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History of Subway Art

The history of the underground art movement known by many names, most commonly graffiti begins in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the mid to late 60’s, and started with bombing. The writers who are credited with the first effort are CORNBREAD and COOL EARL. They wrote their names all over the city gaining attention from the community and the local press. Then the movement made way to New York City where the teenagers would write graffiti on the subways. It is unclear whether this concept made way to New York City on purpose or if it was an accident.
Shortly after the CORNBREAD and COOL EARL effort, the Washington Heights section of Manhattan was giving birth to new writers. In 1971 The New York Times published an article on one of these writers. Taki 183 was an alias of a kid from Washington Heights. TAKI was a nickname for Demetrius and 183 was the number of the street where he lived. He was employed as a messenger, so he was on the subway frequently and he took advantage of it, by doing tags.
On the streets of Brooklyn a movement was going as well. Alot of writers were active. FRIENDLY FREDDIE was an early writer to gain fame. The subway system proved to be a good source for communication and established a foundation for interbouruogh competition. Writing started moving from the streets to the subway. At this point writing consisted of mostly tags and the goal was to have as many as possible. Writers would ride the trains hitting as many subway cars as possible. It wasn’t long before writers discovered that in a train yard they could hit many more subway cars in much less time and with less chance of getting caught. The concept and method of bombing had been established.

After a while there were so many people writing so much that writers needed another way of gaining fame. First way was to make your tag unique. Many script and calligraphic styles were developed. Writers enhanced their tags with stars and other designs. Some designs were for visual purpose while others had meaning. For instance crowns were used by writers proclaiming themselves as king.

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The next development was scale. Writers started to make their tags to a larger scale. The standard nozzle width of a spray paint can is narrow so these larger tags while drawing more attention than a standard tag did not have much visual weight. Writers began to increase the thickness of the letters and would also outline them with an additional color. Writers discovered that caps from other aerosol products could provide them with a larger width of spray. This led to the development of the masterpiece. It is difficult to say who did the first masterpiece, but is commonly credited to SUPER KOOL 223 of the Bronx and WAP of Brooklyn. The thicker letters provided the opportunity to enhance the name. Writers decorated the interior of the letters with what were termed “designs.” First with simple polka dots and later with stars. Designs were limited to the writers imagination.

Writers eventually started to make the masterpieces the entire height of the subway car. These masterpieces were termed top to bottoms. The addition color design and scale were advancements but still strongly resembled the tags on what they were based.

The competitive atmosphere led to the development of actual styles, which would depart from the tag styled pieces. Broadway style was introduced by Philadelphias TOPCAT 126. These letters would evolve in to block letters, and leaning letters. PHASE 2 later developed softie letters more commonly refereed as bubble letters. Bubble letters and Broadway style were the earliest forms of actual pieces therefore a foundation of many styles. Soon arrows, curls connections, and twist were introduced. These new additions became very complex and would become the basis for wild style lettering.

This early period of creativity did not go unrecognized. Hugo Martinez sociology major at City College took notice of the legitimate artistic potential of this generation. Martinez went on to found United Graffiti Artists. UGA selected top subway artists from all around the city and presented their work in the formal context of an art gallery. UGA provided opportunities once inaccessible to these artists. The Razor Gallery was a successful effort of Mr. Martinez and the artists he represented. Martinez has represented PHASE 2, MICO, COCO 144, PISTOL, FLINT 707, BAMA, SNAKE, and STICH.A 1973 article in New York magazine by Richard Goldstein entitled “The Graffiti Hit Parade” was also early public recognition of the artistic potential of subway artists.
During the early to mid 1980s the writing culture deteriorated dramatically due to several factors. Some related directly to the graffiti culture itself and others to the greater society in general. The crack cocaine epidemic was taking its toll on the inner city. Due to the drug trade powerful firearms were readily available. The climate on the street became increasingly tense. Laws restricting the sale of paint to minors and requiring merchants to place spray paint in locked cages made shoplifting more difficult. Legislation was in the works to make penalties for graffiti more severe.
The major change was the increase in the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s anti-graffiti budget. Yards and layups were more closely guarded. Many favored painting areas became almost inaccessible. New more sophisticated fences were erected and were quickly repaired when damaged. Graffiti removal was stronger and more consistent than ever, making the life span of many paintings months if not days. This frustrated many writers causing them to quit.
On May 12, 1989 the MTA declared a victory over graffiti. The MTA set in effect a policy of removing all marked subway cars from service. The objective: “no graffiti will run. This was the birth of what is known as the Clean Train movement. There are many writers who believe subway painting is the defining act in being a writer. Walls, freights, scraps, and canvas are for fake writers. These writers refuse to give up the battle against the MTA. Even though works do not run or only run for one trip many people still write.

Hip-Hop exploded in popularity the early ’80s. Music videos featuring various aspects of NYC street culture proved very appealing. Overnight every American teenager wanted to be a New York City B Boy. MCs, breakers and writers were springing up all over the place. Outside of New York City there aren’t many major urban transportation systems, but writers wanted to paint steel and have their name move. With accessibility and minimal security freight trains became a natural target. Currently writers from all over the United States and Canada bomb freight trains. The geographic root of the freight movement are difficult to pin point but is widely thought of as a West Coast phenomenon.

By the late ’80s the European movement was long established and was in full force. The second generation Europeans were forging friendships with their American idols. The Europeans thirsted to paint in the birthplace of the art. The Americans hosted “Pilgrimages to Mecca”. Many European writers bomb New York so effectively, that people believe they are from New York. Many New York writers also went to Europe. Some European were so willing to cater to American writers that they would provide airfare, and paint. The bragging rights for painting with an American were priceless. For some Americans going to hit trains in Italy or Germany has become just like a trip form Brooklyn to the Bronx.

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