Mucem, Tag et graff, Cli, Saeio

Tags and graffiti, “illegal art” at the museum

Between 2001 and 2006, Claire Calogirou, Research Fellow, conducted multiple collection surveys on the subject of hip-hop, dance, tags and graffiti. For graffiti, 958 objects were added to the MuCEM’s inventory, representing an amazing collection of graffitied panels, posters, stickers, markers, spray paint, magazines, sketches, photographs, videos and more. This rich survey enables an examination of social relationships in urban environments, the question of the appropriation of public spaces, and its conquest through “street” practices.


1 Hip-hop: from the birth of a culture to a museum’s collections

Graffiti (from the latin graffio, stylus) s an ancient practice. In France, May 1968 marked a phase in the history of mural graffiti, during which walls were given a voice. Shortly thereafter, New York graffiti appeared, a movement that represented the claiming of the ghetto.

Magnified by the advent of the hip-hop movement launched by Afrika Bambaata and the Zulu Nation in the mid-1970s, the ongoing pursuit of innovation made it possible to develop new styles and techniques. Graffiti is an activity of movement, exploration, adventure and adrenaline (for its illegality), the flip side of graffiti being the fresco. Beginning in the 1980s, graffiti captured the art market, with tags moving from walls to canvas, and from public to private.

Graffiti is defined by its lettering (and the compositions derived from it), in contrast with any other inscriptions or actions in the street. A tag, which literally means a label, is a decorative signature. Graffiti is an activity of movement, exploration and adventure: repeating one’s signature so it can be seen by as many people as possible.

Graffiti developed in Northern Europe beginning in the mid-1970s.

At the MNATP (National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions), of which the MuCEM is the heir, the interest given to tags and graffiti went hand in hand with the refreshment of its collections, from rural society to urban cultures, and raised questions of popular culture and creation with the museum.

Carnet de signatures, 1980-2003, JonOne, Mucem
Carnet de signatures, 1980-2003, JonOne, Mucem.
One of the many artists encountered was JonOne. A New Yorker from Harlem, he was fascinated by trains and subways as symbols of freedom, from a very young age. As a teenager, he learned from local graffiti artists. Then he left for Paris, where the hip-hop movement was in its infancy, settling there in 1987. He participated in collectives and soon began to produce paintings. Today, he is one of the few highly rated artists that came from street art. A few objects that belonged to him can now be found in the Mucem’s collections.
Mucem, Trousseau des clefs du métro de NYC
Carnet de signatures, 1980-2003, JonOne, Mucem.
Keys used by street artist JonOne to enter the New York Subway depots, used in 1980-1986, during the early days of his graffiti career, up until he moved to France.
This key chain is made of a brown leather strap, to which two metal rings are attached, holding 12 keys. These were used by famous graffiti artist JonOne between 1980 and 1986, when he was starting out in the world of street art, entering the New York Subway depots to graffiti the subway cars. They were acquired along with other objects that belonged to the street artist: a sketchbook, two graffitied jackets, a photomontage and graffiti on canvas, produced by the artist.

2 On the ground: the modus operandi

The initial questions were what to collect and how to exhibit graffiti at the museum? Several French cities were scoured with the aim of reconstructing the historical dimension of the graffiti movement and meeting with artists and other protagonists: Greater Paris which played a seminal role in the history of the movement beginning in the early 1980s; Marseille, a very rich city in terms of hip-hop culture, and its suburbs; Toulouse, Lyon and Montpellier. This history of the movement is crucial, because the practice would later spread and diversify, so it was vital to fully understand the first 10 years of this practice’s development. As a result, it was necessary to meet with all the pioneers and actors, the “old timers”, without whom graffiti would not be what it is today. These multiple encounters gave rise to photos, films, testimonials, meetings at major urban culture events, reviews of specialized magazines and books, interviews with lawyers and journalists specializing in graffiti-related issues, and the list goes on.

Visits and meetings also took place in multiple foreign cities:

New York collaboration with a scientific adviser made it possible, on the one hand, to begin an examination of the origins and development of this movement and, on the other, to acquire benchmark pieces for our collections.
Europe London (United Kingdom), Liège, Brussels and Charleroi (Belgium), Athens (Greece), Hamburg and Berlin (Germany) and Stockholm (Sweden).

