Today's urban graphics scene is a diverse and bewilderingly over-populated place. Ric Blackshaw takes us into the history of the movement, introduces us to some current practitioners and offers advice to the art heroes of the future.
Earlier this year I wrote an article in Computer Arts Projects about graffiti and its influence on digital graphics and visual culture in general. This time I'm going to explore the world a little deeper and reveal graffiti's greatest legacy, which surprisingly isn't graffiti art itself, vibrant as that scene may be. No, graffiti's real lasting influence is what could loosely be called urban graphics.
Urban graphics is the point where graffiti cross-pollinated with surf, skate and punk, giving rise to urban brands. All the stuff people are usually referring to when they talk about the influence of street culture came from this point.
The birth of street culture
Starting from the graffiti culture in the 1980s, it isn't hard to trace the beginnings of street culture as a commodity, a career and a way of life. To a certain extent, some of the famous train pieces of NYC were already branded indirectly. Think of all those characters used as bookends for tags and them rocking the latest Adidas and Puma; It's interesting how graffiti has a natural relationship with certain aspects of branding, while brands themselves that have tried to harness the perceived branding value of graffiti without fully understanding the cultural milieu they're dealing with have done themselves no favours (Foxtons Minis anyone?). Obviously Adidas benefited directly from the fact that a bunch of kids from the Bronx were really into their clobber, but this was a reflection of that culture. Those pieces, plus Run- DMC's famous ode to the Shell Toe My Adidas and Martha Cooper's iconic photos of all those b-boys rocking their fresh 3-Stripes, have given Adidas an enduring association with one of youth culture's great flowerings. An association steeped in actual history. The hip-hop scene was always very brand conscious - the idea of selling out wasn't that relevant. Graffiti had simple rules: the more you got up, the more fame you accrued. It was this idea that took hold as graffiti grew up - artists themselves could become brands.
Graffiti and hip hop were not the only forces at work at this point in the development of street culture. Before hip hop there had been punk, the first DIY music culture. Punk was the force that broke the creative and aesthetic barriers. It taught kids that anyone could start their own band, that passion and conviction were as important as ability. Other factors were at play too: surf culture was still very much alive and, despite some rocky beginnings and false starts along the way, skateboarding was slowly being formalised into the international sport it is today. Surfers and skate kids liked their punk, and, like the early UK punks, they also liked their reggae and dub. All these things were in the cultural firmament and it was into this general milieu that hip hop came. Hip hop rode the same wave of lo-fi, DIY sensibilities, but brought something new to the party: the concepts of sampling and re-mixing.
All these movements, many of them very localised and at the time maybe not seeming that culturally significant or particularly related to each other, came together and created a new platform for expressing oneself in contemporary, popular culture.
It was only a matter of time before an enterprising young fella would connect the dots and use this new cultural environment to spawn a brand. However, it wasn't in NYC, the home of hip hop, or any other cultural centre that this happened.
In 1980, a young surfer from Laguna Beach, California, called Shawn Stussy started to use the signature he'd been putting on his surfboards onto T-shirts. Soon he began using graphics that were inspired by his love of reggae, surf and skate culture. From these beginnings, the company grew into the international street-wear brand it is today. Stussy (with Mr Stussy having long since left the company) was probably the first street-wear brand to go global. It became the model for many of the other urban graphics brands that have followed since. The influence of Stussy can't be overestimated - it is partly because of its global success and the activities of others that urban graphics have taken such a lasting hold on the popular imagination and why it is now such a vibrant and diverse scene.
Today, there are thousands of street-wear brands around the world and even more young designers wanting to work for them, or make art sponsored by them, or make their own skateboards or bikes, or develop their own ideas about a surface or product ripe for the application of some urban graphics. The urban art scene is a constant hustle, and you need to not only be very talented, driven and lucky to succeed, but you also have to be entrepreneurial, innovative and prepared to work. Money for the most part will be tight, so you should expect to do a day job and be careful what you say yes to. Sometimes it's better to continue to struggle for a while and keep your integrity than to say yes to the fast buck only to regret it later!
Making your mark
Scrawl Collective artist David Walker is a case in point - a successful graphic artist whose career has led him down many routes. A youth spent skateboarding and drawing led Walker towards an artistic career. Inspired by Stussy and Vision graphics, he eventually got himself into college, and on leaving there embarked on his career.
