Gilbert Scott-Heron (April 1, 1949 – May 27, 2011) was an American soul and jazz poet, musician, and author, known primarily for his work as a spoken-word performer in the 1970s and 1980s. His collaborative efforts with musician Brian Jackson featured a musical fusion of jazz, blues, and soul, as well as lyrical content concerning social and political issues of the time, delivered in both rapping and melismatic vocal styles by Scott-Heron. His own term for himself was "bluesologist", which he defined as "a scientist who is concerned with the origin of the blues".[note 1] He is considered by many to be the first rapper ever.
His music, most notably on the albums Pieces of a Man and Winter in America in the early 1970s, influenced and foreshadowed later African-American music genres such as hip hop and neo soul. His recording work received much critical acclaim, especially for "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised". AllMusic’s John Bush called him "one of the most important progenitors of rap music," stating that "his aggressive, no-nonsense street poetry inspired a legion of intelligent rappers while his engaging songwriting skills placed him square in the R&B charts later in his career."
Scott-Heron remained active until his death, and in 2010 released his first new album in 16 years, entitled I’m New Here. A memoir he had been working on for years up to the time of his death, The Last Holiday, was published posthumously in January 2012. Scott-Heron received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. He also is included in the exhibits at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) that officially opened on September 24, 2016, on the National Mall, and in an NMAAHC publication, Dream a World Anew.
Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago, Illinois. His mother, Bobbie Scott, was an opera singer who performed with the Oratorio Society of New York. Scott-Heron’s father, Gil Heron, nicknamed "The Black Arrow", was a Jamaican soccer player who in the 1950s became the first black man to play for Celtic Football Club in Glasgow, Scotland. Gil’s parents separated in his early childhood and he was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, Lillie Scott, in Jackson, Tennessee. When Scott-Heron was 12 years old, his grandmother died and he returned to live with his mother in The Bronx in New York City. He enrolled at DeWitt Clinton High School, but later transferred to The Fieldston School after impressing the head of the English department with one of his writings and earning a full scholarship. As one of five black students at the prestigious school, Scott-Heron was faced with alienation and a significant socioeconomic gap. During his admissions interview at Fieldston, an administrator asked him, "’How would you feel if you see one of your classmates go by in a limousine while you’re walking up the hill from the subway?’ And [he] said, ‘Same way as you. Y’all can’t afford no limousine. How do you feel?’" This type of intractable boldness would become a hallmark of Scott-Heron’s later recordings.
After completing his secondary education, Scott-Heron decided to attend Lincoln University in Pennsylvania because Langston Hughes (his most important literary influence) was an alumnus. It was here that Scott-Heron met Brian Jackson, with whom he formed the band Black & Blues. After about two years at Lincoln, Scott-Heron took a year off to write the novels The Vulture and The Nigger Factory. Scott-Heron was very heavily influenced by the Black Arts Movement. The Last Poets, a group associated with the Black Arts Movement performed at Lincoln in 1969 and Abiodun Oyewole of that Harlem group said Scott-Heron asked him after the performance, "Listen, can I start a group like you guys?" Scott-Heron returned to New York City, settling in Chelsea, Manhattan. The Vulture was published by the World Publishing Company in 1970 to positive reviews.
Although Scott-Heron never completed his undergraduate degree, he was admitted to the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, where he received an M.A. in creative writing in 1972. His master’s thesis was titled Circle of Stone. Beginning in 1972, Scott-Heron taught literature and creative writing for several years as a full-time lecturer at University of the District of Columbia (then known as Federal City College) in Washington, D.C. while maintaining his music career.
Scott-Heron began his recording career with the LP Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in 1970. Bob Thiele of Flying Dutchman Records produced the album, and Scott-Heron was accompanied by Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders on conga and David Barnes on percussion and vocals. The album’s 14 tracks dealt with themes such as the superficiality of television and mass consumerism, the hypocrisy of some would-be black revolutionaries, and white middle-class ignorance of the difficulties faced by inner-city residents. In the liner notes, Scott-Heron acknowledged as influences Richie Havens, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, Jose Feliciano, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Nina Simone, and long-time collaborator Brian Jackson.
Scott-Heron’s 1971 album Pieces of a Man used more conventional song structures than the loose, spoken-word feel of Small Talk. He was joined by Jackson, Johnny Pate as conductor, Ron Carter on bass and bass guitar, drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Burt Jones playing electric guitar, and Hubert Laws on flute and saxophone, with Thiele producing again. Scott-Heron’s third album, Free Will, was released in 1972. Jackson, Purdie, Laws, Knowles, and Saunders all returned to play on Free Will and were joined by Jerry Jemmott playing bass, David Spinozza on guitar, and Horace Ott (arranger and conductor). Carter later said about Scott-Heron’s voice: "He wasn’t a great singer, but, with that voice, if he had whispered it would have been dynamic. It was a voice like you would have for Shakespeare."
"Johannesburg", a single in 1975 and again in 1983
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1974 saw another LP collaboration with Brian Jackson, the critically acclaimed opus Winter in America, with Bob Adams on drums and Danny Bowens on bass. The album contained Scott-Heron’s most cohesive material and featured more of Jackson’s creative input than his previous albums had. Winter in America has been regarded by many critics as the two musicians’ most artistic effort. The following year, Scott-Heron and Jackson released Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day. 1975 saw the release of the single "Johannesburg", a rallying cry to the issue of apartheid in South Africa. The song would be re-issued, in 12"-single form, together with "Waiting for the Axe to Fall" and "B-movie" in 1983.
A live album, It’s Your World, followed in 1976 and a recording of spoken poetry, The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron, was released in 1978. Another success followed with the hit single "Angel Dust", which he recorded as a single with producer Malcolm Cecil. "Angel Dust" peaked at No. 15 on the R&B charts in 1978.
In 1979, Scott-Heron played at the No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden. The concerts were organized by Musicians United for Safe Energy to protest the use of nuclear energy following the Three Mile Island accident. Scott-Heron’s song "We Almost Lost Detroit" was included in the No Nukes album of concert highlights. It alluded to a previous nuclear power plant accident and was also the title of a book by John G. Fuller. Scott-Heron was a frequent critic of President Ronald Reagan and his conservative policies.
Scott-Heron recorded and released four albums during the 1980s: 1980 and Real Eyes (1980), Reflections (1981) and Moving Target (1982). In February 1982, Ron Holloway joined the ensemble to play tenor saxophone. He toured extensively with Scott-Heron and contributed to his next album, Moving Target the same year. His tenor accompaniment is a prominent feature of the songs "Fast Lane" and "Black History/The World". Holloway continued with Scott-Heron until the summer of 1989, when he left to join Dizzy Gillespie. Several years later, Scott-Heron would make cameo appearances on two of Ron Holloway’s CDs: Scorcher (1996) and Groove Update (1998), both on the Fantasy/Milestone label.
