Scribbles, Tables, and Schools, a Short History of Graffiti

Despite its illegality, the popular art form of graffiti made its way into LILA’s classrooms. LILA Gazette tackles the subject and dives into graffiti’s history.

Eden Perkins – 8th grade.

Video Eden Perkins and Leo Despiegel

Scribbles, drawings, symbols, words, and sentences. There are lots of people who draw or write on desks and other surfaces at LILA. Some are just random scribbles, while others are works of art. Graffiti is a way to express yourself and let your artistic nature flow, even though it’s illegal. According to the Oxford Dictionary, graffiti is “writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surfaces in a public place.” By definition, if someone did graffiti with the consent of the law, it wouldn’t be “graffiti!”

Art comes in many forms, from music to sculptures to graffiti. Graffiti is the only illegal art form, as it includes murals and street art. Without explicit permission by the authority (be that the police, the teachers, or other), graffiti is punishable by law. Section 594 is the law that makes graffiti illegal (damage under $400 is a misdemeanor, and over $400 is a felony). Graffiti is usually used to mark territory among artists, and it is most commonly found in subway cars, walls, and other public property. As one of the biggest cities in the world, New York City is a center for graffiti. 

For many people, the sheer illegality of graffiti is what makes them like it. “I cross out words so you will see them more (…) The fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them ”, said artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. This part of his famous quote is important because it really emphasizes that humans are curious. Young children are taught that sometimes that too much curiosity can result in disaster. But, sometimes, it can help those same children. Humans are naturally curious, and graffiti artists love to make equally curious pieces. Graffiti can be found everywhere. 

There is no difference at LILA. There is graffiti on desks, graffiti on tables, chairs, lockers, walls, even in the bathrooms. “We have only had two incidents at LILA,” says Mathieu Mondange, Middle School Principal of LILA, “I talked with one graffiti artist and he stopped; if he does it again, we will do something about it.” At LILA, not many people do big graffiti, although many scribble on things.

Mathieu Mondange, Middle School Principal at LILA (Video: Leo Despiegel and Eden Perkins)

Graffiti didn’t just appear in the late 1900s, it has been around since the dawn of time. Cavemen used blood and berries to make paintings on cave walls. Romans regularly inscribed poems, love letters, and even slogans to favorite their preferred gladiators on temples. Ancient Egyptians marked walls with hieroglyphs. Mayans drew on their buildings. Many people, including the Greek philosopher Plutarch, pushed back against graffiti. Plutarch deemed it “ridiculous” and “pointless.” Only in the fifth century was the modern idea of “vandalism” created. During that time,a group of barbarians called the “vandals” (a germanic tribe) pillaged and destroyed Rome. Although, it was only in 1794 that the term “vandalism” was coined by a French bishop named Henri Grégoire. The term then quickly spread through Europe. 

Now, many modern graffiti artists gain different identities to hide or to establish camaraderie with others. Graffiti artists often use tags to trace their paths around the city or just to lay claim to territory. Some of the oldest taggers include “Cornbread” and “Taki 183.”

Famous graffiti artists:

Even though the more famous names are Basquiat and Banksy, “Cornbread” and “Taki 183” are some of the first “modern” graffiti artists, as they started tagging places in the late 1960s. 

Cornbread:

One of Cornbread’s most famous tags is when he actually spray-painted an elephant from the local zoo! Cornbread was born Daryl Alexander McCray. He has led a hard life. As a kid, he got into a lot of trouble. Eventually, he was sent to the Youth Development Center for “juvenile delinquents.” After constantly asking the chef why there was no cornbread, the chef yelled at him, referring to him as “Cornbread.” The nickname itself means “an unsophisticated person from the rural area of the Southern U.S.” After that, the other kids tormented him with it. The name stuck. Daryl ended up taking that ill-given nickname and turning it into a pseudonym that turned him into one of the most famous graffiti artists of all time. 

Taki 183:

Another famous graffiti artist is “Taki 183.” His birth name was Demetrius, and he lived on 183rd street in Washington Heights in Northern Manhattan at the time. “Taki” was a nickname that his family gave him, and, attached with the street that he lived on, he had a tag. In the summer of 1971, a reporter was interested, and soon after, it appeared in an article for the New York Times headlined “‘TAKI 183’ Spawns Pen Pals.” (July 21st of 1971). At the end of 1970, Demitrius went to high school in Midtown Manhattan, and he had to take one train to get there and back. He tagged the subway stations and anywhere else he thought would be good. He emulated campaign tactics that he saw in election posters in 1968, tagging a lot. 

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