Modern graffiti began in Philadelphia, in the 1960s. Shortly after the death of Charlie Parker (nicknamed “Yardbird” or “Bird”) in 1955, graffiti began appearing around New York with the words “Bird Lives” but it was not for about one and a half more decades that graffiti started to be noticeable in NYC. Around 1970-71 the center of graffiti culture shifted from Philadelphia to New York City, especially around Washington Heights, where writers such as TAKI 183 and Tracy 168 started to gain media attention. Using a naming convention in which they would add their street number to their nickname, they “bombed” a train with their work, letting the subway take it throughout the city. Bubble lettering was popular among writers from the Bronx, but was replaced with a new “wildstyle“, a term coined by Tracy 168 and a legendary original Graffiti crew with over 500 members include Blade, Cope 2, T Kid 170, Cap, and Dan Plasma. Graffiti tags started to grow in style and size. Notable names from that time include DONDI, Lady Pink, Zephyr, Julio 204, STAY HIGH 149, PHASE 2.
Graffiti writing was growing competitive and artists desired to see their names seen in all of the city. Around 1974 writers like Tracy 168, CLIFF 159 and BLADE ONE started to create works with more than just their names: they added illustrations, full of scenery and cartoon characters, to their tags, laying the groundwork for the mural-car. The standards from the early 70s continue to evolve, and the late 1970s and early 1980s saw new styles and ideas. As graffiti spread beyond Washington Heights and the Bronx, a graffiti movement was born. Fab 5 Freddy (Friendly Freddie, Fred Brathwaite) was one of the most important graffiti figures of that era. He notes how differences in spray technique and letters between Upper Manhattan and Brooklyn began to merge in the late 70s: “out of that came ‘Wild Style’.” Fab 5 Freddy is often credited with helping to spread the influence of graffiti and rap music beyond its early foundations in the Bronx, and making links in the mostly white downtown art and music scenes. It was around this time that the established art world started becoming receptive to the graffiti culture for the first time since Hugo Martinez’s Razor Gallery in the early 1970s.
The growth of graffiti in New York City was helped by its subway system, whose accessibility and interconnection facilitated the rise of a community of subway graffiti writers and muralists. It was also aided by the budgetary restraints on New York City, which limited its ability to remove graffiti and perform transit maintenance. Mayor John Lindsay declared the first war on graffiti in 1972, but it would be a while before the city was able and willing to dedicate enough resources to that problem to start impacting the growing subculture.