Graffiti History Snapshot

A meditation on TAC's bonds with the graffiti community and the history of this vibrant art form

TAC and the Providence graffiti community 

The walls of TAC have existed as legal graffiti space since Yarrow Thorne, TAC ED, bought the space at 304 Lockwood in 2005. Yarrow fostered this work over several evolutions: first as Yarrowsport (2005-2009), then as Yarrowscans (2009-2012) and finally as The Avenue Concept from 2012 to today. In 2005, the walls were first opened up to graff writers as a possible solution to minimize the negative impact of vandalism in our community. by hiring local graffiti and working artists to help create awareness of graffiti and the people who make it. What emerged were multicolor works full of layers, depth, and unique style. Rather than being decried as vandalism, these works were celebrated by many members of the public as contemporary art.

Meant to serve as a safe space for the graffiti community to come together and create art, the walls have become an ever evolving canvas – works last a few weeks to a few hours before being painted over by the next artist/writer. This oasis of creativity and expression allows artists to hone their techniques, exchange ideas, and develop their styles.

In the summer and fall, TAC hosts monthly Graff Jams. Held with music, snacks, and the opportunity to paint together in good company, the events strengthen connections with the graffiti community that uses TAC’s walls, including helping us learn more about their practices and hopes for the space. The Yard has been the host of many different events and things that range from community gardens, stage building and design for youth, press events, and Earth Day family paint sessions to make rain barrels. It has been a resource that serves not only graff writers but also the larger community.

Check out a snippet of new works from our 2023 Halloween Graff Jam on our legal walls:

Thanks to @mikedecay for hosting, and to the artists! Instagram handles: @_fuuna_ @theoriginalnerveonedbmobb@reakamouse @_gregwashere_ @overspraystudios @claw_breaker & Kosmik @writtenodac @naturalsnatural @oldmanbase


Snapshot of graffiti history

The tagging that later evolved into contemporary graffiti has a long history. One of the earliest manifestations was through Josef Kyselak (9 March 1798 – 17 September 1831), an Austrian travel writer who became famous for his habit to tag his name onto prominent places during his hikes across the Austrian Empire. Kyselak later became known as a graffiti artist, “the world’s first tagger”, and an early predecessor of later tagging phenomena.

Today’s graffiti developed towards the end of the 1960s and 1970s in New York and Philadelphia, where artists such as Taki 183, Julio 204, Cat 161 and Cornbread painted their names on walls or in subway stations. The hyper-dense and integrated structure of New York City played a role in elevating the work of early modern graffiti artists, bringing together many different cultures and class issues in one single place. The common act of writing on trains which moved through the entire city propelled the process, fuelling an artistic battle against the power brokers in society. (1) In Philadelphia, bold moves by Cornbread such as writing his name on an elephant at the Philadelphia Zoo and on the side of the Jackson 5’s private jet helped bring modern graffiti into mainstream consciousness. (2) In Europe, cities like Amsterdam and Madrid also fostered early graffiti movements with their roots in punk. (3)  


Bbus129 by DONDI on a New York City Subway car, 1984. Photo by JJ & Special K.


The early years of graffiti had little documentation until books like The Faith of Graffiti by Norman Mailer and Jon Naar in 1974, and Subway Art, a book by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, documented the early history of the New York City graffiti movement. Originally published in 1984, Subway Art has been described as a landmark photographic history. (4) Contemporary films like “Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence,” directed by Roger Gastman and narrated by John Waters, have since captured photographs and archival footage from the late 1960s and early 1970s, “a time when underprivileged city kids refused to remain in the shadows.”

Graffiti has also been a tool for social justice. Artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiet created graffiti works in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, tagging works with the pseudonym “SAMO,” a shorthand for “same old s**t.” His works included cryptic messages and visuals, expressing themes of anti-government, class struggle, racism, and religion. (5) Graffiti can be seen as an expression of hope, a demand for justice, and a representation of community solidarity. It allows those who need their voices heard the most to express themselves. Ismael Illescas, a graffiti artist in LA, put it this way: “Where these [people] are marginalized, ostracized, and invisibilized, graffiti is a way for them to become visible.” (6) Beyond the artists themselves, graffiti locations have also been used to communicate social messages. The Freedom Tunnel, a railroad tunnel carrying the West Side Line under Riverside Park in Manhattan, got its name not only because the graffiti artist Chris “Freedom” Pape used the tunnel walls to create some of his most notable artwork but also as a reference to the former shantytowns built within the tunnel by homeless populations seeking shelter and freedom to live rent-free and unsupervised by law enforcement. (7)


The Freedom Tunnel in Riverside Park, Manhattan. Photo by Susan Murray.


The early punk scene also played a major role in the development of modern graffiti. By the mid to late-80s, graffiti had become an important part of the visual aesthetic of the hardcore punk scene. Everything from demo covers to show flyers and logos for bands such as Crumbsuckers, Outburst or Pagan Babies, the work displayed “a frenetic and rough-edged style that was as much CBGB as B-boy.” The basis of the book Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore by Freddy Alva, it is a scene where punk band members would “hit the streets in their boots and braces to bomb the whole night through.” (8)


London Bridge. Photo by Rohan Reddy.