"When I left college I got a job in a small studio doing party art for raves and early drum-and-bass records. The pay completely sucked, but I got to flex and develop my work," says Walker.
After honing his skills during this period, he started a small design company with some friends but, in his own words, that turned into "a bit of a monster". He explains: "I wasn't enjoying it so I bailed. From there I did everything from really corporate graphics to pay the rent (boring) to designing garments and prints for fashion labels (fun but, again, pays a pittance) but so long as I was learning I felt I was moving forward."
Eventually, all the hard work paid off. In 2000 he started his own label, Subsurface, which ran up until late 2004, finally calling it a day after a bad distribution deal. "Looking back, I had achieved what I wanted," he says. "I was very happy with the product I had released, people dug it, it sold in the UK, Japan and beyond, and it opened doors for me."
After another period of being skint and having to go backwards a bit work-wise just to pay the rent, he eventually got going again and is now working for some major fashion brands and producing largescale artworks.
"It's very lo-fi, very punk. I'm doing a piece for an exhibition in late September and showing alongside Jamie Reid, who did all the Sex Pistols artwork. I'm stoked about that," says Walker.
He now has a new brand that he's put together in his spare time called NotYetDead and will be releasing a limited run of this line soon. As you can see, the path to success is far from smooth and you will experience many false starts and pitfalls.
These small companies run by entrepreneurial artists are often born as much out of frustration as from vaulting ambition. Another artist whose path follows a familiar trajectory is David Dixon, aka Distone. Inspired equally by skateboarding and graffiti, he set up his company, The Harmony, because he was frustrated with what he saw at the time as a stultifyingly conservative approach to board design among the larger companies he was designing for. Sometimes the only option is to go off and do your own thing and sod the consequences. This is the attitude that creates new ideas and keeps the scene so fresh. Take the artist French, for example, who was enlisted into the Scrawl Collective a year or so ago mainly on the strength of his drawing skills, which are draughtsman-like in their detail but also because, well, you know when you were a kid and you'd spend days drawing endless scenes of war, mayhem and destruction? Well, French has never really grown out of that.
The first portfolio of his work I saw consisted mainly of severed heads, other various dismembered body parts and images of devil worship under titles such as Death Metal Killing, Screaming Bloody Gore and Total Life-Ending Black Metal. "Bloody brilliant," - I thought at the time - no one's ever sent me anything like this before. Refreshingly on the urban graphics scene, French hates hip hop and it's this singular personality in himself and his work that has won him prestigious work with Silas, Dave Denis, Heroin Skateboards and Emerica Footwear.
Joel Clifford is another of the newer Scrawl artists, and he has made a virtue of his versatility and got his early work contacts through good oldfashioned portfolio viewings. No mean feat when you consider the number of design and illustration graduates there are every year.
"After graduation I moved to London to try and develop contacts. I had loads of meetings with agencies, publishers, record labels and fashion companies. This can be pretty hard work, but you have to keep positive," advises Clifford.
His first breaks came with illustration work for the band Hope of the States and some nice commissions from the erotic emporium Coco De Mer. He also started to design T-shirts for Topman. "My working relationship with Topman has continued," says Clifford. "I'm now one of their in-house designers. It's given me openings for working with other labels like All Saints and Running Dogs, which has led me to be able to show my first collection in my name at Paris fashion week."
The danger for Clifford is not to get too tied in to one area of creativity, as he explains: "I still maintain work within the music industry and constantly attempt to develop new projects across varying fields to challenge and progress the way in which I work and approach new projects."
From just this small selection of these artists' work, I think you'll agree that the diversity and scope of what we call urban graphics today is pretty breathtaking. Hopefully it will serve to inspire other kids reading this with their headphones on and about to attack a sketch book with their doodles. I've purposefully stayed away from featuring anything that looks vaguely like what people would typically think of as urban graphics, because, at the end of the day, urban graphics are what the next generation decides they are. Graffiti will always be there and if that's your bag then go for it, but from my point of view graffiti art is a pretty conservative genre and the most interesting developments are always on the fringes.
Thanks to people like Shawn Stussy, there is a new outlet for a whole raft of creative output. As French's ink drawings show, you don't need loads of expensive computer equipment to get involved in it, but you do need to work hard at your art and strive to be different. If you can do that, after a few years' hard slog you might be able to quit that job in the call centre and turn professional.