Scott-Heron was dropped by Arista Records in 1985 and quit recording, though he continued to tour. The same year he helped compose and sang "Let Me See Your I.D." on the Artists United Against Apartheid album Sun City, containing the famous line: "The first time I heard there was trouble in the Middle East, I thought they were talking about Pittsburgh." The song compares racial tensions in the U.S. with those in apartheid-era South Africa, implying that the U.S. was not too far ahead in race relations. In 1993, he signed to TVT Records and released Spirits, an album that included the seminal track "’Message to the Messengers". The first track on the album criticized the rap artists of the day. Scott-Heron is known in many circles as "the Godfather of rap" and is widely considered to be one of the genre’s founding fathers. Given the political consciousness that lies at the foundation of his work, he can also be called a founder of political rap. Message to the Messengers was a plea for the new generation of rappers to speak for change rather than perpetuate the current social situation, and to be more articulate and artistic. Regarding hip hop music in the 1990s, he said in an interview:
They need to study music. I played in several bands before I began my career as a poet. There’s a big difference between putting words over some music, and blending those same words into the music. There’s not a lot of humor. They use a lot of slang and colloquialisms, and you don’t really see inside the person. Instead, you just get a lot of posturing.
— Gil Scott-Heron
Prison terms and more performing
Scott-Heron performing at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, 2009
In 2001, Scott-Heron was sentenced to one to three years imprisonment in a New York State prison for possession of cocaine. While out of jail in 2002, he appeared on the Blazing Arrow album by Blackalicious. He was released on parole in 2003, the year BBC TV broadcast the documentary Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised—Scott-Heron was arrested for possession of a crack pipe during the editing of the film in October 2003 and received a six-month prison sentence.
On July 5, 2006, Scott-Heron was sentenced to two to four years in a New York State prison for violating a plea deal on a drug-possession charge by leaving a drug rehabilitation center. He claimed that he left because the clinic refused to supply him with HIV medication. This story led to the presumption that the artist was HIV positive, subsequently confirmed in a 2008 interview. Originally sentenced to serve until July 13, 2009, he was paroled on May 23, 2007.
After his release, Scott-Heron began performing live again, starting with a show at SOB’s restaurant and nightclub in New York on September 13, 2007. On stage, he stated that he and his musicians were working on a new album and that he had resumed writing a book titled The Last Holiday, previously on long-term hiatus, about Stevie Wonder and his successful attempt to have the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. declared a federally recognized holiday in the United States.
Malik Al Nasir dedicated a collection of poetry to Scott-Heron titled Ordinary Guy that contained a foreword by Jalal Mansur Nuriddin of The Last Poets. Scott-Heron recorded one of the poems in Nasir’s book entitled Black & Blue in 2006.
In April 2009, on BBC Radio 4, poet Lemn Sissay presented a half-hour documentary on Gil Scott-Heron entitled Pieces of a Man, having interviewed Gil Scott-Heron in New York a month earlier. Pieces of a Man was the first UK announcement from Scott-Heron of his forthcoming album and return to form. In November 2009, the BBC’s Newsnight interviewed Scott-Heron for a feature titled The Legendary Godfather of Rap Returns. In 2009, a new Gil Scott-Heron website, gilscottheron.net, was launched with a new track "Where Did the Night Go" made available as a free download from the site.
In 2010, Scott-Heron was booked to perform in Tel Aviv, Israel, but this attracted criticism from pro-Palestinian activists, who stated: "Your performance in Israel would be the equivalent to having performed in Sun City during South Africa’s apartheid era… We hope that you will not play apartheid Israel". Scott-Heron responded by canceling the performance.
I’m New Here
Gil Scott Heron
Scott-Heron performing at the Göta Källare nightclub in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2010
Scott-Heron released his album I’m New Here on independent label XL Recordings on February 9, 2010. Produced by XL label owner Richard Russell, I’m New Here was Scott-Heron’s first studio album in 16 years. The pair started recording the album in 2007, with the majority of the record being recorded over the 12 months leading up to the release date with engineer Lawson White at Clinton Studios in New York. I’m New Here is 28 minutes long with 15 tracks; however, casual asides and observations collected during recording sessions are included as interludes.
The album attracted critical acclaim, with The Guardian’s Jude Rogers declaring it one of the "best of the next decade", while some have called the record "reverent" and "intimate", due to Scott-Heron’s half-sung, half-spoken delivery of his poetry. In a music review for public radio network NPR, Will Hermes stated: "Comeback records always worry me, especially when they’re made by one of my heroes … But I was haunted by this record … He’s made a record not without hope but which doesn’t come with any easy or comforting answers. In that way, the man is clearly still committed to speaking the truth". Writing for music website Music OMH, Darren Lee provided a more mixed assessment of the album, describing it as rewarding and stunning, but he also states that the album’s brevity prevents it "from being an unassailable masterpiece".
Scott-Heron described himself as a mere participant, in an interview with The New Yorker:
This is Richard’s CD. My only knowledge when I got to the studio was how he seemed to have wanted this for a long time. You’re in a position to have somebody do something that they really want to do, and it was not something that would hurt me or damage me—why not? All the dreams you show up in are not your own.
The remix version of the album, We’re New Here, was released in 2011, featuring production by English musician Jamie xx, who reworked material from the original album. Like the original album, We’re New Here received critical acclaim.
In April 2014, XL Recordings announced a third album from the I’m New Here sessions, titled Nothing New. The album consists of stripped-down piano and vocal recordings and was released in conjunction with Record Store Day on April 19, 2014.
"Gil Scott-Heron released poems as songs, recorded songs that were based on his earliest poems and writings, wrote novels and became a hero to many for his music, activism and his anger. There is always the anger – an often beautiful, passionate anger. An often awkward anger. A very soulful anger. And often it is a very sad anger. But it is the pervasive mood, theme and feeling within his work – and around his work, hovering, piercing, occasionally weighing down; often lifting the work up, helping to place it in your face. And for all the preaching and warning signs in his work, the last two decades of Gil Scott-Heron’s life to date have seen him succumb to the pressures and demons he has so often warned others about."
– Fairfax New Zealand, February 2010 Scott-Heron died on the afternoon of May 27, 2011, at St. Luke’s Hospital, New York City, after becoming ill upon returning from a European trip. Scott-Heron had confirmed previous press speculation about his health, when he disclosed in a 2008 New York Magazine interview that he had been HIV-positive for several years, and that he had been previously hospitalized for pneumonia.
