Hip-Hop: A Culture of Vision and Voice

Writing: Graffiti and Hip-Hop Culture

Outlaw artists leave their mark on the city


Writing Terms to Know

The basic vocabulary of writing graffiti—Hip-Hop’s visual art include:

all city being known for one’s graffiti throughout a city; originally referred to the artwork on subway cars appearing in all five New York City boroughs
bite to steal another writer’s design or style
black book sketchbook used by graffiti writers
bombing to paint many surfaces in an area
burner elaborate, large designs
crew team of writers that often work together
gettin’ up developing one’s reputation or “rep” through writing graffiti
graffiti writing, or drawing on surfaces in public places, usually without permission
kings or queens highly respected, experienced writers with most tags
piece short for “masterpiece,” a large, complex graffiti design
stencil graffiti premade designs of paper or cardboard that allow quicker, more exact transmission of images or lettering
tag or scribble stylized, but basic graffiti writer’s signature
throw up quick execution writing; generally one color outline and one color filled in
toy inexperienced writer
wild style style of writing that usually involves bold, interlocked letters
writer graffiti artist who has a distinct way they design their letters

One element of Hip-Hop predates the music and dance scene itself—graffiti writing, or simply writing as the artists themselves call it. But it blossomed at the same time the music and dance scenes were finding their feet, and its wild and color-outside-the-lines improvisational style were influenced and inspired by the desire to create something new and fresh.

Graffiti has been around since humans first painted, etched, or carved on rock walls. But urban youth put a new spin on it in the 1960s. In 1967, a Philadelphia teen named Darryl McCray spray painted his alias “Cornbread” wherever he could reach on walls and trains. (He was striving to impress a girl named Cynthia.) In 1968, the budding art form made the jump to New York City. The names JULIO 204, TRACY 168, and TAKI 183 became familiar sights here, there, and increasingly everywhere.

Writing’s Heyday

The number and talents of writers spiked in the mid-1970s as Hip-Hop’s competitive drive kicked in. They added illustrations and second colors to outline stylized bubble and block lettering. The writers—many if not most of them young teens—jumped the limits of size, complexity, and color. Their finest designs seemed to bring life to whatever they graced. They called it wild style—and it was.

They also jumped over fences, sneaked into subway tunnels, and trespassed in nighttime yards where subway cars slept. There, they practiced their art with blank walls and unstained trains as their canvases. When opportunities arose, they painted the whole sides of subway cars and even entire ten-car trains with their elaborate, colorful designs.

They had no illusions their creations would last long. But the opportunity to see their art rolling through the subway was the ultimate payoff for writers like DONDI, LADY PINK, FAB FIVE FREDDY, KASE2, and ZEPHYR. It was outrageous to think thousands of New Yorkers saw their creations each day in one of the richest cities in the world. “If art like this is a crime let god forgive me!” wrote the writer known as LEE of the Fabulous Five crew. They embraced the identity of outlaw artists and admitted the dangers and thrills were part of the appeal. They were on missions to prove they were not only the most imaginative and talented writers in their neighborhood, but the most fearless.

Not surprisingly, NYC officials were not amused. Cops cracked down on writers, and train yards were encircled with new security. At the same time, the art world was catching on that something fresh was happening in the city beyond their fancy uptown galleries. Graffiti-inspired exhibitions popped up, and some writers took the opportunity to commit their passion to canvas instead of granite and steel.

Wild, Hungry, Inspired

Writing's place in Hip-Hop culture was cemented by the early 1980s. Early rappers used wild style on their album covers. Writers painted cool kids’ clothes with designs and got paying gigs painting murals. And two movies—Style Wars and Wild Style—debuted. The films made the case that a similar hungry, inspired creativity flowed through writing as well as Hip-Hop’s music and dance scene.

Today, graffiti-influenced writing styles show up worldwide in graphic design, fashion, and street art. Outlaw artists like Banksy are still out there painting trouble. But the vision, passion, and humor the best of these writers display—legit or not—give people the chance to see the work-a-day world in new ways. They seem to say if we pay attention, we can find beauty, meaning, and art most everywhere we look.



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Image via Creative Commons; flickr.com user urbanartcore.eu

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