Bombing, Throw Ups, Fat Caps… the basics of Graffiti!
Curious about how graffiti works? Want to find a new way to express yourself artistically in an outdoor setting? Want to get involved in an international subculture? If you answer yes to any of these, read on to learn the basics of amazing art form of graffiti!
A Quick History of Graffiti
People have been painting images on walls for millennia (see Werner Herzog’s amazing documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams for more on that). What we’re concerned with here is modern graffiti. You’ve certainly seen these expressively painted names on walls and trains and other places. It began in the 1960s in Philadelphia and quickly flourished in New York City and then the rest of the world. Graffiti now thrives all over the world, bigger than ever. It has become ubiquitous part of urban living in the last 40 years.
Graffiti is an urban art form of self-trained artists who write their name (using markers and/or spray paint) in public places for the world to see. It’s a homegrown art scene, in which marginalized communities have found ways to express themselves and ultimately to be seen by the world. While some find it to be a nuisance or eyesore, many see it as a thriving form of artistic expression, and an essential part of the cityscape. And you could be part of it!
Some Basic Terminology
Writer: A graffiti artist is often called a “writer”
Bombing: Putting up your tags or quick pieces in publicly seen places
Tagging: Quickly writing one’s name with only lines, using just a marker or a single spray paint can
Throw-ups: These are more advanced tags that are usually displayed in Graffiti-style bubble letters using 2 colors (1 color for the outline and 1 other color to fill it in)
Piece: The most evolved form of graffiti, where writers can fully express themselves. Pieces use multiple colors and showcase the writer’s unique style and techniques. Writers go all out when doing a piece so they take a long time to finish. There are more advanced types of graffiti such as Rollers (where the writer uses paint rollers to cover a large area) and Blockbusters (very large pieces that have block-letters/straight lines), but these are for experienced artists.
Chill Spot: These are areas that are easy to bomb. They are usually unmonitored and the property owners (if there is an owner) don’t mind graffiti so writers have more time to work. Common chill sports include: Abandoned buildings, canals and large drains for water systems, factory back walls, underneath bridges, or a parked rental van (see photo)
Heaven Spot: These are hard-to-get-to locations (such as on the side of a bridge, on a billboard) that usually require climbing and have some danger to get to. These places are for advanced and ambitious writers.
Graffiti does involve danger. Lawbreaking is integral to the art form. It is considered vandalism and not legal in most places. Tagging property that you do not own can result in legal trouble. Cities such as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and others all have their own laws against graffiti. You might have noticed that spray paint is kept in locked cases at some paint and hardware stores, that you have to ask to be opened. Laws are in place to regulate who can buy paint and how much they can buy.
Besides legal trouble, there are also health risks around graffiti. Overexposure to paint fumes is risky, and has been shown to cause serious health problems such as headaches, cancer, and organ damage. Face masks and respirators are recommended to use, especially in enclosed spaces. Also, doing graffiti in hard to reach spots, such as high up areas of a building or a bridge should be left to the more experienced (and ambitious) writers. These areas are known as “Heaven Spots,”’ because you’re taking the risk of ending up in heaven (aka dying)!!!
Spray paint cans: Krylon is the time honored brand of spray paint in graffiti. Montana Gold (low pressure) and Montana Black (high pressure) are popular now in the US. All those brands are pricey at about $10 a can. Beginners should start with cheaper cans such as Rustoleum or Colorplace (until you build up your skills).
Caps: There’s a variety of removable caps that fix onto the top of the spray cans. The two most popular caps are skinny and fat caps. Skinny (or thin) caps that spray a thin line of paint. These caps are better for more detailed work. Fat (or wide) caps that spray a larger area. Common fat caps are the New York Fat and Pink Dot.
Hoodies and Sneakers: It’s wise to wear comfortable, athletic apparel, like hoodies, sweatpants, and sneakers. Time is of the essence. You never know how much time you’ll have to write. A property owner, security guard, and/or police could arrive at any time. And you might have to vacate the area at a moment’s notice. And a hoodie helps hide your identity if there are any pesky security cameras around.
Safety: As mentioned above, masks and respirators are highly recommended. Also, gloves are good to have to keep paint off your hands. Spray paint will get messy.
Let’s Get Started
- First find your name/tag. Most writers’ names are short, made up of around 5 letters (or less). This is a name you’ll be using a lot so choose one you that will suit you in the long run.
- Then, write the name on a piece of paper. See what you can do with the letters. Try out different styles until you find the one for you. Try the “Bubble Letters” and “Block Letters” styles. Draw the letters backwards. Exaggerate different parts of the letters. Experiment until you find your style.
- Once you’ve designed your tag and have all your equipment, you’re ready to bomb! So find a chill spot, like a wall that no one cares about, an abandoned building in the woods, or a low risk, low traffic area.
- Draw your tag with a marker, easy enough!
- Or use spray paint. Here’s some basic techniques:
Hold the can directly at the wall, about 5–6 inches away from the surface for wide lines, and closer to the wall for thinner lines.
Keep the spray moving. If you spray for too long at one spot (over 3 seconds) the paint will build up and cause long drips down the wall. That makes things messy.
First paint the outline of your letters using one color.
Then use a different color to fill in the outlines. Paint inside the lines!
And have fun! You’re doing this for the love of it, the thrill of adventure.
Congrats, you’ve just put up your first tag (also known as a throw-up)! You are a graffiti writer!
If you have extra time (be aware of your surroundings) and the inclination, you could add more detail. You can put some shadowing under the letters or outline them with a third color. You can add effects like a faded edge by spraying the paint at an angle (instead of directly at the surface). There are so many techniques and styles to explore using different colors, spray pressures, caps, and hand movements.
This is just the beginning of your graffiti odyssey.