From the cave to the streets: The history of street art

Street art has a long and controversial history, but in recent years it has evolved and been reinvented as a high art form.

More and more, artists who appropriate public space are also harnessing market forces for their own gain, creating pieces for museums, galleries, and exhibitions. In fact, never in its history has street art been as popular as it is today.

 Murals have come a long way from when they first appeared as crude sketches on cave walls.
Murals have come a long way from when they first appeared as crude sketches on cave walls.

Street art defined

The definition of street art is hard to pin down because it covers such a broad spectrum of different mediums. It encompasses a variety of types, including sculptures, performance art and really any art that can be enjoyed for free in multiple public spaces. Street art, just like murals, may be semi-permanent media or it can also apply to outdoor performances or temporary media art forms.

The actual styles and mediums employed with street art do vary quite extensively when compared to murals. One must move beyond the singular vision of street art as mere paintings on a wall and embrace all of its forms. Many cultural forms of art, including dance, music, poetry, and theater, are considered to be various types of street art, when performed in public spaces and especially outdoors.

Painted street art is a descendant of graffiti. As such it was often performed in the shadows and legal grey areas. Whereas murals have almost always been commissioned and sanctioned works of art.

However, street art is coming out of the shadows with many artists either getting permission from property owners or taking advantage of “free walls” that are fair game for new art. The ties between the two forms have strengthened in recent years as street art has sought the same legitimacy as murals.

Since there are many types of street art, for the purposes of this article we’ll focus on mural arts. 

 Colorful and large murals like this one have helped to legitimize street art.
Colorful and large murals like this one have helped to legitimize street art.

The birth of street art

It can be argued that street art, in its earliest form, originated at the dawn of humanity. Primitive man used sketches and crude drawings as far back as 13,000 BC to communicate with one another.

“Cueva de las Manos” (The Cave of Hands), located in Santa Cruz, Argentina, offers one of the first fascinating glimpses at ancient street art. The prehistoric artwork painted on the walls of this desert cave is not only ancient, but beautiful.

There are three distinct styles to be seen, believed to have been created by different peoples at various time periods. But the highlight of the work is what gives La Cueva de las Manos, or “Cave of Hands,” its name: the hundreds of colorful hand prints stenciled along the cave’s walls around 5,000 BC. 

It’s believed these cave dwellers stenciled their own hands using bone-made pipes to create the silhouettes. Most of the prints are of left hands, indicating that they probably held the spraying pipe in their right hands. The artists used different mineral pigments to make different colors—iron oxides for red and purple, kaolin for white, natrojarosite for yellow, and manganese oxide for black.

There are also hunting scenes and representations of animals and human life found in the cave, dating back even further than the stenciled hands, to around 7300 BC. The hunter-gatherers who lived in the caves at this time created art depicting the pursuit of prey, the most common of which was the guanaco, a type of llama. A favorite hunting tool was the bola, where interconnected cords with weights on either end were thrown to trap the legs of the animal.

A third category of art was discovered, too, with paintings depicting animals and humans in a more stylized and minimalist fashion, done largely in red pigments.

 One of the earliest forms of street art is La Cueva de las Manos (aka Cave of Hands).
One of the earliest forms of street art is La Cueva de las Manos (aka Cave of Hands).

The history of street art

In the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (located in modern-day Turkey) the first known example of “modern style” graffiti can be found. It includes the drawing of a foot, a hand, a heart, and a number, and is believed to serve as an advertisement for one of the largest brothels in the city.

In recent years, plenty of light has been shed on life during that period thanks to murals and other art forms. Painstaking renovation of mosaics, murals and other marvels in a sprawling apartment complex showcases its splendor in the era when the city on the Turkish coast was visited by the apostle Paul, nearly 2000 years ago.

Now, renovated in their original hues, the wall paintings, mosaics and marble paneling once again radiate in a blaze of colors.

Another recorded instance of early street art comes courtesy of the ancient Romans, who carved elaborate graffiti images on walls and monuments.

The Alexamenos graffito on the wall of a room located near Rome, Italy, was created around 200 AD and is believed to be one of the earliest known images of Jesus Christ – although the drawing is not a flattering portrait of the Messiah.

Jesus is represented with the body of a man and the head of a donkey and historians feel the ultimate goal of the artist was to insult and mock the religion of a man being executed in the drawing.

The Hagia Sophia in modern-day Istanbul is known for its architecture and early artwork. 

Two runic inscriptions found in the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia are believed to be carved by Vikings in Constantinople during the 9th century AD. 

