The Wild, Crazy World of Graffiti

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, November 2010 | Go to article overview

The Wild, Crazy World of Graffiti


Stern, Fred, The World and I


He called himself TAKI 183. In fact, his real name was Demetrius and he was a messenger. He lived on 183rd Street in upper Manhattan. What drove him to "write" his name "TAKI" and his street on hundreds of subway cars throughout the five boroughs of New York City?

It was the same apparently irresistible urge that drove the artists of the cave age, and later the "writers" of Pompeii to lose their anonymity, to leave an impression, to be somebody.

During World War II United States soldiers everywhere left the legend "Kilroy was here," often with the image of an impish creature whose hands rested on a wall, his huge nose peering over a fence. Where did this figure originate? There actually was a Mr. Kilroy. James Kilroy was an inspector of ship bulkheads who left the figure and wording on the ships he inspected. The Kilroy symbol and text became a touchstone for the G.I.'s of the Second World War.

Taki was one of New York's first graffiti writers in a new graffiti fad that began in Philadelphia in the 1970's. It caught on across the United States, in Europe, Asia and Latin America, and it confounded the authorities who considered it unwarranted defacement of property, especially when spray cans became widely available. Immediate measures were taken to eliminate these markings. Swift actions were taken to make the markings a criminal offence. "Writers" had to perform their tasks on the sly at night hours and during the wee hours when the likelihood of their apprehension was slight.

In an interview Taki was asked what made him do graffiti. "It was just to say I was there," and "I felt very proud and exited." This excitement was easily transmitted to thousands of imitators. It has never really subsided.

At first New York graffiti, and earlier "writings" in central Philadelphia were simply white crayons renderings of names and numbers. With spray cans came greater sophistication and, of course, color. Instead of just names, the "writers" became more imaginative. Comic figures and animals were "signed" including such favorites as giraffes, lions, monkeys and horses. Some "writers" created clowns, dunces and near sighted school teachers. Others produced fanciful ocean waves in all kinds of colors and combinations.

Haring, Basquiat and Banksy

The graffiti craze inevitably spawned some important artists. Among these were Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat and a man known simply by his pseudonym, "Banksy."

Haring was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1958. His schooling included the important School of Visual Arts in New York. But his real schooling took place in the New York's subways. He created an ingenious trademark "The Radiant Baby." It consisted of an oblong figure slightly recessed at the feet with an elbow extended. He used it throughout his career on sculptures and painted plastics, metal and found objects.

After a brief stint in Melbourne, Australia where he was invited to paint a mural on a university building's wall and a similar assignment in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Haring returned to the United States and began his painting career. He also set up a "pop shop."

Haring's store sold buttons, t-shirts and other items all featuring "The Radiant Baby" image. In an interview he explained defensively that he was just breaking down the barrier between high and low art. At auction Haring's work obtained high prices.

Unfortunately Haring's life was cut short by AIDS. He died aged 3l in 1990. His influence is still felt today. A documentary of his life was filmed in 2008 and he is often included in retrospective exhibitions highlighting this period. …

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