In addition to its punk roots, graffiti has been an integral element of the hip hop justice movement. Graffiti is considered one of the four elements of hip hop, along with emceeing (rapping), DJing, and b-boying (breakdancing). Through this lens, graffiti, like the other three elements, is seen as an artform and a means of cultural expression. Like the other forms of hip hip, it also expresses resistance. As described the Culturally Situated Design Tools (CSDT) team, “Graffiti challenges, for example, mainstream notions of what counts as art, what counts as public space, and what counts as property, just as emceeing/DJing challenges what counts as music, and bboying challenges what counts as dance.” (9) The spread of graffiti worldwide also accelerated in the 1980s with the explosion of hip hop subculture. Fueled by music videos and films, images of New York street culture were channeled around the world. (10)

“Five,” by Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite), 1980-81, spray enamel and markers on steel. Credit: Fred Brathwaite, via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Part of the history of graffiti lies in the roots of spray paint itself. In 1949, Ed Seymour patented a spray gun he designed to spray aluminum paint he created specifically for steam radiators. Therefore, the early spray paint can was designed as a sales tool to showcase a new product, which eventually brought great success to the creator Ed Seymour who founded the Seymour Paint Co., the first company in the world to manufacture pressurized aerosol paint cans. Today, Seymour paint products are still selling 72 years after they were first created.  In the early 1990’s, two spray paint company employees Moockie and Kapi, both urban artists in Barcelona, Spain, had the idea to create a new spray paint can designed for the modern urban artist based on the methods devised by these previous artists. Street artists using spray paint were also inventors in their own right. They developed many methods and ways to modify and change the cans they were using, enhancing the way the can operated as an artist’s tool. They did this by tweaking the valve, the cap, and the volumes to customize a standard can into a modified art tool. Artist Wizart Spoke reflects on some of these early modifications:

  1. “By inverting and jumping on the can, the dome [top of the can] could be crushed which would increase the pressure in the can; this technique could also help an artist use every last drop of paint from the bottom of the can.”  
  2. “There were very limited colors available for artists to use (early on), but custom colors were made using existing sealed cans. This process was done by using cans which were not full. You would freeze one can and heat the other then use a WD 40 plastic straw to connect the two cans… The heated can would want to expand into the cold can, adding its color to the other can and making a custom color. This process was very crude and took a lot of technique to get colors right.” 
  3.  “All the valves were the same and accepted a Male cap, which was similar to many other aerosol products: hair spray, WD 40, whip cream, shaving cream, etc. Each cap was designed for a different material and made a different spray pattern to suit the material in the can. Artists learned to take different caps and modify them to fix paint cans which would allow them to make new and different patterns and lines. These early caps were a real secret and artists would protect them for years of use. Many artist styles and skills were defined by the caps they designed and used.” (11) 


Graffiti Pier, Philadelphia. Photo by Tammy Chan.


The tools and techniques of graffiti have widely expanded over time. The spray can remains key to writers worldwide, but over the decades, writers have gone beyond this to use oil or acrylic paint, airbrush, oil-based chalk, posters, stencils, and stickers. Writers have even used fire extinguishers and scribing tools – anything that one can make a mark with. Such diversity has contributed to a widened artistic scope. The New York model of graffiti centered around the distortion of letters, but many new approaches have since emerged: Over the years, the original letter style has developed to encompass different typographic forms: the legible ‘blockletter’, the distorted and intertwined ‘wildstyle’, the familiar ‘bubble style’ and ‘3D’. Characters, which started off as ancillaries to letters, now form their own graffiti group and range from comical figures to those of perfect photorealism. (12)


Wildstyle in Los Angeles by RIME. Photo by A Syn.


Graffiti, both in its historical and present forms, is a polarizing art form. As explained by Rafael Schacter, “As a form of popular art with a total lack of middle ground – works are either immediately destroyed or reverently protected, practitioners are either fined and imprisoned or idolized and adored, often both at the same time – it is the strength of feeling that these artwork engender that is so enrapturing.”

Categorizing public reactions to the artform of graffiti remains challenging given the diversity of works that can fall within its amorphous boundaries. From tagging to muralism, graffiti comes in many different manifestations, often absorbing local influences. Works can also fall along various points of the spectrum from consensual (outward-looking and community embracing) and agonistic (inward-looking, with more sub-culturally centered aspirations). (13)

At The Avenue Concept, we continue to celebrate and nurture graffiti as an artform by providing a safe space for writers to create, connect, and grow. The movement is still advancing and evolving, and we’re excited to see where it goes.


Hosier Lane, Melbourne. Photo by James Garman.


Read more + references:

  1. Ganz, Nicholas, Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004, p. 9.
  2. “The Legend of Cornbread,” Rock the Bells, October 2020,
  3. Ganz, p. 9.
  4. Norman Mailer and Jon Naar, The Faith of Graffiti, Praeger Publishers, 1974; Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper, Subway Art, Thames & Hudson, 1984.
  5. Janice Aragon, “Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Graffiti Combines Art with Social Justice,”
  6. “The power of paint—graffiti and its pursuit of justice,”
  7. The Tunnel. By Morton, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  8. Matthew Whitehouse, “The secret history of New York’s hardcore punk graffiti writers,” August 17, 2022. 
  9. “Origins,” Culturally Situated Design Tools,
  10. Martinez, Scape, The Art & Technique of Graffiti, New York: Fall River Press, 2009, p 9.
  11. Details and quotes from a paper by Yarrow Thorne
  12. Ganz, p. 10.
  13. Schacter, Rafael, The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, Yale University Press, 2012, p. 9-10.