New York City artist Chico painted this commemorative on the side of a building.
He was survived by his firstborn daughter, Raquiyah "Nia" Kelly Heron, from his relationship with Pat Kelly; his son Rumal Rackley, from his relationship with Lurma Rackley; daughter Gia Scott-Heron, from his marriage to Brenda Sykes; and daughter Chegianna Newton, who was 13 years old at the time of her father’s death. He is also survived by his sister Gayle; brother Denis Heron, who once managed Scott-Heron; his uncle, Roy Heron; and nephew Terrance Kelly, an actor and rapper who performs as Mr. Cheeks, and who was a member of Lost Boyz.[note 2]
Before his death, Scott-Heron had been in talks with Portuguese director Pedro Costa to participate in his film Horse Money as a screenwriter, composer and actor.
After Scott-Heron’s death, Malik Al Nasir told The Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone of the kindness that Scott-Heron had showed him throughout his adult life since meeting the poet backstage at a gig in Liverpool in 1984. The BBC World Service covered the story on their Outlook program with Matthew Bannister, which took the story global. It was subsequently covered in other media such as BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live, where jazz musician Al Jarreau paid tribute to Gil, and was mentioned the U.S. edition of Rolling Stone and The Huffington Post. Malik & the O.G’s performed a tribute to Scott-Heron at the Liverpool International Music Festival in 2013 with jazz composer Orphy Robinson of The Jazz Warriors and Rod Youngs from Gil’s band The Amnesia Express. Another tribute was performed at St. Georges Hall in Liverpool on August 27, 2015, called "The Revolution will be Live!", curated by Malik Al Nasir and Richard McGinnis for Yesternight Productions. The event featured Talib Kweli, Aswad, The Christians, Malik & the O.G’s, Sophia Ben-Yousef and Cleveland Watkiss as well as DJ 2Kind and poet, actor, and radio DJ Craig Charles. The tribute was the opening event for 2015 Liverpool International Music Festival.
In response to Scott-Heron’s death, Public Enemy’s Chuck D stated "RIP GSH…and we do what we do and how we do because of you" on his Twitter account. His UK publisher, Jamie Byng, called him "one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met". On hearing of the death, R&B singer Usher stated: "I just learned of the loss of a very important poet…R.I.P., Gil Scott-Heron. The revolution will be live!!". Richard Russell, who produced Scott-Heron’s final studio album, called him a "father figure of sorts to me", while Eminem stated: "He influenced all of hip-hop". Lupe Fiasco wrote a poem about Scott-Heron that was published on his website.
Scott-Heron’s memorial service was held at Riverside Church in New York City on June 2, 2011, where Kanye West performed "Lost in the World" and "Who Will Survive in America", two songs from West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The studio album version of West’s "Who Will Survive in America" features a spoken-word excerpt by Scott-Heron. Scott-Heron is buried at Kensico Cemetery in Westchester County in New York.
Scott-Heron was honored posthumously in 2012 by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Charlotte Fox, member of the Washington, DC NARAS and president of Genesis Poets Music, nominated Scott-Heron for the award, while the letter of support came from Grammy award winner and Grammy Hall of Fame inductee Bill Withers.
Scott-Heron’s memoir, The Last Holiday, was published in January 2012. In her review for the Los Angeles Times, professor of English and journalism Lynell George wrote:
The Last Holiday is as much about his life as it is about context, the theater of late 20th century America — from Jim Crow to the Reagan ’80s and from Beale Street to 57th Street. The narrative is not, however, a rise-and-fall retelling of Scott-Heron’s life and career. It doesn’t connect all the dots. It moves off-the-beat, at its own speed … This approach to revelation lends the book an episodic quality, like oral storytelling does. It winds around, it repeats itself.
At the time of Scott-Heron’s death, a will could not be found to determine the future of his estate. Additionally, Raquiyah Kelly-Heron filed papers in Manhattan, New York’s Surrogate’s Court in August 2013, claiming that Rumal Rackley is not Scott-Heron’s son and should therefore be omitted from matters concerning the musician’s estate. According to the Daily News website, Rackley, Kelly-Heron and two other sisters have been seeking a resolution to the issue of the management of Scott-Heron’s estate, as Rackley stated in court papers that Scott-Heron prepared him to be the eventual administrator of the estate. Scott-Heron’s 1994 album Spirits was dedicated to "my son Rumal and my daughters Nia and Gia", and in court papers Rackley added that Scott-Heron "introduced me [Rackley] from the stage as his son".
In 2011, Rackley filed a suit against sister Gia Scott-Heron and her mother, Scott-Heron’s first wife, Brenda Sykes, as he believed they had unfairly attained US$250,000 of Scott-Heron’s money. The case was later settled for an undisclosed sum in early 2013; but the relationship between Rackley and Scott-Heron’s two adult daughters already had become strained in the months after Gil’s death. In her submission to the Surrogate’s Court, Kelly-Heron states that a DNA test completed by Rackley in 2011—using DNA from Scott-Heron’s brother—revealed that they "do not share a common male lineage", while Rackley has refused to undertake another DNA test since that time. A hearing to address Kelly-Heron’s filing was scheduled for late August 2013, but by March 2016 further information on the matter was not publicly available. Rackley still serves as court-appointed administrator for the estate, and donated material to the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture for Scott-Heron to be included among the exhibits and displays when the museum opened in September 2016. In December 2018, the Surrogate Court ruled that Rumal Rackley and his half sisters are all legal heirs.
According to the Daily News website, Kelly-Heron and two other sisters have been seeking a resolution to the issue of the management of Scott-Heron’s estate. The case was decided in December 2018 with a ruling issued in May 2019.
Influence and legacy
Scott-Heron’s work has influenced writers, academics and musicians, from indie rockers to rappers. His work during the 1970s influenced and helped engender subsequent African-American music genres, such as hip hop and neo soul. He has been described by music writers as "the godfather of rap" and "the black Bob Dylan".
Chicago Tribune writer Greg Kot comments on Scott-Heron’s collaborative work with Jackson:
Together they crafted jazz-influenced soul and funk that brought new depth and political consciousness to ’70s music alongside Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. In classic albums such as ‘Winter in America’ and ‘From South Africa to South Carolina,’ Scott-Heron took the news of the day and transformed it into social commentary, wicked satire, and proto-rap anthems. He updated his dispatches from the front lines of the inner city on tour, improvising lyrics with an improvisational daring that matched the jazz-soul swirl of the music".
