Atlanta painter and tattoo artist Miya Bailey reaches for a photo album on the floor of his Castleberry Hill studio and opens it to a random page. The album's full of photographs that Bailey shot in the early '90s of graffiti pieces layered so dense on wall after wall, they form a continuous texture, an endless tapestry. There's prototypically East Coast wild style writing with its sharp angles and indecipherable lettering, but also 3-D bubble letters and exaggerated, cartoon characters all in searing neon colors.
"That's the Civic Yard," he says, casually shuffling through other sketchpads, books, and drawings heaped on the floor. "Everybody used to go down there, man. Everybody. It was a tourist attraction."
The Civic Yard at Peachtree and Pine streets once served as Atlanta's legally sanctioned space for graffiti artists to show off their skills and practice their craft. Not only was the spot ground zero for Atlanta's graffiti culture, it was also arguably the center of hip-hop's visual identity south of the Mason-Dixon Line. According to Bailey, the Civic Yard was always abuzz. "Twenty-four hours a day, you would see somebody down there," he says. Graf writers could spend hours on a work only to come back a few days later and find it completely covered over by another piece – bigger, stronger, brighter.
As hip-hop first began to bloom in the late '70s in New York's outer boroughs, its earliest champions understood it was more than music. Hip-hop was also breakdancing, DJing, grafitti. It was a creative culture that existed on the margins of the mainstream, often making due with the materials available at hand: spraypaint, chalk, cardboard and cement walls.
By the early '90s, Atlanta had developed a distinct regional style, not only in graffiti, but in design and fashion as well. Bailey remembers the Atlanta of those days as an explosion of hip-hop color and culture.
"Atlanta was like a chalkboard," says Bailey, an Asheville, N.C., native and owner of City of Ink, one of the nation's premier black-owned tattoo parlors. "You could write all over it. It still could be formed. You know how New Orleans has a New Orleans culture? Atlanta used to have Atlanta culture, like, Atlanta people. That's why I fell in love with Atlanta, 'cause I was like, 'Man, they got gold teeth. They're wearing polos. They got their shorts up over they knees!' It was a different culture. The way they danced, the way they talked. Everything was totally different."
Today, the Civic Yard is just another parking lot, erased as a result of Atlanta's 2003 anti-graffiti ordinance. But the aesthetic born of hip-hop and nursed on the city's streets continues to be a major force among Atlanta's artists and designers.
HIP-HOP'S VISUAL LEGACY – and a bit part about Atlanta's place in it – is chronicled in a recent book, DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop, by former Def Jam designer Cey Adams and former Def Jam director of publicity Bill Adler. It covers some 30 years of hip-hop's imprint on global culture, high and low.
"Too many folks from outside of the culture who come to hip-hop's visual culture, their investigations stop in 1982," Adler says. "They don't understand all the various forms that hip-hop's visual arts have taken since it came off of the subways and came off of the walls. That's really the thrust of the book."
DEFinition bridges the gap between then and now, covering everything from Kehinde Wiley's oil paintings of Big Daddy Kane and other rap superstars, to the sparkly aerosol aesthetic of the Mountain Dew logo, to the showy-chic couture of Kimora Lee Simmons' Baby Phat fashions. It's a voracious and wide-ranging visual survey that makes the case that hip-hop's musical heritage is only part of the story.
For Adams, it's personal. As a young man in Brooklyn in the '80s, Adams got into graffiti. He eventually crossed paths with uptown graffiti scenesters Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, two artists who made the crossover into Andy Warhol's downtown art scene. Meanwhile, Adams parlayed his street art into a career as a graphic designer at Def Jam Recordings, ultimately creating the visual identities of artists such as Foxy Brown, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys.
"Hip-hop used to be about the four elements and everybody understood that," says Adams. "And now all of a sudden when you say the word 'hip-hop,' people think music. I'm here to say, 'No, no, no: Hip-hop is more than just music.' Hip-hop is art; hip-hop is dance; hip-hop is DJing and MCing."
Atlanta figures as a minor player in DEFinition, despite the city's reputation as the "hip-hop capital of the world." DEFinition's story is largely of New York, with the occasional glance toward Los Angeles. Still, a few Atlantans appear throughout. Artist Fahamu Pecou's work is highlighted in the book's treatment of hip-hop and fine art. His 2007 painting "Fresh As I'm Is" depicts the artist flipping the bird, cigar in mouth, painted as though on the cover of Trace magazine. The work is rendered in the artist's characteristic drips, scrapes and scrawls with obscure phrases littered across its surface.
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