Henry Obiospo's article is a primer on East Coast Graffiti. To most people, Graffiti is seen as vandalism. In hip-hop, graffiti is a medium for artistic expression. In some regards, graffiti art represents the struggle and challenge to mainstream idealism that Hip-Hop embodies. To understand hip-hop, one also needs to understand the artistic expression of graffiti and the cultural space that has defined it. This article does provide a basis for understanding graffiti in Hip-Hop.

Background of East Coast Graffiti 

By Henry Obiospo

The Beginnings 1966-1971

Graffiti was initially used as a for of activism, as statements. Street gangs also used it to make a statement, a territorial one. However, graffiti as we know it now, started to for its identity in the late 1960's. The art form of graffiti started in Pennsylvania. "CORNBREAD and COOL EARL, wrote their names all throughout the city to gain attention from their friends and community. It is not clear if the concept of graffiti made its way to New York City deliberately or spontaneoPicture of the artist.usly. 

The Washington Heights section of Manhattan gave birth to "TAKI 183." In 1971 The New York Times published a piece on the Washington Heights native. "TAKI 183" was the nickname for Demitrius, and 183 was the number of the street in which he lived. "TAKI 183," was employed as a foot manager so he was on the subway regularly and took advantage of this as he did tags. The appearance of his name in almost every train sparked public curiosity. This prompted The New York Times to write an article on him. He was not the first to write of the first king, but he was the first person to ever get any recognition because of the newly formed subculture.

Due to the article written on "TAKI 183" a slew of individuals were inspired. At this time writers became active especially in the streets of Brooklyn. People in all five boroughs became aware of each others effort; thus the foundation of interborough competition was established. Writing suddenly became competitive. "Writers would ride Writers would ride the trains hitting as many subway cars as possible. It wasn't long before writers discovered that in a train yard or lay up they could hit many more subway cars in much less time and with less chance of getting caught. The concept and method of bombing had been established" (Cooper, Chafalt 13). 

Tag Style

Picture of a graffiti art, brizze.In a short time graffiti was being written by many people, so in attempts to gain fame by outshining the rest, the first way to make a tag was unique. Calligraphy and script styles were developed. Writers enhanced their tags with design for either style or meaning. One example of enhancing one's tag would be by using a crown to proclaim themselves "king." 

Tag Scale

Writers developed a next skill, scale. " The standard nozzle width as a spray paint can is narrow so these larger tags while drawing more attention than a standard tag, did not have much visual weight" (34). So, writers began to increase the thickness of the letters by discovering that caps from other aerosol products provided a larger width of spray. This "let to the development of the masterpiece" (38). This means that they would start to use entire subway cars. Some of the most accomplished writers of this time were HONDO 1, JAPAN 1, MOSES 147, SNEAK 131, PRO-SOUL, BARBARA 62, EVA 62, and JUNIOR 161.

The Peak of Graffiti 1975-1977

Picture of a graffiti art, elevated train."After 1974 writing hit a plateau. All the standards had been set and a new school was about to reap the benefits of an artistic foundation established by prior generations and a city in the midst of a fiscal crisis. New York City was broken and therefore the transit system was poorly maintained. This led to the heaviest bombing in history" (41). At this time the bombing style distinguished itself. Entire cars became the standard on how they practiced, "the bombing became the throw up, the style derivative of bubble letter" (web site1). Throw up Kings included: BUTCH, CASE, KINDO, BLADE, COMET, ALE 1 to name a few.

Graffiti Style Revival 1978-1981

A new form of creativity bloomed in late 1977 with crews like TDS, TMT, UA, MAFIA, CIA and others. " In 1980 the real buff started up again, but pieces ran for shorter periods. Train yard fence repair was becoming more consistent. Writers slowly started to quit and consider other creative options. Many writers became distracted with thoughts about careers beyond painting subway cars. The established art world was once again becoming receptive to writing. There hadn't been much positive attention since 1979" (Cooper, Chalfant 53).

Graffiti's Survival of the fittest 1982-1985

The crack cocaine epidemic was taking its toll on the inner city. The streets became increasingly tense. Laws restricted the sale of paint to minors and required stores to place paint in locked cages. "Legislation was in the works to make penalties for graffiti more severe" (60). Due to these laws, the major change was the increase in transit authority's anti-graffiti budget. "At this point physical strength and unity in street gangs became a major part of the writing experience. Due to pressure from the MTA, cross out wars among writers broke out" (Web page2).

Graffiti's Die Hards 1985-1989

On several subway lines like the 2 and 5, graffiti removal significantly decreased. This is because those cars were headed for the dump, which writers took advantage of. "The burners many times were blemished by marker tags that soaked through the paint. A trend developed that was a definite step back for writing. Due to a lack of paint and courage to stay in a lay up for prolonged peionds of time, many writers were tagging with markers on the outside of the subway cars. The tags were generally of poor artistic effort" (67). By the mid 1980's many writers quit. Most train lines were free of writing. " The D's, B's, and J's were among the last of the lines with running pieces. MAGOO, DOC TC5, DONDI, TRAK, DOME and DC were all highly visible writers" (78).

Picture of a graffiti art, kid.

