What started as a subculture on the streets of New York in the 1970s has gained popularity in the decades since. It starts with writing your name on your choice of canvas whether it be a wall, paper, trains, or other place. From there: writing you name evolves into adding your own style, and there you have it, a simple explanation of graffiti.
Local Durham Graffiti artist “Niko,” who prefers not to use his real name, got his start in graffiti just like all of the big names in the world: Banksy, Shepard Fairy, Cope2, and Keith Haring to name a few.
Known across Durham as the artist J. Niko, the NCCU student, whose sprawling murals are found across Durham walls and commissioned by both private companies and individuals, has only been on the scene for six months, but has accomplished more than many artists who have been at it for years.
“I would have to say that my style carries a lot of interesting characters and use of color that I have adopted from ancient civilizations like Mayan, Aztec, and African cultures,” said Niko. “I get new influences every day watching videos and just observing my world with a different insight every day. I try to show this in my art, all those influences.”
Niko is bothered that many people see graffiti as vandalism rather than art. “I feel like billboards are more of a vandalism and nuisance as a human being because someone constantly trying to sell something to you,” said Niko.
Street art is considered rebellious in nature and illegal in practice, while public art is commissioned by cities or property owners and is considered culturally enriching and socially acceptable, he said.
“With graffiti there is no sale to be made; it is just someone expressing how they feel. Police arrest graffiti artists all the time,” said Niko. “To me [it] seems idiotic that you have several individuals committing more heinous crimes. I would just say the worst thing is having to go out in the darkness to express yourself.”
There are art events that give these artists the opportunity to showcase their skills, but Niko doesn’t think it’s the same as going out in the middle of the night and creating a masterpiece for the world to see in the morning. “I have been involved in just RVA Street Art Festival and I am looking for more opportunities to put myself and my art out there.”
According to RVA Street Art Festival’s mission statement, “the festival’s goal is to show the creative power of street art, liven up and revitalize areas through public art and creativity to attract residents and tourists to the outdoor art gallery.”
Although Niko thinks there are a lot of great spots to go and look at graffiti in the Durham area, the overall scene is still lacking.
“I haven’t thoroughly explored every part of Durham, but when I see a particular location, I think to myself ‘that would be a great place for a piece,’” said Niko.