Mar 21, 2023

Hip Hop Influenced Fine Art (and doesn’t get enough credit)

Laura-Margaret Jones
Photo by Ben Weins on Unsplash

Hip Hop influenced fine art (and doesn’t get enough credit) 

Hip Hop is more than just music. 

Since its inception in the early 1970s, its antagonistic and competitive nature has fueled artists to continue innovating and evolving everything Hip Hop touches. And while correlations are often drawn between Hip Hop and contemporary music, dance, fashion, and philosophy, one place Hip Hop doesn’t get enough credit is its influence on visual art.

Art is one of the five pillars of Hip Hop 

DJ Afrika Bambaataa of the Hip Hop group, Zulu Nation, is credited with identifying Hip Hop's five pillars: DJing (using turntables), MCing (rhyming), Breaking (dancing), Aerosol Art (graffiti art or ‘writing’), and Knowledge (of self). Additional components of Hip Hop include: beatboxing, music-production, prose, theater arts, and fashion. In contrast, Rap only requires an MC and for the music to use disc jockeys and a recurring beat pattern.

How Graffiti became Hip Hop

Graffiti has existed as long as man, but the graffiti art we know today involves aerosol spray paint. Artists capitalize on easily accessible and blank urban spaces - marking subway station walls, rail cars, and sides of buildings. 

Photo by Wendelin Jacober on Pexels

Evolving out of the clandestine, guerilla, and illegal activity of painting one’s signature mark, without permission, on a surface owned by someone else, graffiti is anti-establishment and a nuisance to authority and property owners. And city officials are always looking for ways to prevent it. 

Ed Koch, New York City Mayor from 1978-1989, declared a “war on graffiti” and went as far as enclosing the train depots with razor wire-topped fencing and employing guard dogs. In 1983, Michael Stewart - a 25-year-old black artist and model who was well-known in the New York City creative community - was handcuffed, hogtied, and beaten into a coma for supposedly tagging a Manhattan subway station. He died from his injuries days later.

Even as recently as 2022, New York City’s transit authority budgeted over a million dollars towards graffiti removal and prevention. 

But in the late 1970’s and early ‘80s, many DJs and MCs were also graffiti artists - Fab 5 Freddy, Rammellzee, and ALI (aka J.Walter Negro), for example. Whether it was a painted DJ booth or the urban surfaces they marked with their signature artistic styles, Hip Hop performances were almost always against a backdrop of graffiti art.

Found on Sistema Mental Crew Soundcloud

From concrete to canvas 

With practice and competition, different New York City boroughs birthed different, vibrant styles of graffiti lettering and art - block letters, bubble letters, and “wild style,” to name a few. 

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Graffiti became a distinctive art form. 

Since graffiti was punishable and law enforcement crack-downs limited artists’ urban canvas, some graffiti artists began looking elsewhere for recognition. Their new venue: art galleries. 

Transitioning from urban art to that of gallery art was transformative for graffiti artists and Hip Hop. Graffiti is illegal; so once graffiti artists began painting on canvas versus public space, their art was no longer illegal. Formerly viewed only as vandalism, graffiti styles now had a place and value in the world of fine art.

“Fred” Spray enamel on canvas, Fab 5 Freddy

Traditional art accepts graffiti style art

In 1979, graffiti artist and rapper Fab 5 Freddy landed his first gallery exhibition in an Italian art show. By 1981, he had an art show in the Fun Gallery, which was co-owned by aspiring actress Patti Astor who Freddy later hired to star in his film “Wild Style” about graffiti art. In the four years that Fun Gallery existed, Patti held exhibitions for many more of the great street artists of the 1980s: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Lady Pink, Futura 2000, Dondi, Kenny Scharf, and Lee Quinones - many of whom are still painting. 

And in 1983, the famous New York City art curator and collector, Sidney Janis, who owned the Sidney Janis Gallery, hosted the show Post-Graffiti - a collection of works by Fab 5 Freddy, Rammellzee, Lady Pink, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring, among other former street artists. By that time, Haring and Basquiat had each also been exhibiting internationally in places such as São Paulo and Zurich. 

Patti Astor at the FUN Gallery against a backdrop of Keith Haring murals at his solo exhibition

Where can we see Hip Hop’s influence in fine art today?

Many of the famous 1980’s graffiti-turned-fine artists are still working. Fab 5 Freddy directed and narrated the 2019 Netflix documentary “Grass is Greener” about the relationship between cannabis, the music it influenced, and America’s war on the drug and the people who use it. He also continues to experiment with graffiti-style art in his Crystal Punch Out series. 

Though Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring died young, they continued to gain notoriety for their novel, distinct styles. Originals sell for millions of dollars. In 2017, Basquiat’s Untitled, from 1982, sold for $110.5 million dollars making it not just the most expensive Basquiat but also one of the top 10 most expensive works ever.

Basquiat and Haring’s works can be found in world-renowned museums such as The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; The Whitney Museum; The Museum of Modern Art; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa standing in front of Basquiat’s Untitled, 1985 after he paid $110.5 million USD for it, from Maezawa’s instagram account

And this month, Haring and Basquiat’s work will be reunited with that of their ‘80s peers - Futura, Lady Pink, Scharf, among others - in the largest exhibition of graffiti and street art to come to China. Entitled “City as Studios,” the exhibit will run at the K11 Musea in Honk Kong until May 14.

Hip Hop permeates contemporary fashion, design, home decor, and architecture

Even LinkedIn boasts blogs like 9 Things Hip Hop Taught Me About Graphic Design. Whether Hip Hop appears in designs or ethos, it is not only still relevant but continues to shape generations of artists and culture to come.