Of Scott-Heron’s influence on hip hop, Kot writes that he "presag[ed] hip-hop and infus[ed] soul and jazz with poetry, humor and pointed political commentary". Ben Sisario of The New York Times writes that "He [Scott-Heron] preferred to call himself a "bluesologist", drawing on the traditions of blues, jazz and Harlem renaissance poetics". Tris McCall of The Star-Ledger writes that "The arrangements on Gil Scott-Heron’s early recordings were consistent with the conventions of jazz poetry – the movement that sought to bring the spontaneity of live performance to the reading of verse". A music writer later noted that "Scott-Heron’s unique proto-rap style influenced a generation of hip-hop artists", while The Washington Post wrote that "Scott-Heron’s work presaged not only conscious rap and poetry slams, but also acid jazz, particularly during his rewarding collaboration with composer-keyboardist-flutist Brian Jackson in the mid- and late ’70s". The Observer’s Sean O’Hagan discussed the significance of Scott-Heron’s music with Brian Jackson, stating:
Together throughout the 1970s, Scott-Heron and Jackson made music that reflected the turbulence, uncertainty and increasing pessimism of the times, merging the soul and jazz traditions and drawing on an oral poetry tradition that reached back to the blues and forward to hip-hop. The music sounded by turns angry, defiant and regretful while Scott-Heron’s lyrics possessed a satirical edge that set them apart from the militant soul of contemporaries such as Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield.
Will Layman of PopMatters wrote about the significance of Scott-Heron’s early musical work:
In the early 1970s, Gil Scott-Heron popped onto the scene as a soul poet with jazz leanings; not just another Bill Withers, but a political voice with a poet’s skill. His spoken-voice work had punch and topicality. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "Johannesburg" were calls to action: Stokely Carmichael if he’d had the groove of Ray Charles. ‘The Bottle’ was a poignant story of the streets: Richard Wright as sung by a husky-voiced Marvin Gaye. To paraphrase Chuck D, Gil Scott-Heron’s music was a kind of CNN for black neighborhoods, prefiguring hip-hop by several years. It grew from the Last Poets, but it also had the funky swing of Horace Silver or Herbie Hancock—or Otis Redding. Pieces of a Man and Winter in America (collaborations with Brian Jackson) were classics beyond category".
Scott-Heron’s influence over hip hop is primarily exemplified by his definitive single "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", sentiments from which have been explored by various rappers, including Aesop Rock, Talib Kweli and Common. In addition to his vocal style, Scott-Heron’s indirect contributions to rap music extend to his and co-producer Jackson’s compositions, which have been sampled by various hip-hop artists. "We Almost Lost Detroit" was sampled by Brand Nubian member Grand Puba ("Keep On"), Native Tongues duo Black Star ("Brown Skin Lady"), and MF Doom ("Camphor"). Additionally, Scott-Heron’s 1980 song "A Legend in His Own Mind" was sampled on Mos Def’s "Mr. Nigga", the opening lyrics from his 1978 recording "Angel Dust" were appropriated by rapper RBX on the 1996 song "Blunt Time" by Dr. Dre, and CeCe Peniston’s 2000 song "My Boo" samples Scott-Heron’s 1974 recording "The Bottle".
In addition to the Scott-Heron excerpt used in "Who Will Survive in America", Kanye West sampled Scott-Heron and Jackson’s "Home is Where the Hatred Is" and "We Almost Lost Detroit" for the songs "My Way Home" and "The People", respectively, both of which are collaborative efforts with Common. Scott-Heron, in turn, acknowledged West’s contributions, sampling the latter’s 2007 single "Flashing Lights" on his final album, 2010’s I’m New Here.
Scott-Heron admitted ambivalence regarding his association with rap, remarking in 2010 in an interview for the Daily Swarm: "I don’t know if I can take the blame for [rap music]". As New York Times writer Sisario explained, he preferred the moniker of "bluesologist". Referring to reviews of his last album and references to him as the "godfather of rap", Scott-Heron said: "It’s something that’s aimed at the kids … I have kids, so I listen to it. But I would not say it’s aimed at me. I listen to the jazz station." In 2013, Chattanooga rapper Isaiah Rashad recorded an unofficial mixtape called Pieces of a Kid, which was greatly influenced by Heron’s debut album Pieces of a Man.
Following Scott-Heron’s funeral in 2011, a tribute from publisher, record company owner, poet, and music producer Malik Al Nasir was published on The Guardian’s website, titled "Gil Scott-Heron saved my life".
In the 2018 film First Man, Scott-Heron is a minor character and is played by soul singer Leon Bridges.
He is one of eight significant people shown in mosaic at the 167th Street renovated subway station on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx that reopened in 2019.
1970Small Talk at 125th and LenoxFlying Dutchman 1971Pieces of a ManFlying Dutchman 1972Free WillFlying Dutchman 1974Winter in AmericaStrata-East 1975The First Minute of a New DayArista 1975From South Africa to South CarolinaArista 1976It’s Your WorldArista 1977BridgesArista 1978SecretsArista 19801980Arista 1980Real EyesArista 1981ReflectionsArista 1982Moving TargetArista 1994SpiritsTVT 2010I’m New HereXL 2011We’re New Here
 2014Nothing NewXL 2020We’re New Again – A Reimagining By Makaya McCravenXL Live albums
1976It’s Your WorldArista 1990Tales of Gil Scott-Heron and His Amnesia ExpressCastle Music UK/Peak Top 1994Minister of Information: LivePeak Top 2004The Best of Gil Scott-Heron LiveIntersound 2004Tour De ForcePhantom Sound & Vision 2004Save the ChildrenDelta Music 2004Winter in America, Summer in EuropePickwick 2005Greatest Hits Live: Collector SeriesIntersound 2008Live at the Town & Country 1988Acadia/Evangeline Compilations
1974The Revolution Will Not Be TelevisedFlying Dutchman 1978The Mind of Gil Scott-HeronArista 1984The Best of Gil Scott-HeronArista 1988The Revolution Will Not Be TelevisedBluebird 1990Glory: The Gil Scott-Heron CollectionArista 1998The Gil Scott-Heron Collection: Sampler 1974–1975TVT 1998Ghetto StyleCamden 1999Evolution and Flashback: The Very Best of Gil Scott-HeronRCA 2005Anthology: Messages (Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson)Soul Brother 2006The Best of Gil Scott-HeronSony/BMG 2009Storm Music (The Best of Gil Scott-Heron)Phantom Sound & Vision 2012The Revolution Begins: The Flying Dutchman MastersBGP Collaboration albums
2015Rhythms of the Diaspora Vol 1 & 2 Ft. Gil Scott-Heron and The Last PoetsMentiSMalik & the O.G’s Soundtracks
2017Black Panther Trailer Filmscores
1977The Baron Bibliography
1970Small Talk at 125th and Lenox
1972The Nigger Factory0862415276
1990So Far, So Good0883781336
2001Now and Then: The Poems of Gil Scott-Heron086241900X
2012The Last Holiday0857863010
Saturday Night Live, musical guest, December 13, 1975.
