What is “Old School” and what is the standard (if any) when using this term in graffiti?

One morning back in April,l I was finishing up the Blade tribute on the side of the MoCA museum in Los Angeles. Martha Cooper came by the wall just around the same time that Blade showed up. She told me how great it was that the museum had someone from the “new school” paint a tribute for someone from the “old school”. Something about that comment really caught me off guard. Maybe because I was deliriously tired from painting all night? I saw the label of new school as way of classifying me as a new writer or (not intended by Cooper) a new jack. I told Martha that this was my 20th year painting graffiti and asked how long do I have to write, until I’m no longer considered new? Firemen, teachers or other city employees are eligible for retirement benefits after 20 years of job experience, and I’m sure that those who have worked within their profession for so long would not be considered similar to those with just a few years experience?

(below) Posing with Blade outside of MoCA.

This got me thinking about what constitutes something or someone being considered old school in graffiti? Is it a way of defining a past generation of writers who contrast with writers today? Or broadly, is it a title that is earned after years of growth and involvement within something? As far back as I can remember, the term “old school” has been used to describe veterans or key people who have put in work within the scene.

As an early teen involved with graffiti, I had this naive idea that old school was anyone who started writing before me. Getting involved with graffiti in New York City in 1991, a new fleet of graffiti free trains were in service, crushed highway sound walls were just starting to get buffed, and the streets were running with layers and layers of tags and throw ups. I started as graffiti was evolving into a predominately street level movement. New writers at the time bombed walls with the mentality of hitting shit that “ran”. At the time, I thought anyone who was painting during the subway era was old school or from an old way of getting up. It was a practice of the distant past, even if it was only 3-4 years ago.

These days I am not sure what I consider to be old or new (black or white)? Maybe old school is just another way of saying first generation? It seems that graffiti lacks an up to date glossary to describe the many generations of writers who have come post Subway Art, pre and post millenium. It’s kind of strange to lump everything after the 70’s as one whole group; we’re talking about over 30 years compared to 10. It kind of reminds me of the format many oldies radio stations follow. For years CBS fm in New York played oldies aka music from the 50’s, 60’s and a bit of the early 70’s. The same 100 songs over and over again. Some years later they broadened their range and definition of the station, including music extending into the mid 80’s. Like this bullshit station, should graffiti’s definition of what is old expand over time?

To better answer the question of what constitutes old school, I reached out to a range of writers who started painting anywhere from the early 70’s going all the way up to the mid 00’s. The responses range, and I feel that the opinions are influenced by their age, city, and years spent painting….

In relation to graffiti, what is “Old School”. Is it based on when you wrote or how long you have been active?


BLADE – New York City, Started writing in 1972

According to Portia aka Mrs. Blade: Blade’s view on old school may be different than other people’s views. He believes old school is for people that started writing in 1970-1972 because there were no masterpieces on trains! Just singe hits, which were called tags in the 80s.
It was called single hits because you only knew how to rack one can & when you saw a 10 car train, you would write your name on it once on each car. Masterpieces did not come about until the middle of 1972.
He started in early 1972.
He did his 1st masterpiece in the summer of 1972.
The best book he ever saw on the market is Graffiti Kings by Jack Stewart. Because all of the interviews were done when we were teenagers right on the spot in New York.


HAZE – New York City, Started writing in 1972

“I think the term “Old School” is relative, depending on where you grew up and what history you rose out of. If you are talking NY and the golden age of the train era, I would say you would probably have to have started writing by 75-76 latest. For the rest of the USA and Europe, it would probably me more like up until 84-85 in the post ‘Style Wars’ era.

I stared writing in 1972 on the #1 Broadway line in Manhattan.”


MARTHA COOPER – New York City, Documenter of graffiti since the late 70’s

“For me Old School has always meant anyone who started writing before Subway Art was published in 1984. I used the term New School to mean everything after Subway Art–sort of like B.C./A.D. I realize that’s an egocentric definition but I never gave it much thought before now. The term never (for me) meant to imply anything about the quality of the work, just when it was done. I’m happy to revise my definition of the term to whatever the consensus of opinion is. 
Urban dictionary  favorite definition http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=old%20school: Anything that is from an earlier era and looked upon with high regard or respect. Can be used to refer to music, clothing, language, or anything really.
I agree that the term could use some re-defining so let me know what you decide.”


BIO – New York City, Started writing in 1980

“I started in 1980. I’ve put in my 30 lol!

Old school to me is the 70’s and 80’s generation but today anything over 15 years old in this game is considered old school at least that is what I think. Had to give that one some thought not even sure I understand it now.”


SP.ONE – New York City, Started writing in 1981

“Old school is just one of those terms that is now outdated because graffiti keeps moving on through many generations. Kind of like “keep it real” of course we are gonna keep it real just like we are going to get older.. Old school to me is the original wave of graffiti in NY during the 70s. It’s easier to label things old school today because of all the technological advances over the last 10 or so years. Using a rotary phone, having milk delivered to your back door, subway tokens were not that long ago but still feel distinctly old school in todays world. I started in 81 and people tell me I’m old school and I say no because to me 81 was already late in the game. That said 30 years is a good chunk of time and I guess no matter what younger writers are always gonna look at people who started writing before they were born as old school which sounds better than “damn you old”.”


RISK – Los Angeles, Started writing in 1982

“I believe Old School is a combination of a few things…

One would be the obvious “how long you’ve been writing” I’ve been writing since 1982, therefore in this sense I would be considered Old school…..