In 1964, the first runic inscription was discovered on a parapet on the top floor of the southern gallery. Only parts of the first name Halfdan is legible as -alftan. “NN carved these runes” was very common in Viking Age runic inscriptions, and it is possible that the inscription in Hagia Sophia followed this template. Interestingly enough, this is the first recorded reference of the infamous “X was Here” moniker and either demonstrates the Vikings’ sense of humor, a desire to leave their mark or perhaps both. 

In 1975, a second inscription was discovered in a niche in the western part of the same gallery as the first. Experts on runes have interpreted the inscription as Árni, i.e. Arne, as a simple signature or tag.

 The Alexamenos graffito is a piece of Roman graffiti scratched in plaster on the wall of a room near the Palatine Hill in Rome, which has now been removed and is in the Palatine Hill Museum.
The Alexamenos graffito is a piece of Roman graffiti scratched in plaster on the wall of a room near the Palatine Hill in Rome, which has now been removed and is in the Palatine Hill Museum.

The grandfather of street art

One of the first individuals to be credited with creating outdoor art – since the term graffiti or street art had yet been invented – was Joseph Kyselak (Vienna, 1799 – 1831). He clearly is one of the “founding fathers” of modern graffiti art, having written his name throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 19th century.

Historians theorize that he never had any intention of transforming his work when he started “tagging” his name on countless surfaces. In fact, his “art” all started as the result of a friendly bet with friends.

He was given a period of three years to be known throughout the Empire, so he started to write and scratch his name and the sentence “Kyselak was here” everywhere. (“Kilroy was here” would become a popular phrase painted around the world to celebrate GIs during World War II and the Korean War.) 

Bitten by the graffiti bug, he couldn’t stop his craft after winning the bet, and the last ten years of his life led to some of his most prolific tagging.

His hobby became so widespread that Austrian Emperor Francis I summoned him after he “marked” an imperial building. The emperor made him promise to stop, and he did honor the request. But as soon as he was gone from the palace, it was discovered that his name and the date had been engraved on the emperor’s desk.

 Graffiti is a form of street art that was prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s and a forerunner of modern-day mural art. A characteristic of graffiti is tagging, or placing your moniker within the painted piece.
Graffiti is a form of street art that was prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s and a forerunner of modern-day mural art. A characteristic of graffiti is tagging, or placing your moniker within the painted piece.

Miraculously, some of his tags have survived the passage of time and there’s even a group of people in Austria working to preserve the work of the man who would come to be known as the “grandfather of modern graffiti.”

Another early influencer who helped spread the gospel of graffiti and street art wasn’t even an artist by trade.  

Arthur Malcom Stace (Sydney, 1884 – 1967) also known as Mr. Eternity, was another individual with a curious link to street art. Stace was a reformed alcoholic who converted to Christianity and spread his faith by writing the word “Eternity’” in chalk on footpaths in Sydney over a period of approximately 35 years.

Evangelist John Ridley’s words, “Eternity, Eternity, I wish that I could sound or shout that word to everyone in the streets of Sydney. You’ve got to meet it, where will you spend Eternity?” would prove crucial in Stace’s decision to spread his faith in public.

Starting in 1932, and for several mornings a week for the next 35 years, Arthur would leave his home in Pymont around 5 a.m. to chalk the word “Eternity” on footpaths, train station entrances, and anywhere else he could think of in Sydney. It is estimated that he wrote the word approximately half a million times over those years.

It’s important to point out that Stace never looked for personal notoriety with his tags or artwork, and always considered his campaign a religious mission. But today it’s considered an iconic symbol of Sydney, to the point that the city has registered the word “Eternity” (written in the same Stace script) as intellectual property.

Moreover, officials have installed commemorative plaques around the city, used it as a civic symbol during the 2000 New Year’s Eve celebration over their famed Harbor bridge and then again during the opening of the Olympic Games a few months later, demonstrating the lasting impact street art can have on a community.

 The invention of spray paint would contribute to the rise of graffiti art and mural art.
The invention of spray paint would contribute to the rise of graffiti art and mural art.

An invention that impacted street art

In 1949, nearly two decades before graffiti art would become a sensation first in Philadelphia then quickly in New York City, Edward Seymour invented the aerosol paint can.

Seymour’s invention, which was refined over the next two decades, would be the primary tool of graffitists once the craft became popular in the 1960s.

Is graffiti street art? 

It should be noted that today there are major differences between what constitutes street art and graffiti, but for many years graffiti was the predominant outdoor art form in the U.S.

Graffiti was an illegal and sometimes dangerous activity, condemned as vandalism by city government officials and the police. But it did lay the foundation for the outdoor murals and pasted-up images that define street art today. 

 Cornbread is credited with being the first modern-day graffiti writer.
Cornbread is credited with being the first modern-day graffiti writer.