Black Wax (1982). Directed by Robert Mugge.
5 Sides of a Coin (2004). Directed by Paul Kell
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2005). Directed by Don Letts for BBC.
The Paris Concert (2007).
Tales of the Amnesia Express Live at the Town & Country (1988).
Graffiti (both singular and plural; the singular graffito is rarely used except in archeology) is writing or drawings made on a wall or other surface, usually without permission and within public view. Graffiti ranges from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings, and has existed since ancient times, with examples dating back to ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire.
Graffiti is a controversial subject. In most countries, marking or painting property without permission is considered by property owners and civic authorities as defacement and vandalism, which is a punishable crime, citing the use of graffiti by street gangs to mark territory or to serve as an indicator of gang-related activities. Graffiti has become visualized as a growing urban "problem" for many cities in industrialized nations, spreading from the New York City subway system in the early 1970s to the rest of the United States and Europe and other world regions.
1569 scratched graffiti in the Holy Trinity Chapel in Lublin, commemorating Union of Lublin
"Graffiti" (usually both singular and plural) and the rare singular form "graffito" are from the Italian word graffiato ("scratched"). The term "graffiti" is used in art history for works of art produced by scratching a design into a surface. A related term is "sgraffito", which involves scratching through one layer of pigment to reveal another beneath it. This technique was primarily used by potters who would glaze their wares and then scratch a design into it. In ancient times graffiti were carved on walls with a sharp object, although sometimes chalk or coal were used. The word originates from Greek γράφειν—graphein—meaning "to write".
Figure graffito, similar to a relief, at the Castellania, in Valletta
The term graffiti originally referred to the inscriptions, figure drawings, and such, found on the walls of ancient sepulchres or ruins, as in the Catacombs of Rome or at Pompeii. Use of the word has evolved to include any graphics applied to surfaces in a manner that constitutes vandalism.
The only known source of the Safaitic language, an ancient form of Arabic, is from graffiti: inscriptions scratched on to the surface of rocks and boulders in the predominantly basalt desert of southern Syria, eastern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia. Safaitic dates from the first century BC to the fourth century AD.
The first known example of "modern style"[clarification needed] graffiti survives in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey). Local guides say it is an advertisement for prostitution. Located near a mosaic and stone walkway, the graffiti shows a handprint that vaguely resembles a heart, along with a footprint, a number, and a carved image of a woman’s head.
The ancient Romans carved graffiti on walls and monuments, examples of which also survive in Egypt. Graffiti in the classical world had different connotations than they carry in today’s society concerning content. Ancient graffiti displayed phrases of love declarations, political rhetoric, and simple words of thought, compared to today’s popular messages of social and political ideals. The eruption of Vesuvius preserved graffiti in Pompeii, which includes Latin curses, magic spells, declarations of love, insults, alphabets, political slogans, and famous literary quotes, providing insight into ancient Roman street life. One inscription gives the address of a woman named Novellia Primigenia of Nuceria, a prostitute, apparently of great beauty, whose services were much in demand. Another shows a phallus accompanied by the text, mansueta tene ("handle with care").
Disappointed love also found its way onto walls in antiquity:
Quisquis amat. veniat. Veneri volo frangere costas
fustibus et lumbos debilitare deae.
Si potest illa mihi tenerum pertundere pectus
quit ego non possim caput illae frangere fuste?
Whoever loves, go to hell. I want to break Venus’s ribs
with a club and deform her hips.
If she can break my tender heart
why can’t I hit her over the head?
— CIL IV, 1824. Ancient tourists visiting the 5th-century citadel at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka scribbled over 1800 individual graffiti there between the 6th and 18th centuries. Etched on the surface of the Mirror Wall, they contain pieces of prose, poetry, and commentary. The majority of these visitors appear to have been from the elite of society: royalty, officials, professions, and clergy. There were also soldiers, archers, and even some metalworkers. The topics range from love to satire, curses, wit, and lament. Many demonstrate a very high level of literacy and a deep appreciation of art and poetry. Most of the graffiti refer to the frescoes of semi-nude females found there. One reads:
Wet with cool dew drops
fragrant with perfume from the flowers
came the gentle breeze
jasmine and water lily
dance in the spring sunshine
of the golden-hued ladies
stab into my thoughts
heaven itself cannot take my mind
as it has been captivated by one lass
among the five hundred I have seen here.
Among the ancient political graffiti examples were Arab satirist poems. Yazid al-Himyari, an Umayyad Arab and Persian poet, was most known for writing his political poetry on the walls between Sajistan and Basra, manifesting a strong hatred towards the Umayyad regime and its walis, and people used to read and circulate them very widely.[clarification needed]
Level of literacy often evident in graffiti
Historic forms of graffiti have helped gain understanding into the lifestyles and languages of past cultures. Errors in spelling and grammar in these graffiti offer insight into the degree of literacy in Roman times and provide clues on the pronunciation of spoken Latin. Examples are CIL IV, 7838: Vettium Firmum / aed[ilem] quactiliar[ii] [sic] rog[ant]. Here, "qu" is pronounced "co". The 83 pieces of graffiti found at CIL IV, 4706-85 are evidence of the ability to read and write at levels of society where literacy might not be expected. The graffiti appear on a peristyle which was being remodeled at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius by the architect Crescens. The graffiti were left by both the foreman and his workers. The brothel at CIL VII, 12, 18–20 contains more than 120 pieces of graffiti, some of which were the work of the prostitutes and their clients. The gladiatorial academy at CIL IV, 4397 was scrawled with graffiti left by the gladiator Celadus Crescens (Suspirium puellarum Celadus thraex: "Celadus the Thracian makes the girls sigh.")
Another piece from Pompeii, written on a tavern wall about the owner of the establishment and his questionable wine:
Landlord, may your lies malign
Bring destruction on your head!
You yourself drink unmixed wine,
Water [do you] sell [to] your guests instead.
It was not only the Greeks and Romans who produced graffiti: the Maya site of Tikal in Guatemala contains examples of ancient Maya graffiti. Viking graffiti survive in Rome and at Newgrange Mound in Ireland, and a Varangian scratched his name (Halvdan) in runes on a banister in the Hagia Sophia at Constantinople. These early forms of graffiti have contributed to the understanding of lifestyles and languages of past cultures.
