Many people associate graffiti with hip hop because of Charlie Ahearn’s 1982 film, Wild Style, which brought the underground art to the global stage for the very first time. Fab 5 Freddy, who starred in the film, understood the importance of introducing a codified culture to the world. In a series of vibrant tableaux, Wild Style presents what is now referred to as the “four elements of hip hop”: DJs (music), MCs (literature), B-boy (dance), and graffiti writers (visual art).
But true graffiti heads know the art predates the advent of hip-hop by half a decade, developing in tandem with but often times separate from rap music, Early graffiti writers were huge fans of rock and funk music. Some fell in love with the emerging punk scene of the mid-70s, as it encapsulated the same raw, anti-establishment ethos that graffiti required of its practitioners.
By the late 1970s, graffiti transformed the New York City landscape as writers painted masterpieces across the side of an entire subway car, simultaneously filing the insides with marker tags, turning every bare surface into a page from an autograph book. Meanwhile across the pond, British photographer Janette Beckman was getting her start at the Kingsway Princeton School for Further Education, teaching photography to a group of teen just a few years younger than she was. The year was 1976 and a student named John Lydon had just left the school and joined the Sex Pistols. Change was in the air.
This is the Remix
At a time when the UK was spiraling into mass unemployment and economic despair, punk spoke to and for the people while spitting on the agents of empire. “It was a rebellion against the queen and country,” says Beckman, who has just released The MashUp 2: Punk Photographs Remixed, a new series of limited edition silkscreen prints by ten contemporary artists including Shepard Fairey, Cey Adams, Mike Giant, and Ian Wright. Curated by Jason Noto and Doug Cunningham of Morning Breath, the artists were invited to select iconic portraits of Joe Strummer, Debbie Harry, Dee Dee Ramone, X, and Billy Idol from Beckman’s celebrated archive and reimagine their heroes through modern eyes.
“When punk came along, there was no future as the Sex Pistols song went. People were on the dole and everybody was walking around in that English depressed way. Then suddenly you looked outside and there were these amazing looking punk and this big explosion of music. Punk was really loud and in your face. That was very exciting to me.”
An Archive of Attitude
Using a cheap Russian version of a Rollei camera, Beckman set to work making portraits of a new generation coming of age that created new forms of music, fashion, and art to express themselves. “One minute you’d be a fan and the next minute you’d be in a band,” Beckman says. “It wasn’t like you had to spend years studying classical guitar to jump up on the stage, start thrashing your guitar, and making noise. It was about having a voice, talking about their lives and what was going on in the country. They had never been allowed to do that before.”
Beckman put together a portfolio of her photographs and brought them to Sounds, a weekly pop/rock newspaper designed to rival Melody Maker and New Music Express. Features Editor Vivien Goldman, now known as the “Professor of Punk,” hired her straight away, and Beckman was off photographing Siouxsie and the Banshees that very evening.
Beckman later went to Melody Maker where she continued to shoot the burgeoning punk scene along with what she describes as “youthful tribes like skinheads, rockabilly, ska, 2-Tone, reggae, and Mods. It was very culturally mixed and you didn’t have to be a certain way. Everything was accepted. You could be like Boy George, dressed to the nines in Vivienne Westwood, you could be a skinhead wearing Crombie and Doc Martens, or you could be a heavy-set punk with three teeth missing and be in the best band in the world. The scene was so inclusive and you didn’t have to have money to do it.”
Tag, You’re It
In 1982, Beckman got an introduction to graffiti when she got a gig to cover the “New York Scratch and Rap Revue,” the first Hip Hop showcase in the UK, for Melody Maker. Before the show, she headed over to the hotel to meet the artists who would be performing that night. She spotted a couple of fly guys and asked to take their photograph. Legendary graffiti writers DONDI and FUTURA 2000 graciously obliged, going so far as to tag a dumpster then pose in front of it.
“Then that night at the show, I saw them drawing live on the backdrop while Fab 5 Freddy was rapping, Afrika Bambaattaa was spinning, and Rammellzee was on the mic. That’s when I first noticed graffiti but I didn’t really know what it was until I came to New York that December. Artists making art on the street; what could be better than that? In London, you’d see writing on the walls like ‘Elvis Lives’ or ‘Fuck the Nazis,’ but it was only when I came here that I saw it was actually an art form,” Beckman says.
“Graffiti is totally D.I.Y. It was kids climbing out of their bedroom window at midnight to break into a train yard and paint a train with paint they stole from a hardware store. It’s artists having to express themselves. It was an obsession: you knew it was dangerous and you could get arrested but you’re still doing it. It’s not something you would take up as a middle-aged man with a family. It’s youthful rebellion and there was a lot to fight about. When I came to New York, it was very familiar to me. It was a big city, a lot of turmoil in a bad economic state, and kids were doing what they had to do. It was the same thing as punk. They had to have a voice.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
All prints are available here.