Graffiti Is Hip Hop: Celebrating Hip-hop’s Cultural Impact and Ties to Graffiti Culture on its 50th Anniversary

This summer artists, cities, museums, schools, libraries and other cultural and historical organizations celebrated hip-hop and its cultural contributions for its 50th anniversary. The summer was packed with observances the pay homage to the cultural movement such as festivals, like the popular SummerStage seasonal concert series in NYC and Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture annual Block Party in D.C.; retrospective programs, such as The Book of HOV exhibit at Brooklyn Public Library’s Central branch and the Hip-hop turns 50 reading list and Bay-area Hip-hop archive at the Oakland Public Library; and commemorative transit cards from MARTA and MTA

Hip-hop has been one of the most widely spread African American cultural productions and social movements of the 20th century and the entire 21st century so far. As a genre that developed in the modern media age, the general public has watched it evolve into the contemporary iterations and sub genres that make up a sprawling family tree of sorts. A tree whose roots and branches make palpable imprints on the forms of arts and culture we enjoy today. This spread and popularity is not only evident in the characteristics of current pop- and sub-culture, but is also backed by in-depth statistical media analysis. In 2015, researchers at the Queen Mary University and Imperial College in London published a report that analyzed the frequencies, tones, and harmonic patterns of charting songs in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts from 1960-2010. They found that songs representing elements that the researchers categorized under hip-hop, rap, and r&b started dominating charts starting in 1991. This influx of rap-related music tags was the largest revolution in their period of research, with researchers stating that “The rise of rap and related genres appears…. to be the single most important event that has shaped the musical structure of the American charts in the period that we studied” (Mauch, et al., 2015). 

On our July 29th tunnel survey, we found large pieces by FDC, Kaos, PFE, and other well known Atlanta graffiti artists that honored Hip-hop’s 50th anniversary. These pieces, located along the highly visible and large Dekalb Ave retaining wall, displayed an extensive ode to hip-hop culture through old-school style graffiti. In addition to the large pieces, there is usually at least one reference to hip hop (lyrics, iconography, ads, or material culture) in the tunnel at any time. Though the anniversary pieces were clearly hip-hop themed, the act of tagging and writing itself is an element of and an homage to hip-hop culture. Though modern iterations of hip-hop and graffiti may seem like two separate art forms that developed independently, they are historically and inherently tied to each other. Of course, the act of graffiti has been around for centuries, but its contemporary rise, evolution, acceptance, and commercialization coincides with hip-hop’s rise to mainstream culture. 

Five Hip Hop 50th anniversary murals as seen from Dekalb Ave. Digital Photographs, July 29th, 2023. Krog Codex Archive, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia.

Hip-hop in its earliest forms could be described as the fusion of subcultures of the African and Caribbean Diaspora that were prominent in urban epicenters — e.g. the Ballroom Scene, African American poetry and story-telling, Jazz, and Disco —  with electronic music that was being developed in the U.S. and internationally. Colloquially, we tend to think of hip-hop as the predecessor and blueprint for contemporary rap. But hip hop describes a collection of cultural production, which includes four pillars; MCing (lyricism), DJing (audio), breakdancing/b-boying (movement dance), and graffiti/writing (visual). Other facets of this youth-led subculture include fashion, language/slang, and knowledge of the movement and its influences. Within the vernacular of the culture, folks who participated in the graffiti aspect of the movement were often called “writers.” There writers would throw-up, etch, bomb, or simply put, write, their unique tag on workable surfaces. Other modes of street art, like murals, installations, and posters put up without permission are distinguishable from writing and graffiti, but can still overlap. Writing was widely practiced within and outside of the community and several hip hop music pioneers were writers before emerging themselves in the world of music production.

Tribute to late Hip-Hop producer and MC, MF DOOM. Digital Photograph, June 17th, 2023. Krog Codex Archive, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia.

According to Hip-hop folklore, the hip-hop sound was performed for the first time at a dorm party in Bronx, NYC in 1973 by DJ Kool Herc. Kool Herc himself was a prolific writer before the genesis of the genre, who used the tag/moniker “CLYDE IS KOOL” and ran with a crew called the Ex-Vandals. In the same year, graffiti received its “big break” in the form of a highly publicized gallery exhibition organized by the United Graffiti Artist collective.

DJ Kool Herc speaking on the party that sparked the birth of Hip-hop and showing off some of his techniques on the turn tables.

The early hip-hop and rap community crowned graffiti as its aesthetic, as it represented creative expression in the increasingly postindustrial urban environment of 1970’s NYC. The association of the two mediums is evident because of their geographic proximity to each other. But the bridge between hip hop and graffiti was pioneered by Fab 5 Freddy– a street artist and a hip hop producer who coined the four pillars/elements of hip-hop (mentioned above) and eventually became the first host of Yo! MTV Raps. Through collaboration with fellow visual artists, up and coming hip hop musicians, and other cultural movements in the 1970s-80s (such as the No Wave genre, video artists, and the popular bands Blondie and The Clash) he played a huge part in uplifting and advancing hip hop out of local obscurity into charting music. 

Excerpt from Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor. Fab 5 Freddy meets Blondie (with Basquiat and The Clash)

The birth of hip hop is an example of marginalized creatives using music as an agent of empowerment, the same way writing claims space in the absence of ownership and autonomy within a space or community. Writing and hip hop were also, simply put, created out of an urge to impress and creatively collaborate with peers. Hip-hop, and more specifically writing, are disciplines generated out of the lack of permission. Hip hop producers and lyricists made an entire genre out of toying with mainstream and obscure sounds that weren’t what big labels and radio stations were looking for. And graffiti, of course, was seen as an act of destruction and is outright illegal in most contexts. 

Segment from MOCAtv’s Art in the Streets series featuring Jean Michel Basquiat and Fab 5 Freddy speaking about the Fun Gallery in NYC.

The history of Hip-hop is well documented and there are many scholarly sources with great information on its history and origins. In terms of monetary success of artists, hip hop has also fared better over time. But this contrast is not a point of strife between the two art forms; instead there is an understood solidarity and appreciation of each other. Throw-ups, Wildstyle, and Anti-style, among so many other styles are intrinsic to, and illustrative of hip-hop. Graffiti is hip hop. Graffiti helped spread hip-hop culture and vice-versa. This creative boom and subsequent spread over time to the Western and Southern United States, proliferated both subcultures. Creative spaces like the Krog Tunnel, where the art form can be practiced without prosecution, emerged much later in its history. Nonetheless, Krog Tunnel has been part of Atlanta’s Hip Hop milieu. It’s not uncommon to see up and coming artists filming music videos in the tunnel, notably a 2015 Young Thug video. 

Sample breakdown of A Tribe Called Quest’s Bonita Applebaum by Tracklib

For more comprehensive and visually impressive accounts of hip-hop and rap’s evolution, we recommend Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor, a graphic novel series that recounts individual stories from the early days of hip hop as well as an upcoming graphic history novel by Walter Greason and Tim Felder, The Graphic History of Hip Hop. An intersection of rap and hip hop lyricism synthesized with spatial data in Atlanta can be explored on Rap Maps, a project by a fellow Map Lab cohort here at Georgia State. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang is one of the most comprehensive histories of early hip hop and traces many artist’s history and association with graffiti. Additionally, The New York Public Library System is participating in this summer’s celebrations and has lots of great information on Hip Hop’s history as a performing art. 

Works Cited

Mauch, Matthias, Robert M. MacCallum, Mark Levy, and Yong-Yeol Ahn, 2015. “The evolution of popular music: usa 1960–2010”, Royal Society Open Science(5), 2:150081.

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