Graffiti No Longer, The Clean Train Movement 1989-Present

"On May 12, 1989 The MTA declared victory over graffiti. The MTA set in a policy of removing all marked subway cars from service. The object being no graffiti will run. This was the birth of what is known as the clean train movement. There were many writers who believe subway painting in the defining act in being a writer. These writers refuse to give up the battle against the MTA. Even though works do not run or only run for one trip many people still write. Short list of clean train writers: COPE2, SENTO TFP, POEM, [and] YES2"


Are Chicano murals and graffiti art? This is a highly debatable topic. However one can basically say that for the most part, art is beautiful because it represents a part of one's life, culture, and/or society. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And when it comes to murals and graffiti, there are those who do not see it as credible art forms because its not in a "traditional" form, that of the European. This traditional upholds the fact that art should be private. Which totally goes against the core principals of Chicano murals and graffiti, the fact that it's main purpose is for it to be exhibited to the masses.

In traditional European beliefs, art is something that is hung for individuals to delight at. Usually this belief means that the privileged in the society are the ones that can appreciate such splendor. What private art does is forces a person to do what public art doesn't, that is the paying of monetary dues. This is because only a certain few can pay a fee for a look at art. Not everyone is capable of producing the same amount of money. Therefore this leads to a big problem, which is the deprivation of the poor of not viewing art.

Picture of a graffiti art, train yard.

Public art is perceived by the European ideals as deviant. For example, an article in The Bay State Banner by Sarah Curtis, a police officer is interviewed regarding graffiti artists" He added that the community service order he issued produced more positive results than incarceration would have, the punishment he said that is increasingly assigned to graffiti artists." This quote directly shows how public art/artists are treated. To the culture that does not understand they are a nuisance, however to their community, theses artists are held with respect and in many occasions are heroes. In the same article the police officer says "When government cooperates with private business and community groups, it strengthens its ability to effect meaningful change in the life of a neighborhood and in the city as a whole. The Graffiti Removal and Clean Buildings/Clean Streets Program is making life better for thousands of New Yorkers today, and is giving many others the opportunity to create a brighter future for themselves and their families." For the officer to assume that because one chooses to express one's self, one is a criminal. When the officer states that punishing an artist is the way in which he sees opportunity being created for the artist itself and their family, he sounds preposterous. His argument is not believable. This quote directly reflects what is noted in the graffiti section of the paper."


When a writer or crew bombs all major subway lines.

Disagreement or conflict.

(n) Subway station where writers congregate and watch trains. Benching (v) The act of watching trains.


Block Buster:
Wide lettered piece stretching from end to end done below window level on subway car.

NYC subway division called Brooklyn Mass Transit. Includes J, L, M, N, Q, R, Z subway lines.

Prolific writing.

Removal of writing/art work.

The Buff:
The MTA's graffiti removal program.

1. To out do the competition. 2. To ware out.

A technically and stylistically well-executed wild style piece. Generally done in bright colors.

(Fat, skinny, German thin) Interchangeable spray-can nozzles fitted to paint can to vary width of spray.

Clean Train:
Current term for all New York City Subway cars. They are difficult to hit and rarely go into service with writing on them.

Coal Mine:
Older IND and BMT (R1s-R9s) subway cars characterized by a unpainted brown dusty surface. Retired from service in 1976. See image at NYC Subway Resources. Photo by Doug Grotjahn. Collection of Joe Testagrose.

Organized group of writers.

Crossing Out:
To scribble or write on someone else's name. It is considered highly disrespectful.

Excellent (derived from definite and death).

Polka dots, checkers stars swirls are placed over the fill-in to in hence and compliment fill-in. Designs are limited only by an artists imagination and technical ability.

Ding Dong:
Stainless-steel (R-46) subway car, so named for the bell that rings alerting passengers of closing doors.

Excellent, of the highest order.

Part of a group or action.

Plain cloths police officer or detective.

Slang for police. Derived form the television series Hawaii 5-O.

Graduation of colors.

Rows of throw ups of the same name.

Throw ups done on subway car panels at window level.

Railroad freight cars.

Painted steel subway cars with flat surfaces. (The preferred subway cars of old school writers. During the 1970s the IRT division was composed exclusively of flats).

Getting Up:
When proliferation of name has led to high visibility.

Getting Over:

Going Over:
Writing over another writers name. It is the ultimate act of disrespect.

The base colors of a piece, falling within the outline.

Hand Style:
Handwriting or tagging style.

Head Buff Spot:
The portion of wall panels of the subway car interior above the seats located at passenger's head level. The mild though frequent abrasion from passengers heads eventually buffs (removes) tags on these locations. (It is an undesirable location to tag).

Henry Shots:
Photographic technique developed by Henry Chalfant. The camera remains in one spot with automatic film advance while the subject (train) moves. The end result is a straight forward single image built from several frames providing more detail. Though the term is used infrequently the technique has become one of the standards for photo documentation of trains.

(n) A tag, throw-up or piece (v) the act of writing.

NYC subway division called the Independent. Includes A, B, C, D, E, F, GG subway lines.

Subway car interiors.

Shoplifting or stealing. This term was used prior to 1974. The contemporary term is RACK.

NYC subway division called Interborough Rapid Transit. Includes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 subway lines.

To bomb excessively.

The most accomplished writer in a given category.

A single or double track where trains are parked during off-peak hours. Both tunnel and elevated lay-ups exist.

Letter Lines:
The IND and BMT divisions of The New York City Subway.

Married Couple:
Two subway cars permanently attached which share a motor. Identified by their consecutive numbers. These cars were desirable when art work on connected car was directly relevant.