HIP HOP HISTORY: PART 5
Graffiti Art was forming long before Kool Herc decided to tag up CLYDE AS KOOL.
In fact, the art of writing on walls can be traced back to Ancient Egypt and beyond. But when it comes to things like Taggin, Piecin, Burnin, Bombin and Throw-Ups... these are unique to Hip Hop Culture.
Taggin up your name actually did not begin in New York, it began in Philadelphia around 1965 when a young Black kid named Cornbread started writing and painting CORNBREAD on the walls of subway stations in an attempt to attract the attention of a girl he liked named Cynthia. The letters he used were basic but began to evolve over time into the Gangster Style. Around 1968 CORNBREADs proteg TOP CAT brought the Gangster Style to New York, where it was picked up by a kid named Julio from 204th Street.
Julio started taggin up JULIO 204 to represent where he was from, which ushered in the new style of taggin your block. A young Greek-American kid from 183rd Street in Washington Heights named Demetrius took it to the next level when he started taggin his nickname and street, TAKI 183, on moving vehicles like ice-cream trucks. Also, because he worked as a messenger boy, which took him all over the city, he was able to spread his tag all over New York. This caught the attention of the New York Times, who tracked him down for an interview.
Demetrius told the reporters that he simply did it for the attention, much as Cornbread did when he first started taggin in Philly. When the Times printed the article, Taggin was popularized in the inner-city and overnight tags started popping up everywhere CLIFF 159, JUNIOR 161, CAY 161, CHE 159, EVA 62 and many other young kids were picking up fat makers and spray paint cans to get some attention as well.
Although it may have been the Age of Revolution (1961-1971) for the many philosophers and revolutionaries who wanted to change the world, it was the Age of Darkness for the younger generation who lived in that world that needed to be changed. While these great revolutionary figures stood in the spotlight, behind them was a long shadow covering many young people who also wanted to be recognized. And now they would have their chance.
Taggin became more than just a way to get attention; for some it became a mission, an adventure. As the Taggin pioneer SPAR ONE put it, You started on your street, then you went to the buses. You take over your neighbourhood, then you take over your homeline, then you take over your division, then you take over all city.
Soon the quest was on to put your tag in the most visible of places. Young kids would dare to hang off of bridges and buildings from ropes to get their tags up. The competition raged on until the female Graffiti pioneer STONEY tagged up the Statue of Liberty!
Taggin also caught on fast with gangs. Obviously, one of the main objectives of any gang is to mark their territory. Soon, rival gang members could no longer use the excuse that they did not know they had crossed the lines.
Then Taggin turned into Piecin and more colour was introduced to what you would tag up. But something else happened as well racial and class unity! The EX-VANDALS the legendary Graffiti supercrew from Brooklyn started putting up their Pieces along multiple trainlines which went far outside of the inner-city area. Soon White kids from the Upper East Side were learning the art from Black kids in the Bronx. And Brooklyn Latinos were learning from working class White kids from Queens. Multiethnic crews became normal.
Soon Writers Tables began to form in the school lunch halls. Those with the most skill and whose Pieces were up in the boldest places could sit at the designated table, everyone else had to stand if they wanted to get down. Outside of school on Atlantic Avenue, 149th Street and other spots, Writers Benches formed where young kids from all over would meet up to compare their Blackbooks and plan missions for the Ghost Yard.
The Ghost Yard was a train depot on the Northern tip of Manhattan where many of the cities trains would come to be serviced and prepared for the next days runs. For young 10, 11 or 12 year olds, this was indeed one hell of a mission. First you had to get there by travelling through the gang territories, then you had to get through the fence, pass the dogs and security guards and finally find the best train car upon which you will put up your Piece. Mind you, if you wanted to put up a nice Piece, that meant having to carry a big, heavy backpack full of cans. It also meant spending a good deal of time Piecin it up and hoping that you didn’t have to abandon it half way through if the guards came. If you managed to get your Piece up, the journey home was easy as you sat thinking about the bragging rights you would have to display the next day in school.
Then it was time for the next generation of style. But this would come in a very unusual way. In 1972, the city’s Anti-Graffiti Campaigns began and by November 1973 the Metropolitan Transit Authority had finished repainting their fleet of 6,800 train cars. Every trace of Graffiti was gone! You would think that the Writers would have been upset, but they were indeed overjoyed! This meant that now you would not have to waste paint and time painting over an old Piece you could literally start from scratch. In fact, the whole movement could start from scratch. And so the Writers Tables and Writers Benches were bringing together the best of the best PHASE 2, RIFF, TRACEY 168, BLADE, DONDI, KASE 2, SEEN.
The new style that emerged added outlines, more colors, patterns, highlights, depth, shadows, arrows. Names were bubblized, gangsterized, mechanized, dissected, bisected, cross-sected, fused, bulged, curved, dipped, clipped, chipped and disintegrated. They were filled with shooting stars, dripping blood, energy fields, polygons and some floated on clouds, zipped with motion lines or shot out from flames. And they got bigger and bigger and bigger! They went from Window-Down to Top-to-Bottom to End-to-End to Whole Cars. They even went to entire Productions, like the Freedom Train which covered 10 entire cars Bombed by CAINE 1, MAD 103 and FLAME ONE.
What happened next almost destroyed the Graffiti movement in New York. Funding for the Metropolitan Transit Authority was cut and so the security in the Ghost Yard diminished. You would imagine that this would be good news for the Writers. But when the fleet of newly painted trains rolled out, it drew the attention of hundreds of other inexperienced kids who wanted to get their name up as well. There were two obvious problems; one was space and the other was security. Thus was born the Throw-Ups which were basically intended to get your tag up quick. It was generally two colours and the letters went back to the basics.
So what’s wrong with that? Imagine you sit down for a week putting together your nicest Piece. You go through the trouble of getting your paint, getting to the train yard and spending the night Burnin your Piece onto a freshly painted train. Two days later, you invite your friends to check it out and all you see is this ugly two-tone Throw-Up. The morale of the true artists was falling rapidly, and some Writers were simply walking away from the game.
But some started hearing of a place where they could go to not only compare the fresh Pieces on the walls with those in their own and others Blackbooks, but they could also see some amazing new dancers and hear some amazing new sounds without having to worry about the police or gang rivalry. It was known as the Park Jams and the grand hosts were none other than DJ Kool Herc or Afrika Bambaataa.