Day breaks over Hoher Markt. An inconspicuous son of a civil servant makes his way down the cobblestone streets, rope looped over his shoulder, bag packed with a stencil, knife and black paint. This avid climber, stories say, had made a bet that morning: Joseph Kyselak was leaving town, and he vowed that in no more than three years, his name would be seen across the country. And up it went, on rock faces and building facades everywhere from Vienna to Graz, Salzburg to Innsbruck.
The next all-city Vienna vandal? No. Kyselak was born in 1798 under the reign of Emperor Joseph II, but still succeeded in going all-country – thus perhaps founding a global form we know today as graffiti . From the top of the Alps down to the streets of Ötztal, his “tag” – KYSELAK – can still be seen.
The word “graffiti ” comes from the Italian “graffiato,” meaning scratched – but art historians have found graffiti carved into walls dating all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans. Even in antiquity , writers covered walls with popular quotes, political slogans and romantic messages: “Let him perish who knows not love,” an inscription in Pompeii reads.
Moving through the centuries, the tools of the graffiti writer’s trade have evolved. Paint and stencils were joined by spray cans and paste-ups (cut and colored paper shapes glued to walls), and eventually stickers. Modern graffiti has become the untamed beast of the art world, fanning out to street corners, doorways and mailboxes around the globe.
The work we see today on the streets of Vienna is the culmination of more than two decades of unleashed creativity. The city first invited New York writers to paint a Straßenbahn in 1984 and local writers to do the same in1989. Since 1995, there have been legal walls for artists to paint on. Today, there are 22 legal spots in the city. And, of course, thousands that are not – the VVO (Austrian Insurance Association) notes that millions of euros in damage are caused each year by graffiti, and that these days the crime can lead to prison terms of six months to five years. Not that all are deterred.
SETAROC, SECO, DJPHAKT and SHUE were among the first big local names, but they wouldn’t be the last. “In the late ’80s, the first writers stopped, and new ones started up,” explained Stefan Wogrin, founder of local online graffiti supply shop spraycity.at, which also documents graffiti around town and publishes an interactive online map of the best works.
With new writers came new techniques. “You could say there was a new start where a new style developed.” The style now most associated with Vienna dates back to the late 1990s and a Viennese writer named KERAMIK. “He once said in an interview he wanted to paint the shittiest piece,” Wogrin recalls.
KERAMIK bent letters, added drips of paint. He wanted to “introduce a style completely different than the classical clean lines of the day.” This paved the way for new styles and concepts, which ultimately turned into one-liner hand styles, creative throw-ups, blockbusters and wildstyles (see photos for examples).
Modern graffiti has become the untamed beast of the art world, fanning out to street corners, doorways and mailboxes.
All of these have been on display this summer at the Wien Museum, whose Takeover exhibit invited local graffiti writers and street artists – along with skateboarders – to “take over” several galleries while the rest of the museum was being renovated.
Misfits and hooligans of all kinds were happy to oblige. As we approach the scene on a sweltering July day, techno beats throb through the outer walls. The doors open: The first impression is of a riot of paint spilling out all at once, a far cry from the usual atmosphere. There’s a makeshift nightclub – in the middle of the day – serving drinks. A display on the history of skateboarding opens into a gallery packed with skate ramps; every surface is a tangle of throw-ups and tags. Around the corner, a room full of paste-ups, stickers, tags and hand-styles; upstairs, full-color murals and displays about the history of the Vienna scene.
Viennese “greats” have made themselves at home here – where the world can see. “On the street you don’t reach everyone; the museum opens your art to a whole new crowd,” said Wogrin. is seems counter-intuitive: More people walk down streets than into museums. Although most street locations may only be the haunts of neighbors and regulars.
But the “nice setting” matters, explained artist Robert Perez, aka DEADBEAT HERO, who did a mural for the exhibit. “Most people won’t stop to look at your work on a building, where people will come to a museum and actually take the time to look at the art.”
Graffiti these days has galleries – but it’s more rarely in mainstream museums. “It should be shown as a normal exhibition, not just while the museum is being rebuilt,” said Dr. Jakob Kattner, the film maker, musician and street art curator behind Vienna’s annual Calle Libre festival. Still, it’s come a long way from humble beginnings.
Its roots go back to New York City’s Washington Heights during the 1970s and ’80s. It bloomed as a product of hip- hop culture, along with rap and breakdancing. In the embers of the South Bronx infernos, singed by the broken promises of the civil rights movement, a generation of youth – many black or Latino, and almost always male – decided graffiti might be their best and only way to be seen. The movement spread like wildfire.
Graffiti artists, calling themselves “writers,” popped up everywhere: TAKI 183, DONDI, LADY PINK, SEEN, ZEPHYR and ZORO were among the most famous, their tags on subways and in alleys across every borough.
In 1983, graffiti sprayed across the Atlantic in the wake of East Coast rappers and breakdancers off to tour first the UK and then Western Europe. London adopted and then adapted the new art form, making it the visual counterpart to their own up-and-coming youth culture and music: Punk rock which, more than hip-hop, then became closely associated with European graffiti culture.
