How hip-hop and spray-can art exploded from the subways of Gotham into global chic
Derided as graffiti by outsiders, hailed as "writing" by the artists themselves, spray-can art glowed as a whole new genre in the 1970s. Its practitioners made New York City's subway cars their movable canvas.
From a vast array of inherited traditions and gritty urban lifestyles talented and renegade young New Yorkers spawned a culture of their own, a balloon-lettered shout heralding the coming of hip-hop.
Though helpless in checking its spreading appeal, city fathers immediately went on the attack and denounced it as vandalism. Many aficionados, however, recognized its trendy aesthetic immediately. By the 1980s spray-paint art hit the mainstream, and subway painters, mostly from marginal barrios of the city, became art world darlings. Their proliferating, ephemeral art was spotlighted in downtown galleries, in the media, and thereafter throughout the land.
Not only did the practice of "public signaturing" take over New York City but also, as the images moved through the neighborhoods on the subway cars, it also grabbed hold in the suburbs. Soon it stirred worldwide imitation and helped spark the hip-hop revolution.
As the artists wielded their spray cans, they expressed their acute social consciousness. Aerosol Kingdom documents their careers and records the reflections of key figures in the movement. It examines converging forces that made aerosol art possible--the immigration of Caribbean peoples, the reinforcing presence of black American working-class styles and fashions, the effects of advertising on children, the mass marketing of spray cans, and the popular protests of the 1960s and '70s against racism, sexism, classism, and war.
The creative period of the movement lasted for over twenty years, but most of the original works have vanished. Official cleanup of public sites erased great pieces of the heyday. They exist now only in photographs, in the artists' sketchbooks, and now in Aerosol Kingdom. Today, high schoolers the world over, wowed by the genre, consider the graffiti artists from the hotbed of Gotham as rivals to the greats in world museums.
Filled with illustrations and insights, Aerosol Kingdom is the story of the flowering of this period when creative vandalism made its ineffaceable mark.
Ivor L. Miller has published widely, in African Studies Review, Third Text: Third World Perspectives on Contemporary Art & Culture, Callaloo, Race & Class, and LUCERO: Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies.
218 pp., 150 b&w and 30 full-color illustrations