Hip Hop in the STL pt. 4: Graffiti

Graffiti is more complicated than one might imagine, both in its actual process and in its small-time politics.


In late ’70s New York, something new was being born. No one knew quite what it meant, nor could they possibly foresee its future significance, but it was certainly pissing a lot of people off.

Subway trains were awakening from their weekend trainyard beds with dazzling colors and sexy shapes painted on their sides. City officials were bemoaning the lack of respect for public property. New Yorkers themselves were labeling the creators of these nocturnal acts of so-called “art” as cowardly destroyers of the vehicles they rode every day to work. Some of these painters were irritating other painters by simply painting over others’ work. A hotbed of hip hop culture was developing right before their eyes.

Graffiti art—or graf writing—has its roots in the same place and time as the other three elements of hip hop, that being Brooklyn and the Bronx of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first hip hop recordings (mass-produced recordings, more specifically) were being laid down; the first breaking crews were practicing and competing on the city’s sidewalks; and local graf writers were meeting at a location and time they deemed “the Bench” to hang out and exchange ideas about their visual contributions to their culture. Their main focus was bombing trains.

“Bombing” was a term they used to designate the illegal activity of painting on walls, subway trains, subway stations, and any other place where they could very well be arrested for doing so. They were a surprisingly diverse group of individuals in terms of background, age, and ethnicity, defining in two dimensions what the hip hop revolution would look like.

Just like the other elements of the culture, graffiti was deemed as a foolish fad by many. Moreover, it is the only element whose focus is completely illegal. According to an anonymous source who has spent time in jail for trespassing (a common charge unless one is actually caught in the act), painting graffiti on many surfaces is considered a felony. Certainly, it would be difficult to find many breakers who have been thrown in the slammer for busting a windmill.

Graffiti is more complicated than one might imagine, both in its actual process and in its small-time politics. Though some pieces might take a few minutes or hours, other, more large-scale murals might take months or even years to create. A particular writer from Los Angeles who goes by Saber spent probably a year and a half—and 100 gallons of paint—to finish a gargantuan mural on an L.A. riverbank. Painting over someone’s hard work might result in enraging the entire crew of the writer whose work was dissed. In other words, if you paint over someone’s work, it better be fucking good.

As graffiti has aged, it has become virtually illegible to the casual viewer. Writers mainly paint for each other, or those in the know and in the culture, rather than Joe Passerby stopping for a glance. The New York scene established some of the more well-known types of visuals commonplace in graffiti today, such as bubble letters, arrows, and letter-bending.

The most recent heyday for graffiti in the Midwest was based right here in St. Louis. In 1996, several local and Midwestern writers got together at an undisclosed spot in University City to barbecue, drink, hang out, and, of course, to paint. This gathering, originally called the Underground Superfest, would become, over the course of only a couple of years, an annual Mecca for Midwestern, national, and even international writers desiring to showcase their work and commune with other devoted writers. Paint Louis, as it was later deemed, also grew to include breaking battles and live music performances, turning it into an event which highlighted all four major elements of hip hop. Additionally, an entire couple of miles of flood wall near the Poplar Street Bridge downtown was essentially given to Paint Louis as an open canvas for the writers. Unfortunately, things quickly fizzled out.

As Paint Louis grew in popularity, so did the interest of city officials and corporate sponsors. The city of St. Louis became increasingly wary of hundreds of graffiti writers flocking to an urban area full of blank wall space other than the flood wall. Corporate sponsors soon outnumbered interested writers, and by the turn of the decade, Paint Louis was essentially over. Local DJ Mike 2600, who was involved with every Paint Louis since its inception, has serious doubts about the materialization of anything near the magnitude of Paint Louis ever getting started again. Too many cooks simply spoiled the hell out of a deliciously simmering broth.

The St. Louis graf scene is strangely missing from the limelight of our local hip hop culture nowadays. Even those who continue to do graffiti, such as local b-boy Ben Pierce, are disenchanted with the behind-the-back politics and poor craftsmanship of others in the game. Pierce himself has practically given up bombing altogether, favoring instead larger mural work, which consumes more time in thought and in execution. He expressed his dismay at the childish antics of local writers like this: “They think it’s like a big city. ‘Yeah man, we really have beef with this crew.’ There’s only like two crews. It’s like in third grade with these kids. So petty.”

Like Pierce, Mike 2600 has also moved on to other things, for assorted reasons. While he’s not making music with his crew, Litterthugz, he’s busy with projects like 4X4 Magazine, which he publishes as his one-man graphic design outfit, Twelve Car Pileup. Mike claims that his days doing graf are easily seen in both his graphic design work as well as his paintings. And graffiti, like hip hop culture in general, has never been about stagnation.

“Graffiti has kind of made up its own rules,” claims Mike. “I mean, the first thing about it is that it’s illegal. So right off the bat, it’s its own set of rules right there. From there, it’s like, ‘What can you paint on? What can you paint? Who can paint where?’”

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