Graffiti, known as Tacherons, were frequently scratched on Romanesque Scandinavian church walls. When Renaissance artists such as Pinturicchio, Raphael, Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio, or Filippino Lippi descended into the ruins of Nero’s Domus Aurea, they carved or painted their names and returned to initiate the grottesche style of decoration.
There are also examples of graffiti occurring in American history, such as Independence Rock, a national landmark along the Oregon Trail.
Later, French soldiers carved their names on monuments during the Napoleonic campaign of Egypt in the 1790s. Lord Byron’s survives on one of the columns of the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion in Attica, Greece.
Ancient Pompeii graffito caricature of a politician
Ironic wall inscription commenting on boring graffiti
Satirical Alexamenos graffito, possibly the earliest known representation of Jesus
Graffiti, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
Crusader graffiti in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Viking mercenary graffiti at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey
Graffiti on the Mirror Wall, Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Contemporary graffiti style has been heavily influenced by hip hop culture  and the myriad international styles derived from Philadelphia and New York City Subway graffiti, however, there are many other traditions of notable graffiti in the twentieth century. Graffiti have long appeared on building walls, in latrines, railroad boxcars, subways, and bridges.
The oldest known example of modern graffiti are the "monikers" found on traincars created by hobos and railworkers since the late 1800s. The Bozo Texino monikers were documented by filmmaker Bill Daniel in his 2005 film, Who is Bozo Texino?.
Some graffiti have their own poignancy. In World War II, an inscription on a wall at the fortress of Verdun was seen as an illustration of the US response twice in a generation to the wrongs of the Old World:
Austin White – Chicago, Ill – 1918
Austin White – Chicago, Ill – 1945
This is the last time I want to write my name here.
During World War II and for decades after, the phrase "Kilroy was here" with an accompanying illustration was widespread throughout the world, due to its use by American troops and ultimately filtering into American popular culture. Shortly after the death of Charlie Parker (nicknamed "Yardbird" or "Bird"), graffiti began appearing around New York with the words "Bird Lives". The student protests and general strike of May 1968 saw Paris bedecked in revolutionary, anarchistic, and situationist slogans such as L’ennui est contre-révolutionnaire ("Boredom is counterrevolutionary") expressed in painted graffiti, poster art, and stencil art. At the time in the US, other political phrases (such as "Free Huey" about Black Panther Huey Newton) became briefly popular as graffiti in limited areas, only to be forgotten. A popular graffito of the early 1970s was "Dick Nixon Before He Dicks You", reflecting the hostility of the youth culture to that US president.
World War II graffiti
Soldier with tropical fantasy graffiti (1943–1944)
Soviet Army graffiti in the ruins of the Reichstag in Berlin (1945)
Permanent engraving of Kilroy on the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Advent of aerosol paint
Rock and roll graffiti is a significant subgenre. A famous graffito of the twentieth century was the inscription in the London tube reading "Clapton is God" in a link to the guitarist Eric Clapton. The phrase was spray-painted by an admirer on a wall in an Islington station on the Underground in the autumn of 1967. The graffito was captured in a photograph, in which a dog is urinating on the wall.
Graffiti also became associated with the anti-establishment punk rock movement beginning in the 1970s. Bands such as Black Flag and Crass (and their followers) widely stenciled their names and logos, while many punk night clubs, squats, and hangouts are famous for their graffiti. In the late 1980s the upside down Martini glass that was the tag for punk band Missing Foundation was the most ubiquitous graffito in lower Manhattan[according to whom?]
Early spray-painted graffiti
New York City Subway trains were covered in graffiti (1973)
Graffiti in Chicago (1973)
Spread of hip hop culture
Style Wars depicted not only famous graffitists such as Skeme, Dondi, MinOne, and ZEPHYR, but also reinforced graffiti’s role within New York’s emerging hip-hop culture by incorporating famous early break-dancing groups such as Rock Steady Crew into the film and featuring rap in the soundtrack. Although many officers of the New York City Police Department found this film to be controversial, Style Wars is still recognized as the most prolific film representation of what was going on within the young hip hop culture of the early 1980s. Fab 5 Freddy and Futura 2000 took hip hop graffiti to Paris and London as part of the New York City Rap Tour in 1983.
Stencil graffiti emerges
This period also saw the emergence of the new stencil graffiti genre. Some of the first examples were created in 1981 by graffitists Blek le Rat in Paris, in 1982 by Jef Aerosol in Tours (France); by 1985 stencils had appeared in other cities including New York City, Sydney, and Melbourne, where they were documented by American photographer Charles Gatewood and Australian photographer Rennie Ellis.
Political graffiti in Cancun, Mexico (2007)
Modern stencil graffiti, a very common style, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Commercialization and entrance into mainstream pop culture
Main article: Commercial graffiti
With the popularity and legitimization of graffiti has come a level of commercialization. In 2001, computer giant IBM launched an advertising campaign in Chicago and San Francisco which involved people spray painting on sidewalks a peace symbol, a heart, and a penguin (Linux mascot), to represent "Peace, Love, and Linux." IBM paid Chicago and San Francisco collectively US$120,000 for punitive damages and clean-up costs.
In 2005, a similar ad campaign was launched by Sony and executed by its advertising agency in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami, to market its handheld PSP gaming system. In this campaign, taking notice of the legal problems of the IBM campaign, Sony paid building owners for the rights to paint on their buildings "a collection of dizzy-eyed urban kids playing with the PSP as if it were a skateboard, a paddle, or a rocking horse".
Marc Ecko, an urban clothing designer, has been an advocate of graffiti as an art form during this period, stating that "Graffiti is without question the most powerful art movement in recent history and has been a driving inspiration throughout my career."
Graffiti have become a common stepping stone for many members of both the art and design communities in North America and abroad. Within the United States graffitists such as Mike Giant, Pursue, Rime, Noah, and countless others have made careers in skateboard, apparel, and shoe design for companies such as DC Shoes, Adidas, Rebel8, Osiris, or Circa Meanwhile, there are many others such as DZINE, Daze, Blade, and The Mac who have made the switch to being gallery artists, often not even using their initial medium, spray paint.
Tristan Manco wrote that Brazil "boasts a unique and particularly rich, graffiti scene … [earning] it an international reputation as the place to go for artistic inspiration." Graffiti "flourishes in every conceivable space in Brazil’s cities." Artistic parallels "are often drawn between the energy of São Paulo today and 1970s New York." The "sprawling metropolis," of São Paulo has "become the new shrine to graffiti;" Manco alludes to "poverty and unemployment … [and] the epic struggles and conditions of the country’s marginalised peoples," and to "Brazil’s chronic poverty," as the main engines that "have fuelled a vibrant graffiti culture." In world terms, Brazil has "one of the most uneven distributions of income. Laws and taxes change frequently." Such factors, Manco argues, contribute to a very fluid society, riven with those economic divisions and social tensions that underpin and feed the "folkloric vandalism and an urban sport for the disenfranchised," that is South American graffiti art.