“Most people won’t stop to look at your work on a building, where people will come to a museum and actually take the time to look at the art.”
Robert Perez, aka Deadbeat Hero, graffiti artist
STREET ART VS. GRAFFITI
Back in the USA, graffiti was making moves from the streets into galleries, and some writers were giving up words in favor of face-and character- filled paintings on the streets. It was this art that the gate-keepers of high society finally acknowledged. In the early ’80s, Jean-Michel Basquiat, or SAMO, broke into New York’s high society – eventually collaborating with the likes of David Bowie and Andy Warhol. (One of his paintings was recently sold for $100 million.)
Within two decades, many street artists were taking it to the bank, literally: BANKSY fascinates the art world to this day, and makes millions. In the U.S., Shepard Fairey aka OBEY became known for his “Andre the Giant” and Barack Obama “Hope” paste-ups, and now runs a successful clothing line. Their art feels rebellious, and it sells – but tension has emerged between the street art that society deems worthy of commodification and “real” graffiti, historically still associated with illegality and social unrest.
ART AND TURMOIL
From the London underground in the 1980s, the art form spread to Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin, eventually making its way all across Europe and into Vienna. The Berlin Wall was famously covered in graffiti – at least on the Western side. When it fell, graffiti spread into Eastern European countries now marinating in turmoil.
Perhaps because of this history – and to get away from the law – artists today still prize derelict buildings as sites for their work. “It’s the open waters of graffiti and street art,” said Perez. “You never know when the homeless living there or an animal are going to pop out of nowhere.”
While it may be an art executed mostly to impress other writers who will trek to the boonies to see it, in the age of Instagram every space becomes visible anywhere. Whole abandoned rural towns in Slovakia and Czechia are covered in art that would hardly be seen if it were not for the Internet – which now plays a vital role in blending styles around the globe.
“You get influences from all other countries, the styles are just mixed,” said Wogrin. What began in NYC with writers tagging their nickname has developed into a global art form.
Not just styles but the writers themselves now flow across the globe – as San Antonio, Texas, native Perez exemplifies. Walking into Perez’s Soon Art Studio in the 20th district, beats from the late ’90s American rapper Big L are bumping. Perez is a big member of the street art scene in Vienna, doing about 72 murals each year. His style portrays cartoon-like characters with the firmly planted skill of an illustrator. He paints but also teaches, running workshops at events like the Takeover exhibit and Calle Libre, which in itself demonstrates the globalized nature of the graffiti and street art scene.
This Latin American street art festival, now in its sixth year, opens Vienna’s streets to the world. Kattner, the filmmaker and brains behind the event, got his PhD documenting street art in Latin America. Today, he invites artists to display their talent and share their expressive skills with the Viennese. In 2019, artists came from all over Latin and South America, Europe, the United States and, of course, Austria. They painted 10 major murals on walls across the city which can be found everywhere from Schlingermarkt to Hundsturm to Favoriten.
As international artists flood into Vienna, local artists are making a name abroad: NYCHOS, BUSK and PERK UP come to mind.
And all of them – local or foreign – have work on display at the Donaukanal, the city’s most prominent legal spot.
GRAFFITI | VIENNA’S STREET ART MECCA
Wogrin walks along the canal on this warm summer day, pointing out classic pieces and taking pictures of new works for his spraycity.at database. With their cascading colors, major works stand out against the bricks, a cast of characters come to life.
Graffiti-writers-turned-street-artists like BUSK, PERKUP, RUIN and FRIEND – whose work coats the walls – have changed the Vienna style yet again. Now it’s evolved from a representational to a more abstract style. The graffiti scene can often feel like a boy’s club, but here a younger generation of female writers like VIDEO ONER, JUNE, FRAU ISA and the three women in RIP OFF CREW keep up.
Wogrin points out a piece painted in 2003 by Levin Statzer, aka NESH, a beloved local writer who was killed in a car accident in 2005. No one has painted over it in the many years since – honor among thieves, some might say, or just respect for great art.
However, even graffiti writers think some graffiti is vandalism that ruins people’s property. Here the names PUBER and KING come to mind. The latter in particular, by calling himself “king,” has broken a sacred graffiti rule. That title is reserved for the greatest writers of all time; it can be bestowed only by another king. Real kings don’t write “king,” they paint a little crown over the corner of their pieces. KING, it seems, doesn’t care.
And in fairness, by giving police, home owners and even other graffiti writers the proverbial middle finger, KING is staying true to the core of the art form: As they say, real graffiti is illegal. It’s an outsider art form that sticks it to the powerful – and writers don’t stop.
The original 19th century Joseph Kyselak, legend has it, came to the attention of Emperor Franz I after tagging an imperial building. That King (and Kaiser) ordered the young Kyselak to immediately stop defacing his Empire. Of course, he agreed.
Later, the Emperor still found the name KYSELAK carved into his desk.