The prerequisites for forming a collection for the museum included:
— prioritizing objects and documents linked to the private and collective lives of graffiti artists recognized by their peers;
— ensuring the representativeness of the different lettering styles, from the simplest tags to the most elaborate, flops, chrome, wild style, and so on;
— ensuring a representative assortment of media, paper, cardboard, clothing, etc.;
— obtaining a series that depicts the full diversity of tagged street furniture;
— showing the full range of techniques and tools employed;
— obtaining a full set of the types of “uses” of graffiti: posters, advertising, classes, etc.;
— depicting the evolution of graffiti (again through the artists’ life stories) toward street art, paintings, clothing and more;
— showing both aspects of the practice: the illegal aspect (streets, trains, etc.) and the legal one (market activity, festivals, etc.);
— portraying social responses: removal, legal texts, trials, etc.

Mucem, Musique, Cataposte, 1986-1991, Psyckoze
Musique, Cataposte, 1986-1991, Psyckoze,Mucem.
Radio cassette players: this “catastereo” is representative of the sociabilities at work in the graffiti world: putting your tag wherever you go, on the belongings of the people you meet. This radio cassette player, or “ghetto blaster”, also represents the hip-hop movement, accompanying street gatherings of dancers and graffiti artists. This one bears some extremely well-known signatures. It accompanied Psyckoze on his trips into the catacombs of Paris between 1986 and 1991, whence its nickname.
Mucem, Caisse à vinyles, Dj Dee Nasty
Caisse à vinyles, Dj Dee Nasty, Mucem.
This is the vital crate of a DJ, used to transport records to animate a party. This renowned DJ used two of them, each containing 100 records. This crate is covered with stickers dating from 1987 to 1997. Today, DJs have moved on to rolling suitcases, adapted to fit vinyl records. A photo of Dee Nasty from the late 1980s shows him with this crate.
In the early 1980s, Dee Nasty participated in radio programmes on black styles of music. That is when he began playing the turntables. An organizer of parties at a derelict site in La Chapelle (a mythical spot in the mid-1980s), host of events, and creator of the programme Deenastyle on Radio Nova in 1988-89, Dee Nasty became (and remained) the reference for DJs in France, the one who inspired more than one calling and who won every contest he entered.

3 Spotlight on the graffiti collection

The acquired objects are highly varied, namely including:
— street furniture, the medium of choice of street artists (signs at building sites, shop roller shutters, post boxes, etc.);
— a series of objects and documents associated with the personal and collective histories of the interviewed graffiti artists (drawings, sketches, tools, new and used spray-paint cans, clothing, small posters, programs, stickers, flyers, tag supports, canvas, etc.).

Mucem, Poubelle recouverte de tags, Truskool2000
Poubelle recouverte de tags, Truskool2000, Mucem.
This belonged to one of the groups surveyed in Toulouse: Truskool. The bin, which was in their studio, is an example of the way that graffiti artists appropriate and decorate their environment like they do to walls: using spray paint and stickers (putting their signatures on adhesive paper and sticking on a wall or inside a train is a fast method whose effect can be reinforced by using a government label, as mentioned before).

No Comment by Mode2

“The piece is an interpretation of a sort of review of the culture in which I immersed myself for so many years. We started with something fresh, simple, positive and spontaneous, then moved toward a sort of “every man for himself” in which the music industry, brands of cold or alcoholic beverages, gallery and museum curators, and art, music and dance journalists have taken control of the evolution and the development of this culture. Technology has also its victims, but here and there are still some tools that have not yet sunk into obsolescence... This is a rough reflection of the thing, without trying to say exactly where in the image specific factors are in play.”

No Comment, Mode2, Mucem

Mode 2 is a personality in the field of graffiti in France and Europe, but more accurately, around the world. He is best known for his figures. And even for “purist” graffiti artists who consider that graffiti is defined by its lettering alone, he is an indisputable force. He aims to support all the disciplines of hip-hop, a movement that he discovered in London in 1983, where he was living at the time. For that reason, he creates the posters each year for Battle of the Year, a premier international b-boying competition that stands for the evolution of these forms of dance as an art unto itself. Invited to participate in shows and events worldwide, the artist’s work has been appears in many a collection.

This piece was acquired in 2012 through the Friends of the Museum organization after the exhibition Faire le mur (Going Over the Wall), for which it was painted.


The Mucem continues to take a great interest in these cultures, and more specifically in graffiti, and so conducted multiple collection surveys on the subject in Tunisia, Morocco, Italy and Spain in 2015, with the aim of expanding its collection and extending it to the Mediterranean.

A large part of the museum’s graffiti collection was exhibited at the lieu unique in Nantes, in the show Faire le mur (Going Over the Wall) which took place from 6 November 2011 to 8 January 2012. The Mucem also loans out pieces from its collection, like this series of 11 graffitied panels from a shop under construction in Paris, on loan for the exhibition Street Art – Banksy & co. at the Museum of the History of Bologna in Italy, from April to June 2016.

Collated surveys of the Mucem

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