The 1984 Roots Of Graffiti And Hip-Hop

by Cass Art

Hip-hop music and graffiti go together like rum and raisin, dandelion and burdock and Morecambe and Wise. 1984 saw the opening of the first Cass Art shop and also the launch of both graffiti and hip-hop music, and 30 years on, their popularity shows no signs of diminishing.

This is proven by Banksy recently hitting the headlines with his controversial Spy Booth work on a Grade II-listed home in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. The popularity of Kanye West, Gnarls Barkley and OutKast plus the emerging talents of J. Cole and Wale also highlight the durability of hip-hop music.

But 1984 was the year when the pair really took off, and to tie in with Cass Art's 30th Anniversary, we wanted to explore the cultural phenomena of the time.


New York is believed to have hosted the first graffiti following the demise of US composer and jazz saxophonist legend Charlie “Bird” Parker. The slogan “Bird Lives” started appearing around the city. But it is accepted that modern graffiti launched in Philadelphia during the 1960s as young people vented their frustrations through the artistic medium of spraying paint in public places. Graffiti and hip-hop are today synonymous with each other - but  they originally evolved as competitors.

Graffiti started to appear on New York subways as expressions of the sub-culture which played rap music but then Graffiti artists increasingly started to associate themselves with hip-hop. 

6 Major Graffiti Happenings In 1984


Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

Graffiti’s gradual acceptance process into the mainstream art community by the mid-2000s began in Philadelphia with its Mural Arts project. Wilson Goode, the mayor at the time, wanted to rid the city of graffiti. He recruited Jane Golden, the acclaimed muralist, to help redirect the young scrawlers’ energies into something more constructive, and Golden swiftly befriended the spray-painters. The muralist linked the procedure of muralism to several public and community outcomes. The result is that the program has seen more than 3,600 landmark pieces of community art spring up over the city.

Keith Haring’s Walker Art Centre Concourse Mural

The hallway that linked the centre’s Guthrie Theatre with its museum needed a brightening up: enter Keith Haring. The energetic artist, who died aged 31 only six years later, created a massive green-and-orange mural, which stayed on public view until the end of 1985. An impromptu effort, colleagues recall the artist bringing no plans or preliminary sketches with him, and the work today only exists through video and photographic documentation. Haring was intrigued with the coming age of modern PCs and often made man-like creatures with computer heads.

Lady Pink’s Femmes Fatales exhibition

The Ecuador-born Pink’s early paintings reflect her personal desires and doubts in a pressurised media-dominated world. Pink detested being a girl growing into womanhood with inflated fantasies of who or what she should be and look like. The Bronx-based artist’s iconic Femmes Fatales showcase at Philadelphia’s Moore College reflected this with female stereotypes, victims and aggressors via depictions of models, party girls and criminals. One piece shows a sobbing child inquiring if we care. Germano Celant, the art critic, describes Pink’s work as a cathartic “survival mechanism”. Pink seems to say that withdrawal into self is the only solution during a female’s teenage years.

Lee 163’s The Hunter

Grimmer still was Lee 163, who was fascinated with murder and urban alienation. His nightmarish works this year, such as The Hunter, are populated with people with grimacing countenances and twisted limbs, mirroring some US urban areas as being a threatening place to live. 

Bbus129 by dondi panelpiece

This instantly-recognisable iconic work appeared on one of New York’s subway cars.

Beat Street

This was the first movie to put New York’s hip-hop and graffiti culture on the map. It starred Guy Davis and Jon Chardiet. It tells the story of an up-and-coming Bronx-based disc jockey’s attempts to make the big time through exposing everyone to hip-hop culture and music.

Feeling inspired?

We've arranged lots of other things so you can celebrate 30 years of Cass Art in style.

Enter our Prize Draw and win £5000 worth of prizes - there are 30 prizes for 30 years, so enter here with a chance to win. 

Every weekend throughout June and July there will be a Back To 1984 Prices offer - sign up to our newsletter here to receive the different discounts. 

Shop online
 to stock up on your art materials and take advantage of our 30th Anniversary sale, or shop the sale at all six of our London shops in IslingtonCharing CrossSohoHigh Street KensingtonHampstead and Kingston. Sale ends Sunday 20th July 2014.

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