Hip hop-associated graffiti is distinguished from other forms of street art by its sustained focus on letters. Words (usually a name adopted by the artist) are rendered in highly stylised fonts. These vary in scale and complexity, ranging from basic ‘tags’ scrawled swiftly, and typically illegally, in a single colour, through to large, intricate multi-coloured pieces embellished using a range of artistic techniques.
Regardless of the theme or imagery of a particular piece, graffiti is intended to bring the artist recognition or notoriety. In hip hop graffiti, even a basic ‘tag’ of the artist’s name should be executed with style.
Graffiti art was the second hip hop art form to be widely practised in New Zealand. Local artists were initially inspired by the US documentary Style wars, screened on television in 1983. The practice of graffiti art steadily developed in all of New Zealand’s main urban centres throughout the 1990s and 2000s. International recognition grew as artists travelled, collaborated with artists from other countries and began using the internet to disseminate photos of their work. Auckland-based crew TMD garnered additional attention for New Zealand graffiti after winning European competitions in 2006 and 2008.
Hip hop graffiti offers great flexibility for local adaptation. While some local artists stick to a letter style similar to that of the classic New York City subway train graffiti of the late 1970s and early 1980s, others attempt to come up with recognisably distinct new styles. Local design elements can be incorporated into the letter forms themselves, the colours and patterns used to embellish letters, and the cartoon-like characters that sometimes accompany more elaborate graffiti pieces.
Additionally, the words used in a piece can go beyond self-aggrandisement and mark locally significant events. For instance, large-scale, multi-artist graffiti murals, featuring letters, characters and elaborate backgrounds, have been painted to celebrate Aotearoa’s indigenous heritage, mark the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, protest controversial legislation such as the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, memorialise local or international people of significance to the artists, and commemorate the victims and survivors of natural disasters such as the 2009 Samoan tsunami and 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
In Elliot O’Donnell’s 2007 book InForm graffiti artist 2Tone says, ‘Bombing [illegal tagging] is the essence. I don’t do as much as I would like, but it’s the most fun part. I think I’ll always paint in some form or another illegally. Catching a whole bunch of legal walls just gets boring. It sounds really generic but graffiti represents freedom for me as an individual.’1
In the 2000s graffiti remained a controversial artform, with its positive aspects often overshadowed in the media by a focus on the economic impacts of vandalism, or by a presumption of relationships between graffiti and gang activity.
Some tagging has been recognised by the mainstream art world, and the practice has proven to be a gateway for artists who have subsequently channelled their talents into professional art and design work, gallery exhibitions and even feature-film direction.