“What’s graffiti got to do with street fashion?” is a question that will surely prompt an array of responses—some more impassioned than others. But ask this musicologist, fop, and (self-proclaimed) street-conscious nerd this very question, and I have a simple answer: the street. My response might appear as seemingly simplistic as the swiftly and skillfully written tags that permeate the walls, trains, and streets of New York City, but to critically engage this answer paints a more complex picture of “writing” (the term used more frequently by practitioners than “graffiti”) within its cultural and artistic production. This picture or “piece” (in writing parlance) leaves space to consider the myriad connections between writing and the sartorial street, i.e., street fashion.
Legendary New York City writers such as Phase 2, Cey, Haze, and Lady Pink began connecting fashion and writing in the nascent stages of graffiti art by transferring their train and street creations onto clothing: jackets, shoes, hats, and other items were adorned with the vividly striking images and characters that had become all too familiar to New Yorkers traveling the subways in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the most obvious level, graffiti directly impacted fashion design, as this particular fashion of writing on clothing, hats, and sneakers became an urban phenomenon that extended beyond the subway cars and neighborhood to the runway. During the early 1980s, Keith Haring was called on by Vivienne Westwood to collaborate on her now legendary “witches” collection, giving a distinct vibrancy to the clothing with his pop and graffiti influenced aesthetic. And today, one will certainly notice the graffiti-influenced collaboration between Louis Vuitton and the late Stephen Sprouse in the 2001 “Graffiti” collection. Sprouse cleverly disrupts the backdrop of the elegant LV monogram with a bright pink, tag-like, brush-stroked “Louis Vuitton Paris” that consumes the façade of the bag, akin to the disruption (which is often considered a desecration) of a public wall or space by graffiti.
The aesthetic connections between graffiti and fashion are numerous, and many of these relationships go beyond a mere transferring of graffiti to clothing. The mode of expression offered by the vivid, graphic writing in spaces generally under legal observation (e.g., subway cars, public walls, etc.) arguably supports and enhances a milieu in which individual expression is imagined as boundless and limitless—outside of the watchful eye of those who determine what is morally, legally, and politically appropriate or “correct.”
At this point, it might seem as though we’ve traveled a road that takes us away from the “street,” but the considerations raised redirect us back to the connecting thoroughfare between graffiti and fashion. The conditions out of which graffiti writing, hip hop, punk, break-dancing, and other forms of urban cultural expression were born were often not ideal, to say the least. And many of the living, environmental, and economic conditions suffered by New York City youth during the 1970s and 1980s were not simply a result of their actions, but also part of a larger economic and political machine that left very few options for sustainability.
But the cultural expressions of NYC youth served as vehicles of resistance, existence, and often belonging (especially when painted as being outside of “normalized” society). And while these expressions of particular subcultures often become cultural crimes (i.e., the criminalization of graffiti and sartorial practices such as pant sagging), the constantly developing individual expressions (often within a collective) found in street fashion and graffiti continue to inspire people, trends, aesthetics, and practices to consider the boundlessness of expression. But these expressions merit another point to consider: the consequences of boundless expression, depending on who is expressing what.