A graffiti piece found in Tel Aviv by the artist DeDe
Prominent Brazilian graffitists include Os Gêmeos, Boleta, Nunca, Nina, Speto, Tikka, and T.Freak. Their artistic success and involvement in commercial design ventures has highlighted divisions within the Brazilian graffiti community between adherents of the cruder transgressive form of pichação and the more conventionally artistic values of the practitioners of grafite.
Graffiti in the Middle East is emerging slowly, with pockets of taggers operating in the various ‘Emirates’ of the United Arab Emirates, in Israel, and in Iran. The major Iranian newspaper Hamshahri has published two articles on illegal writers in the city with photographic coverage of Iranian artist A1one’s works on Tehran walls. Tokyo-based design magazine, PingMag, has interviewed A1one and featured photographs of his work. The Israeli West Bank barrier has become a site for graffiti, reminiscent in this sense of the Berlin Wall. Many graffitists in Israel come from other places around the globe, such as JUIF from Los Angeles and DEVIONE from London. The religious reference "נ נח נחמ נחמן מאומן" ("Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman") is commonly seen in graffiti around Israel.
Graffiti has played an important role within the street art scene in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), especially following the events of the Arab Spring (2011). Graffiti is a tool of expression in the context of conflict in the region, allowing people to raise their voices politically and socially. Famous street artist Banksy has had an important effect in the street art scene in the MENA area, especially in Palestine where some of his works are located in the West Bank barrier and Bethlehem.
There are also a large number of graffiti influences in Southeast Asian countries that mostly come from modern Western culture, such as Malaysia, where graffiti have long been a common sight in Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur. Since 2010, the country has begun hosting a street festival to encourage all generations and people from all walks of life to enjoy and encourage Malaysian street culture.
Graffiti around the world
Graffiti on a wall in Čakovec, Croatia
Graffiti of the character Bender on a wall in Budapest, Hungary
Graffiti relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sofia, Bulgaria
Graffiti in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Graffiti art in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Graffiti in Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Graffiti on a park wall in Sydney, Australia
Characteristics of common graffiti
See also: Graffiti terminology and Graffiti in the United States
Methods and production
The modern-day graffitists can be found with an arsenal of various materials that allow for a successful production of a piece. This includes such techniques as scribing. However, spray paint in aerosol cans is the number one medium for graffiti. From this commodity comes different styles, technique, and abilities to form master works of graffiti. Spray paint can be found at hardware and art stores and comes in virtually every color.
Stencil graffiti is created by cutting out shapes and designs in a stiff material (such as cardboard or subject folders) to form an overall design or image. The stencil is then placed on the "canvas" gently and with quick, easy strokes of the aerosol can, the image begins to appear on the intended surface.
The first graffiti shop in Russia was opened in 1992 in Tver
Graffiti application at Eurofestival in Turku, Finland
Graffiti application in India using natural pigments (mostly charcoal, plant saps, and dirt)
Completed landscape scene, in Thrissur, Kerala, India
A graffiti artist at work in London
Knitted graffiti in Seattle, Washington
Spiderweb Yarnbomb Installation by Stephen Duneier both hides and highlights previous graffiti.
Modern graffiti art often incorporates additional arts and technologies. For example, Graffiti Research Lab has encouraged the use of projected images and magnetic light-emitting diodes (throwies) as new media for graffitists. Yarnbombing is another recent form of graffiti. Yarnbombers occasionally target previous graffiti for modification, which had been avoided among the majority of graffitists.
A tag in Dallas, reading "Spore"
A number of recent examples of graffiti make use of hashtags.
Densely-tagged parking area in Århus, Denmark
Theories on the use of graffiti by avant-garde artists have a history dating back at least to the Asger Jorn, who in 1962 painting declared in a graffiti-like gesture "the avant-garde won’t give up".
Many contemporary analysts and even art critics have begun to see artistic value in some graffiti and to recognize it as a form of public art. According to many art researchers, particularly in the Netherlands and in Los Angeles, that type of public art is, in fact an effective tool of social emancipation or, in the achievement of a political goal.
In times of conflict, such murals have offered a means of communication and self-expression for members of these socially, ethnically, or racially divided communities, and have proven themselves as effective tools in establishing dialog and thus, of addressing cleavages in the long run. The Berlin Wall was also extensively covered by graffiti reflecting social pressures relating to the oppressive Soviet rule over the GDR.
Many artists involved with graffiti are also concerned with the similar activity of stenciling. Essentially, this entails stenciling a print of one or more colors using spray-paint. Recognized while exhibiting and publishing several of her coloured stencils and paintings portraying the Sri Lankan Civil War and urban Britain in the early 2000s, graffitists Mathangi Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A., has also become known for integrating her imagery of political violence into her music videos for singles "Galang" and "Bucky Done Gun", and her cover art. Stickers of her artwork also often appear around places such as London in Brick Lane, stuck to lamp posts and street signs, she having become a muse for other graffitists and painters worldwide in cities including Seville.
Many graffitists choose to protect their identities and remain anonymous or to hinder prosecution.
With the commercialization of graffiti (and hip hop in general), in most cases, even with legally painted "graffiti" art, graffitists tend to choose anonymity. This may be attributed to various reasons or a combination of reasons. Graffiti still remains the one of four hip hop elements that is not considered "performance art" despite the image of the "singing and dancing star" that sells hip hop culture to the mainstream. Being a graphic form of art, it might also be said that many graffitists still fall in the category of the introverted archetypal artist.
Banksy is one of the world’s most notorious and popular street artists who continues to remain faceless in today’s society. He is known for his political, anti-war stencil art mainly in Bristol, England, but his work may be seen anywhere from Los Angeles to Palestine. In the UK, Banksy is the most recognizable icon for this cultural artistic movement and keeps his identity a secret to avoid arrest. Much of Banksy’s artwork may be seen around the streets of London and surrounding suburbs, although he has painted pictures throughout the world, including the Middle East, where he has painted on Israel’s controversial West Bank barrier with satirical images of life on the other side. One depicted a hole in the wall with an idyllic beach, while another shows a mountain landscape on the other side. A number of exhibitions also have taken place since 2000, and recent works of art have fetched vast sums of money. Banksy’s art is a prime example of the classic controversy: vandalism vs. art. Art supporters endorse his work distributed in urban areas as pieces of art and some councils, such as Bristol and Islington, have officially protected them, while officials of other areas have deemed his work to be vandalism and have removed it.
