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Street art history; graffiti and protest

Art styles and influences often overlap as one set of creativity feeds into another and artists develop their styles and ideas over time. Through the last few decades that continuous process has seen movements like pop art, graffiti, and protest murals feeding into creating modern street art. And this itself already feeds into new evolutions in digital art, NFTs, and contemporary work using lenticular art prints as a medium.

In such an ever shifting environment, it’s difficult to pin down exactly when any given art movement or style first began. Arguably prehistoric cave paintings were a form of graffiti or mural, but most historians tend to focus on several things happening in the 1940s as a starting point for the evolution of modern street art.

Perhaps the earliest work that linked to the modern spirit of street art was the ‘Kilroy Was Here’ graffiti WW2 soldiers would leave on walls and other surfaces as they moved around foreign theatres of war. When soldiers passing by it in the future spotted the graffiti, it created a connection to home and to their fellow soldier. It was an enduring joke that wherever the war took you, Kilroy, whoever that was, had already been there; maybe something of home wasn’t so distant after all.

The art movements that evolved towards modern street art

Kilroy was a beachhead for street art and graffiti, but happened in isolation from the art gallery world, as a response to finding yourself far from home. Pre-war art had been in a phase of creative change though, with movements and styles like Cubism, Surrealism and Dadaism dramatically moving away from the more conventional and traditional approaches of the past.

Lettrism, action painting and Art Brut were all important post-war art movements growing from the pre-war world, and even a casual glance over examples of each reveals seeds of the street art and graffiti that was to come. Isidore Isou’s lettrism and Jean Dubuffet’s collages of human figures and abstract patterns both echo into later work by artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The bold colours and movements of Jackson Pollock’s action paintings are felt in the rich colours and flow of graffiti writing.

In the late 1950s pop art emerged from collage, lowbrow and advertising aesthetics, and through artists like Andy Warhol intertwined with printmaking; Warhol was arguably an early Banksy using plates, art prints, and galleries, rather than spray stencils and walls. All around Pop Art the spirit of the 1960s infused into creative minds; protest art that developed through the 1950s fed into urban interventionism and art happenings. By the end of the 1960s many of the key components of modern street art were already being expressed, it all just needed a little push forward, a catalyst…

Spray paint, graffiti, subway trains and hiphop bring a new art to the streets

Most of this artistic creation was taking place in art galleries, studios and Bohemian enclaves, the moment that street art truly began to happen was in the genesis of graffiti. The invention of spray paint in the 1950s was essential to the process; attempting to illegally graffiti a wall with brushes and paint pots would have been far too slow. Another critical factor was the influence of Latino street murals which often touched on political and social messages. A true Chicano art movement in the US evolved through the 1960’s just ahead of graffiti, concerned with issues like civil rights, inequality, and police brutality.

In the late 1960s graffiti tags became common in Latino and Black neighbourhoods in America, driven by a desire to be known to the world in an environment where few opportunities existed. Taggers such as Julio 204 and Taki 183 in New York, or Corn Bread in Philadelphia, were early stand out names, but things really got moving when someone realised that if you tagged a subway train, your name would be seen all over the city.

As more taggers got in on the game, it forced creativity. Soon, tagging your name wasn’t enough, to stand out it now needed to be bigger, bolder, colourful, dramatic. Hip hop music and dancing was evolving alongside, providing a soundtrack that graffiti artists sought to represent with increasingly elaborate artworks, complex calligraphic styles and bold explosions of colour and pattern. It all blended with the activism and colourful big wall murals of Chicano artwork; a new, subversive art was turning the streets into the most vital contemporary art gallery in the city, in isolation from the traditional art world; but that was set to change.

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