One of the articles in the upcoming issue of Agora Gallery‘s contemporary art magazine, ARTisSpectrum, focuses on interviews conducted by artist T. Mikey, who got in touch with well-known figures in the world of graffiti art and was able to persuade some of them to talk about what their creative form means to them. I won’t spoil the article for you – the magazine doesn’t come out until later this month – but it seemed like a good opportunity to take a quick look at this continually developing genre.

We’re all familiar with ordinary graffiti, which has been around for thousands of years. The ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 79 CE, had its graffiti preserved, along with everything else, by the eruption that destroyed it, meaning that later generations could unearth the old streets and discover that the messages scrawled on the walls were not so different to the kinds of things you might see today. Personal messages, political statements, and advertising of all kinds are common sights on the streets of any major city, and many smaller places.

Graffiti art is, in a way, part of this wealth of visual data, in that it appears in precisely the same places you would expect to see ordinary graffiti. But it developed in a coherent manner, with recognized styles and accepted mores that became part of the movement, in a similar way to any other art school.

The origins of graffiti art can be traced back to the late 1960s, when ‘tags’, or elaborate signatures, began adorning walls in Philadelphia and New York, in letters that changed as the movement gained momentum. For example, Phase 2, one of the earliest graffiti art writers and one of those interviewed in the upcoming ARTisSpectrum, contributed to the use of bubble writing in tags.

In the 1970s, graffiti art began moving to the subway as individuals plastered cars with their tag, and sometimes other messages or designs. What graffiti art writers wanted in this period was exposure, and the subway cars were an ideal way to achieve this, as they go all over the system, and are seen by hundreds of thousands of people on a regular basis.

Many New Yorkers will still remember this phase of the movement, which proved controversial, with some horrified by what they considered the vandalism of public property. Penalties became more serious, buying materials became more restricted, and the budget for anti-graffiti work was increased, and in a relatively short time the streets became one again the dominant location.

This was unsatisfactory for many, though, and some graffiti artists, who had been developing their work and styles to often sophisticated levels, began setting up galleries for the exhibition of their work. With the development of individual talents, it became more common for owners of buildings or walls targeted by a graffiti artist to be reluctant to destroy or paint over a mural which decorated and enlivened the street.

As people warmed towards graffiti art, it gained in legitimacy and gravitated more towards the mainstream – eventually producing, for example, Banksy – someone who creates work only on walls and buildings, often in public spaces, but whose work has begun to be worth millions of dollars, and who has become a household name. Meanwhile other graffiti artists have made smooth transitions to becoming gallery artists, well within the contemporary art world – sometimes even abandoning their original medium, spray paint. In other cases, the graffiti style has been adapted to other things, from t-shirts to skateboards, with the result that it has become a familiar element of popular culture – one that has reached all over the world.

Despite the increasing comfort many people have with graffiti art, there remains debate about its place in the art world and whether it can truly be accepted as part of contemporary art. Many people also point to the difficulty in drawing a line in the right place, as graffiti currently includes everything from the most basic forms of tagging to elaborate and decorative murals. Have an opinion? Share it in the comments!