatories, to a worldwide subcultural phenomenon and, some would argue, an inventive new art form. The urban areas of Philadelphia and New York City gave birth to a group of individuals that would take their chosen names, or "tags", and attempt to cover the city in them. The first writers which are now popularly recognised as the originators of this practice, known as "bombing", are CORNBREAD and COOL EARL from Philadelphia, and TAKI 183 from Washington Heights in New York City. Of course, pinning down the definitive "first" writers would be almost impossible and there were in fact many writers active before these three such as JULIO 204 in New York, however, the prolificty of these writers, in particular TAKI 183, propelled graffiti into the public eye. In fact, TAKI was the subject of a New York Times article on July 21, 1971 titled "TAKI 183 spawns new pen pals". Following years in New York City were marked by an explosion of new writers that began mercilessly bombing the city's streets and subway system. Graffiti developed rapidly from simple tags, to larger letters that soon incorporated various colour schemes, highly stylised letter shapes, back grounds and effects like 3D shading and complicated "fill ins" (the patterns painted inside the actual letters). As the years passed it changed from being simply a way to get your name seen around the city, into an artistic and regulated form of expression. The next 10 to 15 years saw a the emergence of an extremely talented and innovative, as well as prolific, group of writers that included the likes of; BLADE, SEEN, IZ THE WIZ, DONDI, LEE, LADY PINK, FUTURA 2000 and many, many more.
Naturally not everyone considered this new wave of activity a pleasant art form, in fact many became incredibly frustrated and even disgusted by the sight of trains covered top to bottom in brightly coloured letters. Of course, as the number of writers went up, the amount of available painting space went down and many true and dedicated writers had to compete with inexperienced and untalented fly-by-nighters who were desperate to get in on the act, effectively ruining many train lines with childish scribblings and crossing-outs of better "pieces". The authorities came under pressure to curb what the majority of the public saw as nuisance, despite the rather whimsical interest of the New York art scene.
In the early eighties, Mayor Koch declared a "war on graffiti" and immediately set about an aggressive clamp down on the city's flowering subculture. He set up what came to be known as the "buff", a process of washing the trains with a special chemical spray which ironically didn't always eradicate the paint sometimes merely fading it and leaving the carriages looking more ragged and unpleasant than before. Regardless, hundreds if not thousands of pieces were "buffed" and the train yards which had previously been easy to access, became veritable fortresses protected by barbed wire, round the clock security and snarling guard dogs. This era marked the beginning of the end and is captured poignantly in Henry Chalfant's 1982 documentary, Style Wars.
Despite retaliation from the writers themselves as well as many ingenious tactics they employed to continue accessing the train yards, painted carriages declined steadily and come 1988, they virtually stopped running all together. On the surface it seemed that Mayor Koch had won his war, however, it wasn't enough to stop the art form spreading explosively all over the globe. The eighties saw graffiti infect almost every corner of the urbanised world, including Great Britain which in recent years has mounted its very own "war on graffiti".
DUMP KOCH by SPIN