One of the first recognized graffiti artists, Cornbread (aka Daryl McCray), plied his craft in his hometown of Philadelphia.

During the late 1960s, Cornbread and a group of friends including Cool Earl started doing graffiti in Philadelphia by writing their monikers on walls across the city. The movement spread to New York City and blossomed into the modern graffiti movement, which reached its peak in the U.S. in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then spread to Europe.

After exploding in Europe, graffiti art began to spread around the world and it was during this period that such artists as TAKI 183, Keith Haring and Jean-Michael Basquiat rose in prominence in the street art world. 

Street art also became deeply rooted in the revolutionary practices of those who identified with various subcultures linked to class, race, or gender during this era. The 1970s and 1980s in New York City, which made graffiti famous, bore witness to the graffiti boom, a time when artists influenced by rap, hip-hop, punk, and new wave countercultures took to the streets to communicate with members of their private groups.

These artists spray-painted stylized lettering in public spaces, primarily utilizing walls, restrooms and subway cars as their canvases. The medium evolved as artists tackled current political and social issues and introduced more visual elements in their compositions. Street art emphasized political messages, usually as a form of protest, and continued to place art in nontraditional venues.

 Blek le Rat, born Xavier Prou in Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris, in 1951, was one of the first graffiti artists in Paris, and the originator of stencil graffiti art.
Blek le Rat, born Xavier Prou in Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris, in 1951, was one of the first graffiti artists in Paris, and the originator of stencil graffiti art.

From its early days, graffiti art evolved in several directions: some artists began using stencils to create more elaborate works that would include portraits and landscapes, while others continued using spray paint to put up murals around their cities.

The move to more elaborate work is a significant development in the history of street art since it signaled a shift from the hit-and-run style of graffiti that was illegal and caused artists to be arrested to a more legitimate form of artistic expression.

An early pioneer of stencil art was Blek le Rat, who executed his craft in Paris. The artist’s rat stencils alluded to the controlling nature of state power in the French capital city and served as a way to bring art out of the traditional gallery setting.

Prominent street artists

There are a number of graffiti/street artists whose works influenced legal mural art that today is enjoyed by millions around the world. 

Cornbread

As stated earlier, Cornbread is generally acknowledged to be the first modern graffiti artist. Although New York receives credit as the cradle of the graffiti movement, at least in one instance Cornbread topped his NYC rivals: At age 17, he jumped a fence at the Philadelphia Zoo and spray painted “Cornbread Lives” on the side of an elephant.

Since his tagging days, McCray has developed a close relationship with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, one of the premier art programs in the world.

Daze 

Chris “Daze” Ellis tried to spray-paint his first subway car in 1976 at age 14, but because it was the middle of winter, the paint in the can froze. His subsequent attempts met with greater success and along with partners like John “Crash” Matos, he went on to paint hundreds of subway cars through the rest of the decade.

By the 1980s he began showing his work in NYC’s alternative gallery scene, which led to a career in the art world. These days, he sticks to commissioned murals and canvases that he shows in galleries and museums around the world.

Lady Pink

One of the few women among the original graffiti artists of the 1970s and’80s, Lady Pink was born Sandra Fabara in Ecuador and raised in NYC, where she painted subway trains between 1979 and 1985.

She starred in the hip-hop movie “Wild Style” in 1983, and, in 1985, moved into exhibiting in galleries and collaborating with art-world figures like Jenny Holzer. Her works, known for their strong feminist/latina edge, resides in the collection of such major institutions as Whitney Museum, The Metropolitan Museum New York City, the Brooklyn Museum and the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands.

 Lady Pink is a trailblazer for women graffiti artists.
Lady Pink is a trailblazer for women graffiti artists.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (SAMO)

Among the most famous contemporary artists of all time, Jean-Michel Basquiat (who was so hot in the art world of the 1980s, that Warhol felt compelled to horn in on his act with a proposal for a collaborative project) actually started out in 1976 as a graffiti artist.

Part of a duo operating under the tag SAMO, Basquiat stuck mainly to writing enigmatic, epigrammatic messages on walls in Lower Manhattan. In 1980, at age 20, he turned to studio painting, beginning a meteoric rise to art stardom. Born in Brooklyn to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat died in 1988 of a heroin overdose, but his reputation lives on: In 2017, one of his canvases fetched $110,487,500 – the most ever for a work by an American artist – surpassing the previous record-holder, Andy Warhol.

Keith Haring

Another art superstar who started in the streets, Keith Haring was born in Reading, PA, but grew up in the heart of Amish country in nearby Kutztown. His father was an engineer and an amateur cartoonist, which likely inspired Haring’s career.

