Updated: Jul 7, 2022
This blog was inspired while sitting in a cigar lounge on Ocean Street in Downtown Jacksonville, staring at a two-story painted sign that only revealed part of its past: “fatigue,” “5 cents,” and sold everywhere. Before sharing what the sign is all about, let's address the very important difference between murals (1), street art (2), graffiti (3), public art (4), and sign-painting (5).
Please care about the difference.
The history, tools, culture and style, and practitioners easily distinguish the different art forms that encompass a global art movement that has yet to be named. The history of graffiti is wildly different from that of murals. Debated in small circles, graffiti started in NYC or Philly. Murals pre-date Graff by more than 30,000 years. The tools used to create bronze sculptures for public art commissions are wildly different than those used to create street art in the form of wheat-paste or stencils.
Most people clump all five BUT we will learn how to peel them apart.
Let me start by being up front on my perspective and biases. My mother’s side of the family is from the South Bronx and my father's is from Pennsylvania (PA), both states stake claim to the birth of contemporary graffiti (although I recently picked up a book on Hobo Graffiti of the 1930s and am wondering how to weave that into the conversation with the other graff-history buffs). My mother's family fled upstate during the “crack is wack” [Keith Haring] era and my father's family still hunts in PA and so begins a deep-rooted connection to the only global art movement in the world: murals, street art, and graffiti. The global art movement is powerful, here is why: We are living in the first art movement to hit all four corners of the world, at approximately the same time, centered around the same "art in public" conversation, geo-politics, and systematic rebellion. Not to mention (most of) the most famous artists are alive and well and collecting their millions and as outlined later, this is the oldest form of creative expression known to man-kind. So many aspects of this unusual movement are unprecedented and never before witnessed. Think back to your high school art history classes learning about Dali or Picasso (insert famous artist here) who weren't truly valued until after they passed. In the art world, the norm is the creator has to die before we TRULY value their works and contributions to the never-ending narrative that is Art History. The global "street art" movement defies the odds. Banksy and Shepard Fairey are both alive and well and seeing the fortunes and fame of their talents. The list is long and includes the likes of JR, Mr. Brainwash, Ron English, Dondi, DAZE, and Lady Pink.
Exclaimer: I am a New Yorker. I am biased. I am also experienced and educated. I have had direct contact with "famous artists" in each of the sub-fields and before evolving to invest my time to the DIY/underground creatives, I was painting walls myself. I have painted walls all over the country, and am happy to throw down, but prefer to give up having caps and cans in hand to support the talent of others. Instead, I spend my emotional and social intelligence navigating "the system". It feels ironic, as it is the same system the practitioners have spent decades rebelling against since it has fundamentally failed us. That is the core of graffiti “F&%$ the man.” Moving forward, I didn’t get deep into this work until 2010 and have since traveled the world to better understand the differences between murals, street art, and graffiti. Follow this blog as I open up on over ten years in the streets.
Please ask questions. High School Art Teacher, College Adjunct, Practitioner, Funder, and Author I am here to answer your questions and create a digital learning environment. My teaching-style is Q&A driven and the classroom is outdoors. I run the room around dialogue. The plan is to just share facts and not opinions on the quality of the art or the artists. Although I do like to talk $h!t about Andy Warhol coming from a very opinionated young woman who knows far too much about the brotherhood between graffiti and pop-art.
A wee bit of history.
As of May 2022, the oldest form of art known to humanity fits in one of the five categories this blog opens up with. Thirty to forty-thousand years ago humans painted cave walls, referred to as hand-stencils and the oldest dating back is the caves in Spain or on an island in Indonesia called Sulawesi. As with all things art, there is controversy over the oldest art. The debate centers around based on how you define the word art, but some 73,000 years ago (almost 2x longer than the cave paintings in Spain) drawings on caves in South Africa were unearthed by archeologists as well, according to the www. Left hand stencils and imagery of a pig were the subject matter.
‘Wall paintings’ aka murals are the oldest form of art known to human-kind. It is the longest art history story to tell. Murals, or large wall works, are called Pieces in Graffiti Culture named after the word masterpiece.
Let's hop around a bit more. Greek-American Graffiti Writer TAKI 183 and an article about him in The New York Times in the summer of 1971 combined to transform him from newspaper delivery boy to the founding father of modern Graff. Alternatively, some of us defend that Cornbread in Philly started it. Philly never gets the same credit as NYC for sheer exposure and reach. Why TAKI and why 183? Tags names are typically: the name of the character followed by a number representing the street number, block or lineage. TAKI is a traditional greek name given to Demetrius and means "all holy" and 183 was the street he lived on in Washington Heights. He was 16 when he got the first hight of throwing up the first tag.
Another hop to sign-painting (SP).
SP is an ancient-trade with commercial viability where as graffitists only STARTED to get paid from ‘legal walls’ AFTER selling canvasses on walls out of galleries which is an insult to the culture. SP dates back to 300 B.C. when people had to succinctly communicate what they are selling and why so that you would "pause and step inside” and it works to this day.
Standing in a Jax, an ancient American city eyeballing the old signs, the vibrant explosions of color along city corridors, and the wild style letters icing the old industrial buildings in Phoenix; can’t help but want to peak into the soul of these old buildings and hear them whisper and share their meaning based on the art that adorns the walls.
I will continue to document and research all five forms of "art in public" but sign-painting is particularly special to old man Jax. Remember that first picture of me working in the cigar lounge? That cigar lounge hang, sign-stare led me to the 4th floor of the downtown branch of the public library to gather as much informational possible. I dug into the old books on the 4th floor and found “Jos A (Marie) signs 15 Ocean h4040 Post” and then dug deeper to find “15 (bell icon) Burnett Jos A sign punter” and confirmed it was an old Coca-Cola ad on the exterior of the building which now sits inside, protected by cigar smoke and personality. The sign was painted by Joseph Burnett who went on to run the sign shop.
The sign depicts a past time when a bottle of Coke cost 5 cents. “Inflation killed the nickel Coke” with the last one sold in 1959 at that price. Also, 1904 the company went from using fresh coca leaves to using left-over leaves from the cocaine extraction process and then in 1929 they stopped stopping using the leaves all together. These now worn out signs can tell tombs of stories of what was before us and how space was occupied in Jax, my number one interest on planet earth after struggling to take up space my whole life and learning the struggles of others as well.