The sound of the honking horns and the smell of car exhaust mixed with city pollution have become quite familiar to you as a young child, sitting in the back seat of your parents’ car on a ride that seems to take forever, when in reality it is not very long. You are on your way to your grandparents’ house in one of the five boroughs of New York City. You sit excitedly with your feet dangling from the seat, looking out the window, waiting anxiously to catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty from a distance.
One of the best parts of the drive is seeing the vibrant colors of the graffiti on many of the walls entering the city. Unless someone tells you that the graffiti is considered illegal and the destruction of private of public property, it is just something that makes you smile.
Graffiti has always reflected what was going on at the time, whether commemorating a fallen friend or spreading the message of hope or change. Graffiti tells the story of the city and people who have lived there.
Graffiti emerged in the U.S. in the 1960s and early 1970s, during a time of turmoil and change. For many, this began with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. As the Vietnam War escalated, many young men who had yet to experience their lives were drafted into the Armed Services. Some didn’t make it back home alive, and the ones who did were never the same. Just as the civil rights movement was reaching its peak, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in April 1968. Barely two months later, President Kennedy’s brother Robert was murdered while campaigning for the presidency.
While graffiti was used as a form of political activism, gangs were also using it to claim their territory. This cast a shadow over the words and images that were being written on the walls to provoke change. By 1995, graffiti became more associated with gangs and destruction of property then with political activism. The walls of inner cities, subways and train cars all became littered with “tags” from gangs claiming their territory. The tags weren’t just limited to housing projects. Tagging escalated to the point that no wall was safe. Other major cities throughout the U.S. and Europe where struggling to deal with similar problems.
That year, in an effort to clean up his city, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani set up the Anti-Graffiti Task Force, which was a multi-agency initiative designed to combat the problem of graffiti in New York City. This resulted in one of the largest anti-graffiti campaigns in U.S. history. That same year, Title 10–117 of the New York Administrative Code banned the sale of aerosol spray paint cans to children under 18. The law also required merchants who sell spray paint to lock it in a case or display the cans behind a counter. Any violations of the city’s law resulted in fines of US$350 per incident.
Fashion designer Mark Ecko, who is a well-known supporter of graffiti art, sued the city of New York in 2005 when it revoked his permit to hold a block party that featured 10 replicas of the city’s old ”Bluebird” subway cars, which were intended to be canvases for 20 well-known graffiti artists. Ecko won his lawsuit, and the city restored his permits.
“Today is further affirmation that graffiti is without question the most powerful art movement in recent history. This event was conceived as a tribute to the roots of graffiti culture − a time in New York City’s history that I chose to believe was worth fighting to preserve.” Ecko told the Village Voice.
The anti-graffiti initiative, however, has drastically decreased the amount of graffiti in America’s largest city. “You are more likely to see a chicken walking down the streets of New York City than you are to see graffiti,” says Global Looking Glass Photographer Greg Straight Edge.
Street art, which is sometimes considered “post-graffiti,” is often confused with graffiti art. However, with street art, the artist uses a paint brush instead of a spray can. Street art is considered a form of activism. Many street artists have shown their work in museums or galleries as well as on the street. It can be found all over the world.
Both graffiti and street art are considered illegal unless the artist has the correct permits to paint on public walls or buildings. As long as these art forms have been around, there has been a debate over whether graffiti and street art should be considered art or crime.
Sometimes the art is publicly funded. “Usually a city will raise money through grants or private donations for me to paint a mural on one of their walls,” says Mona Caron, who is a street artist based out of San Francisco, CA.
Caron was born in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Canton Ticino. Although she comes from a family of artists, she originally enrolled in college to study literature. It wasn’t until she visited San Francisco that she decided to relocate there and enroll at the Academy of Art, graduating with honors in 1996.
Although Caron started off as a freelance illustrator, by 1998, after creating her first mural (the 6,000 square-foot Doboce Bikeway Mural) she realized this is what she was meant to do and never looked back.
“It takes me about a year to create [one of] my murals, because I spend time in the city that I am painting in. I try to get to know the people and the community since the mural is all about them.”
You can find Caron’s murals throughout San Francisco, as well as in other countries. Although some of the places she paints her murals are considered unsafe, she seems unfazed by the element of danger in her work. As of today, most of her murals have survived the test of time. A few have suffered from natural weathering, and one was hit by a car.
“One of best feelings in the world is to know one of the murals you painted brought [together] two people or families that have literally lived around the corner from each other and never had a conversation….[They] spoke for the first time, even if it was just to say hello.”
* All photos of unknown artists by Jodi Troglio