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How Hip-hop Works


Hip-hop and Graffiti

Note: Gang members use graffiti to communicate within and outside their crews. However, graffiti is also created by people not affiliated with gangs. The graffiti discussed here refers to the non-gang-related practice.

graffiti artist
Mat Szwajkos/Getty Images
A graffiti artist begins to paint his mural on a lifelike subway car facade at Marc Ecko's Getting Up block party on August 24, 2005, in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.

The Cost of Graffiti
Cleanup crews operate solely to combat graffiti in cities and counties throughout the United States. Reportedly, about 60 million square feet of graffiti had to be removed in Los Angeles County alone in 2006. The county paid $32 million to get the job done [source: Abdollah].

In a proactive measure, the city of Montebello, Calif., is installing 25 cameras equipped with tagger trap technology. These cameras use a sensor to detect the sound of an aerosol can from as far away as 80 feet, and then they alert the police. The system will cost about $1 million, but since city officials report a yearly expenditure of $700,000 to remove graffiti, it should pay for itself in a couple of years [source: Abdollah].

Graffiti -- also known as writing, tagging and aerosol art -- is a message or drawing created, most often illegally, on a public surface. Some scholars compare it to ancient art forms like hieroglyphics and cave paintings. In fact, one scientist takes the argument a step further. In "The Nature of Paleolithic Art," paleobiologist Dale Guthrie contends that amidst the finer works of Paleolithic cave art, you will find graffiti -- and lots of it.

The graffiti associated with hip-hop most likely got started sometime in the mid-to-late 1960s. The exact beginnings can't be pinned down, but most discussions point to one article that brought graffiti into the spotlight -- "'Taki 183' Spawns Pen Pals," published in the New York Times on July 21, 1971. The article describes Demetrius, a Greek-American teenager known as Taki, who used magic markers to leave his tag, TAKI 183, wherever he went. Clive Campbell was a big fan of tagger TAKI 183. Like several other teens, he emulated TAKI by tagging, too.

Through the next 40 years, graffiti evolved from simple magic marker tags to colorful, whole-train and building murals. And while some people view these elaborate pieces as vandalism, others see them as art. After owner Patti Astor met Fab 5 Freddy, the Fun Gallery, which was located in Manhattan's East Village, became one of the first galleries to showcase graffiti [source: Ehrlich]. Since then, graf­fiti has appeared in galleries in Milan, London and Paris.Graffiti found praise among art dealers and gallery goers in the early 1980s, and it caught the eye of film and record producers. Graffiti graced album covers and provided a colorful backdrop in music videos. For example, HAZE, a well-known graffiti artist, created album covers for some of the Beastie Boys' earliest works. He also worked with Tommy Boy records and rapper Chuck D from Public Enemy [source: Austin]. Several hip-hop scholars and graffiti artists agree that this is when the graffiti movement melded with the hip-hop movement. In the words of hip-hop scholar Jeff Chang, "There is still a raging debate, especially amongst older graffiti writers, as to whether hip-hop and graffiti are linked. But once hip-hop was presented with graffiti in movies such as Wild Style and Style Wars, History took a different turn." Chang goes on to point out that today, hip-hop art is intrinsically tied to graffiti, in everything from graphic design to fashion to sculpture [source: Ehrlich].

Now that we've covered the art of hip-hop, let's investigate the sound of hip-hop -- starting with how Kool Herc became the founding father of a cultural movement.