Unlike most graffiti artists, Haring went to art school, moving to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). Shortly thereafter, he started working in the subways. He began drawing in chalk inside the spaces reserved for ads in the stations; when empty, these areas were covered with sheets of black paper, which essentially became Haring’s canvases as he began to work out the pop iconography—radiant babies, dancing figures, flying saucers—that brought him fame.

Tragically, he died of AIDS in 1990 at age 31.

Shepard Fairey

In 1989, a skateboarding enthusiast and Rhode Island School of Design student named Shepard Fairey started to post stickers featuring the face of the famed professional wrestler, André the Giant around NYC.

“André the Giant Has a Posse,” it read, much to the bewilderment of passersby who saw it on the streets and in the subway. The message was soon simplified to “Obey Giant,” which found its way onto t-shirts and posters.

Thus began the career of one of the most famous and successful street artists in the world. Fairey has since created something of a street art empire, with a fashion line called Obey and major commissions for murals in the United States and abroad.

Known for eye-grabbing imagery and typography, Fairey’s work is often political in nature, delivering his antiwar, pro-environment and pro-human rights agenda in a style that deliberately evokes propaganda – as in his most enduring claim to fame, the Barack Obama “Hope” poster Fairey created during the 2008 Presidential campaign.

 Shepard Fairey’s art is often laced with political, social and ecological messages.
Shepard Fairey’s art is often laced with political, social and ecological messages.

Banksy

Banksy is arguably the most-famous artist in the world, which is pretty remarkable given that he works anonymously (though his real name is rumored to be Robin Gunningham). The British artist, political activist and filmmaker emerged in Bristol as part of an underground art and music scene during the early- to mid-1990s.

Toward the end of the decade, he began to spray paint stenciled images that mixed pop culture references and subversive political themes on walls and bridges around Bristol and London (he has since gone world-wide). In 2010, he directed the film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the story of a French emigré obsessed with street art; in 2015, he opened an amusement-park/installation piece called Dismaland, which closed after a month.

Needless to say, Banksy’s notoriety has served him well on the art market, where his work has sold in the high six-figures. This in turn has generated collector interest in other street artists—a phenomenon that has come to be known as the “Banksy effect.”

TAKI 183

When it comes to noms de plume, the artist who went by the name of Taki 183 is a legend in the world of graffiti art.

TAKI 183 was active during the late 1960s and early 1970s in New York City. His tag was short for “Dimitraki”, an alternative for his Greek birth-name Dimitrios, and the number 183 came from his address on 183rd Street in Washington Heights. He worked as a foot messenger in the city  and would write his nickname around the streets that he frequented.

On July 21, 1971, The New York Times published an article about him titled “Taki 183” Spawns Pen Pals. TAKI 183 spurred hundreds of imitators including Joe 136, BARBARA 62, EEL 159, YANK 135 and LEO 136 as examples provided by the newspaper.

Those who got their names up the most and who developed signature tags became known in their communities. Graffiti became a way for many young people to try to get attention and the attention TAKI 183 received spurred this on.

Kenny Scharf

Scharf is known for his participation in the interdisciplinary East Village art scene during the 1980s alongside Basquiat and Haring.  His do-it-yourself practice spanned painting, sculpture, fashion, video, performance art and street art.

Growing up in post-World War II Southern California, Scharf was fascinated by television and the futuristic promise of modern design. His works often consist of pop culture icons, such as the Flintstones and the Jetsons, or caricatures of middle-class Americans in an apocalyptic science fiction setting.

 A Kenny Scharf mural on the West Hollywood library.
A Kenny Scharf mural on the West Hollywood library.

Barry McGee

Renowned contemporary artist Barry McGee is considered to be one of the most pivotal members of the street art movement. Born and raised in San Francisco, McGee’s work is inspired by the bold, cartoon-like forms many other graffiti artists used. He uses his pieces to draw attention to the large homeless population in the Bay Area.

McGee’s work was included in the 2001 Venice Biennale, and soon after, works by the artist began appearing on the secondary market, and soared in value. His wife, fellow artist Margaret Kilgallen, was also a strong voice in the street art community before her death in 2001 and is one of the few female artists, just like Lady Pink, to be recognized in the field.

Street art becomes legit

In recent years, street art has moved away from its graffiti ties and has become an art form that is a key connection to economic development and prosperity in many communities. And, artists have utilized the growth in the movement to make a living painting murals.

Moreover, street art’s versatile and revolutionary nature has increasingly attracted collectors in recent years. Today, street artists are commissioned to create murals in public spaces, and museums, galleries, and collectors have shown a keen interest in these works.

The future of street art

The popularity of mural art has grown exponentially in recent years; many cities offer tours for graffiti and street art and countless organizations sponsor mural festivals annually, which has further spread a love for and appreciation of street art.