9 Game-Changing Moments in the History of Street Art

From the earliest evidence of human creativity to the birth of the first modern graffiti writer, street art has shown a remarkable ability to change the world. These moments have had long-lasting and profound repercussions, deeply shaping the artists, issues, outputs, and interactions of today.

1. ca. 15,000 BCE: Cave paintings liven up the Stone Age

The caves at Lascaux, in southwestern France, have almost 2000 images painted on their ceilings and walls, dating back to circa 15,000 BCE, a.k.a. the Stone Age. (And, yes, we are fully aware that caves don’t have streets.) A mix of abstract signs, people, and animals, the cave paintings demonstrate the very human need to use art to both make sense of and manipulate our environment, two of street art’s varied purposes.

2. 1942: Kilroy goes here, there, and everywhere

During World War II, the phrase “Kilroy was here,” usually accompanied by a drawing of a bald figure with a big nose, began appearing wherever US servicemen were stationed (even the VIP bathroom at the Potsdam Conference, where it caused Stalin to freak out). While the origins of the phrase remain somewhat murky, Kilroy was likely a real person, and his declaration constitutes an early instance of tagging. Plenty of people scribbled their names in obscure places before Kilroy got there, but his tag was the most widespread.

3. 1967: Cornbread falls in love

In 1953, Darryl McCray is born in North Philadelphia. Fourteen years later, Cornbread, considered by many to be the first modern graffiti artist, was born. To win the heart of a young lady, McCray scribbled “Cornbread loves Cynthia” in several places she’d see. It worked: they dated until she moved away. More importantly for our purposes, Cornbread almost single-handedly took the idea of tagging away from gangs, who’d been using signatures and visual motifs to demarcate areas, and transformed it into an attention-grabber available to anyone. At the height of his fame in the 1960s and 1970s, no target was safe from Cornbread’s tag, not even an elephant at the Philadelphia Zoo or the Jackson 5’s private 747.

4. 1979: Martha Cooper meets Dondi

A photographer since the age of five, Martha Cooper started taking shots of kids spray-painting around the Lower East Side in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until she met Donald White, better known as Dondi, that she truly found her subject. Her photograph of Dondi painting as he balanced precariously between two subway cars, included in her seminal book Subway Art (1984), co-written with Henry Chalfant, just might be her most famous. A self-proclaimed “ethnographer,” she seeks to capture both the production and the products of an ephemeral form, and succeeds. She treats her subjects seriously and, as a result, her viewers do too.

5. 1981: Blek le Rat appears in Paris

Beginning in 1981, rats crawled like crazy around the streets of Paris, courtesy of Blek le Rat, considered to be the father of modern stencil art. “My stencils are a present, introducing people to the world of art, loaded with a political message,” he told The Independent during a 2008 interview. “This movement is the democratisation of art: if the people cannot come to the gallery, we bring the gallery to the people!" His stencils’ blend of dark humor and political commentary has impacted scores of artists, including Banksy and gilf!.    

6. 1982: Keith Haring goes from subway to gallery

Keith Haring wasn’t the only artist to make the leap from street to gallery during the late 1970s and early 1980s—indeed Jean-Michel Basquiat arguably had even more of a meteoric rise from graffiti writer to sought-after painter—but Haring was definitely one of the most prolific and remains one of the most popular. In 1980, he began doing quick drawings in white chalk on the black matte paper found in New York City subway stations. These “subway drawings” helped him hone his signature style of squiggles, figures, and symbols, leading to shows at major museums, large-scale public works projects, and great fame.

7. 1983: Style Wars premieres

One of the earliest documentaries devoted to hip hop culture and urban art, Style Wars examines the intersection among graffiti, rapping, and breakdancing on the streets of New York City. It memorably portrays graffiti writers who “are not motivated by a desire for money [but who] want to make their mark on the city they live in and transform it into a canvas, into a work of art,” as New York Times film critic A.O. Scott explained when re-evaluating the film in 2009. Completed in 1982, it first aired on PBS in 1983, and has gained a tremendous cult following in the decades since.

8. 2000s: Street art goes legal

In the 2000s and 2010s, street art went legal. Huge city-wide festivals in Stavanger, Norway, and Melbourne showed city officials that street art need not be criminalized—in fact, it could be encouraged in a way that benefited both the city (tourism, ornamentation) and the artist (exposure, safe circumstances in which to execute large-scale or intricate pieces). Today, cities from Atlanta to New York to Łódź to Cape Town have sponsored festivals of street art, designated significant areas as open-air legal galleries, and generally helped a multitude of artists gain exposure.  

9. 2001: Wooster Collective is founded

In the aftermath of September 11, Marc Schiller walked around taking photographs of the art he found along the streets of his Soho neighborhood. In 2003, Schiller and his wife, Sara, created Wooster Collective, one of the first online celebrations of street art. The blog blossomed, and other websites devoted to promoting and cataloging street art around the world sprang up. Today, amateur and professional photographers alike post their street art finds to Flickr, Instagram, Pinterest, and elsewhere, just about every artist worth his or her Sharpie has a website, and mainstream media like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal regularly cover street art, largely due to the influence of Wooster Collective.   

Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
The Covers of Jack Kerouac's Classic Titles Are Getting a Makeover
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press

Readers have been enjoying classic Jack Kerouac books like The Dharma Bums and On the Road for decades, but starting this August the novels will have a new look. Several abstract covers have been unveiled as part of Penguin’s "Great Kerouac" series, according to design website It’s Nice That.

The vibrant covers, designed by Tom Etherington of Penguin Press, feature the works of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. The artwork is intended to capture “the experience of reading Kerouac” rather than illustrating a particular scene or character, Etherington told It’s Nice That. Indeed, abstract styles of artwork seem a fitting match for Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—a writing style that was influenced by improvisational jazz music.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Dharma Bums, which was published just one year after On the Road. The Great Kerouac series will be available for purchase on August 2.

[h/t It's Nice That]

John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.


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