Pixnit is another artist who chooses to keep her identity from the general public. Her work focuses on beauty and design aspects of graffiti as opposed to Banksy’s anti-government shock value. Her paintings are often of flower designs above shops and stores in her local urban area of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Some store owners endorse her work and encourage others to do similar work as well. "One of the pieces was left up above Steve’s Kitchen, because it looks pretty awesome"- Erin Scott, the manager of New England Comics in Allston, Massachusetts.
Graffiti artists may become offended if photographs of their art are published in a commercial context without their permission. In March 2020, the Finnish graffiti artist Psyke expressed his displeasure at the newspaper Ilta-Sanomat publishing a photograph of a Peugeot 208 in an article about new cars, with his graffiti prominently shown on the background. The artist claims he does not want his art being used in commercial context, not even if he were to receive compensation.
Drawing at Temple of Philae, Egypt depicting three men with rods, or staves.
Inscription in Pompeii lamenting a frustrated love, "Whoever loves, let him flourish, let him perish who knows not love, let him perish twice over whoever forbids love."
Mermaid in Sliema, Malta
Radical and political
Black bloc members spray graffiti on a wall during an Iraq War Protest in Washington, D.C.
Graffiti often has a reputation as part of a subculture that rebels against authority, although the considerations of the practitioners often diverge and can relate to a wide range of attitudes. It can express a political practice and can form just one tool in an array of resistance techniques. One early example includes the anarcho-punk band Crass, who conducted a campaign of stenciling anti-war, anarchist, feminist, and anti-consumerist messages throughout the London Underground system during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In Amsterdam graffiti was a major part of the punk scene. The city was covered with names such as "De Zoot", "Vendex", and "Dr Rat". To document the graffiti a punk magazine was started that was called Gallery Anus. So when hip hop came to Europe in the early 1980s there was already a vibrant graffiti culture.
Police car graffitied with anarchist symbols
The student protests and general strike of May 1968 saw Paris bedecked in revolutionary, anarchistic, and situationist slogans such as L’ennui est contre-révolutionnaire ("Boredom is counterrevolutionary") and Lisez moins, vivez plus ("Read less, live more"). While not exhaustive, the graffiti gave a sense of the ‘millenarian’ and rebellious spirit, tempered with a good deal of verbal wit, of the strikers.
I think graffiti writing is a way of defining what our generation is like. Excuse the French, we’re not a bunch of p—- artists. Traditionally artists have been considered soft and mellow people, a little bit kooky. Maybe we’re a little bit more like pirates that way. We defend our territory, whatever space we steal to paint on, we defend it fiercely.
—Sandra "Lady Pink" Fabara The developments of graffiti art which took place in art galleries and colleges as well as "on the street" or "underground", contributed to the resurfacing in the 1990s of a far more overtly politicized art form in the subvertising, culture jamming, or tactical media movements. These movements or styles tend to classify the artists by their relationship to their social and economic contexts, since, in most countries, graffiti art remains illegal in many forms except when using non-permanent paint. Since the 1990s with the rise of Street Art, a growing number of artists are switching to non-permanent paints and non-traditional forms of painting.
Contemporary practitioners, accordingly, have varied and often conflicting practices. Some individuals, such as Alexander Brener, have used the medium to politicize other art forms, and have used the prison sentences enforced on them as a means of further protest. The practices of anonymous groups and individuals also vary widely, and practitioners by no means always agree with each other’s practices. For example, the anti-capitalist art group the Space Hijackers did a piece in 2004 about the contradiction between the capitalistic elements of Banksy and his use of political imagery.
Territorial graffiti marks urban neighborhoods with tags and logos to differentiate certain groups from others. These images are meant to show outsiders a stern look at whose turf is whose. The subject matter of gang-related graffiti consists of cryptic symbols and initials strictly fashioned with unique calligraphies. Gang members use graffiti to designate membership throughout the gang, to differentiate rivals and associates and, most commonly, to mark borders which are both territorial and ideological.
Berlin human rights activist Irmela Mensah-Schramm has received global media attention and numerous awards for her 35-year campaign of effacing neo-Nazi and other right-wing extremist graffiti throughout Germany, often by altering hate speech in humorous ways.
Political graffiti around the world
Anti Iraqi war graffiti by street artist Sony Montana in Cancun, Mexico (2007)
Wall in Belgrade, Serbia, with the slogan "Vote for Filip Filipović", who was the communist candidate for the mayor of Belgrade (1920)
An interpretation of Liberty Leading the People on the separation barrier which runs through Bethlehem
WWII bunker near Anhalter Bahnhof (Berlin) with a graffiti inscription Wer Bunker baut, wirft Bomben (those who build bunkers, throw bombs)
Graffiti on the train line leading to Central Station in Amsterdam
"Let’s JOKK" in Tartu refers to political scandal with the Estonian Reform Party (2012)
Stencil in Pieksämäki representing former president of Finland, Urho Kekkonen, well known in Finnish popular culture
Feminist graffiti in A Coruña, Spain that reads "Enough with rosaries in our ovaries"
East Timorese protest against Australian petroleum extraction
Graffiti of two communist leaders kissing, on the Berlin Wall
Ironic graffiti in Bethlehem
Berlin Wall: "Anyone who wants to keep the world as it is, does not want it to remain"
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Graffiti has been used as a means of advertising both legally and illegally. Bronx-based TATS CRU has made a name for themselves doing legal advertising campaigns for companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Toyota, and MTV. In the UK, Covent Garden’s Boxfresh used stencil images of a Zapatista revolutionary in the hopes that cross referencing would promote their store.
Smirnoff hired artists to use reverse graffiti (the use of high pressure hoses to clean dirty surfaces to leave a clean image in the surrounding dirt) to increase awareness of their product.
Ancient Pompeiian graffiti advertising by a pimp
Graffiti as advertising in Haikou, Hainan Province, China, which is an extremely common form of graffiti seen throughout the country
Graffiti as legal advertising on a grocer’s shop window in Warsaw, Poland
One World !
Gang symbol markings on public property, Millwood, Washington
Graffiti may also be used as an offensive expression. This form of graffiti may be difficult to identify, as it is mostly removed by the local authority (as councils which have adopted strategies of criminalization also strive to remove graffiti quickly). Therefore, existing racist graffiti is mostly more subtle and at first sight, not easily recognized as "racist". It can then be understood only if one knows the relevant "local code" (social, historical, political, temporal, and spatial), which is seen as heteroglot and thus a ‘unique set of conditions’ in a cultural context.
A spatial code for example, could be that there is a certain youth group in an area that is engaging heavily in racist activities. So, for residents (knowing the local code), a graffiti cont
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