Old School could also be the way people approach painting their graffiti. An example of this would be someone who may take traditional steps I.E. sketch his piece prior, sketch his first outline on the wall, fill in, then do final outline last….

along with the for mentioned there are also many old techniques that would be considered an Old School style, I.E. White shines, and highlights placed on the edge of your letter touching the outline, Or maybe even traditional arrows going in all directions etc. This is a can of worms and would vary among different writers of different eras and regions

And lastly I believe there is an Old School mentality, like someone who takes their graffiti very serious even if they are not very active, very likely to punch you in the face if they’re stuff is dissed, or someone who doesn’t partake in blogging or any of the social networking, Does not advertise that he writes, still paint with racked paint, always trying to get over….Stuff like that….

Or you can leave the last sentence simple like this….

And lastly, I believe there is an Old School mentality, like someone who is very likely to punch you in the face is they are dissed….”


WANE – New York City, Started writing in 1983

“I would consider myself a third generation New york writer. To all those that came after me I would be old school.
Kids were talking about old school when I first started writing which was 1983. Old school to me means Classic, traditional , letter styles, racking your paint and caps. painting subways. Starting a crew and pushing each other to get better.”


KET – New York City, Started writing in 1986-7

“For me “Old School” is a term for writers from the 1970s. It is a term for writers that by 1980 had already quit and moved on. Today I still use the term to mean the same thing and the same time period. I am not old school.”


REVOK – Los Angeles, Started writing in 1990

“The term “Old-school” refers (in my opinion) to the early developmental generation of any given thing, I dont feel its relative to an individuals personal timeline but the accumulative “thing” as a whole.”


ASKEW – Auckland, New Zealand, Started writing in 1993

“I think the term ‘Oldschool’ operates on two timelines. One is the general history of writing and it’s early beginnings in Philly and NYC and the second time line is one relative to where you live and in context to when people pioneered a scene local to you.

In New Zealand there are instances of writing as early as 1980 – Our most notable Old School writers were probably Smooth Crew though, they were featured in Spray Can Art and were leagues ahead of a lot of people outside NYC for their time. In respect to my local timeline, they are the Oldschool. In relation to the greater timeline of writing in general they aren’t truly oldschool.

I made my first attempts at writing during my first year of Highschool in 1993. My generation really came to dominate the local scene during the mid 90’s onwards and are considered the 3rd major wave of writers in the NZ scene. My peers are undoubtedly the most consistent generation to date, writers from before us had relatively short careers in comparison. Admittedly the scene was very different in those days and the advent of the internet etc has weakened graffiti locally but strengthened it internationally a considerable amount.”


TABOO – New York City – Started writing in 1992 – 93

“I started writing in late 92 – 93, being from NYC its easy for me to
say “old school” is graffiti from the days of train writing. The “old
school” is like when you change the secret sauce on a hamburger. Its
still a burger, and the new version isn’t necessarily better or worse,
its just different (ie transition from trains to walls). It’s based on
the change in the culture, not your number of years in the game.”


JURNE – Maine, USA. Started writing in 1999

“Every writer has their own “Old School”. Part respect for graffiti from a (subjective) heyday, part nostalgia for past experiences, and part false perception that it was somehow different than than it is today. Quiet insistence that you both are and are not part of that vague yesterday.
For me personally, “Old School” is hours of shoe boxes of dog-earred flicks with the red date in the corner, 99¢ Autumn Gold and Indian Spice, duct taped blackbooks in backpacks, Hostyle Bomb Threat Kings, Eruptoe327 scribes on payphones, seeing the numbers taped, white inlines, discovering Spraycan Art, and paying tribute to the pioneers by knowing the history.”


SUEME – Vancouver, Canada. Started writing in 2000

“To me, the term Old School refers to both the early generation of Graffiti writers, and the laws in which they utilized to depict and communicate a style..the timeless practice of these laws become tradition, and an accurate representation of ‘Trueness’ to the form of graffiti. Looking at it objectively, it would be more based on the culture at whole, then just my perspective. although at the same time I may refer to something I did in 2002 as old school to me, or my generation. I started in 2000.”


SCORE – Berlin, Germany, Started writing in 2004

“For me the oldest generation is the Old School. So for Germany, these are the writers who started in the 80’s. When they are out of the game, then it’s the next generation.”

(below) A sample of the “old school” graffiti in Germany that influenced Score. Done some time in the mid to late 80’s.


RIME – NYC / LA, Started writing in 1991

As for my own involvement in graffiti, I feel that I am neither old or new school. I started writing before the internet, digital cameras, common cell phone use, and the birth of spray paint made for graffiti. With these couple of differences at the start, I feel that my experiences of writing early on contrasts from the writers who started in the past 10 years.

Just the same, I did not get into graffiti painting on trains. I learned to paint all pieces with bottoms (not designed to sit on a panel). By starting on walls I fell into the habit of choosing paint differently. Instead of using a smooth gloss finish Krylon for outlining, I would learn to stick with Ultra Flat or a heavier grade rougher spraying Rustoleum. Thin and glossy paint worked well on metal but was useless on unprimed cement walls. This effected what my work looked like, and also how many cans it took to paint one piece.. Another difference with post subway writing is that without running trains, the idea of going “All City” required that you, not your work had to do most of the traveling. Getting into graffiti in the 90’s was much different than starting out in the 70’s, 80’s or today.

I’m not saying that any period is better than another. I’m just saying that there are enough differences to update the way we classify periods, artists, or practices. With graffiti continuing along as it has since the release of Subway and Spray Can Art, it’s hard to fit everything going on in present day within the handful of definitions recorded in those books. There is a lot of gray area between old and new. It would be nice to eventually see it all sifted through in a more official way.


  1. yeah i found that out too flat black its buttery for walls befor i realized gloss was better for trains some years ago befor krylon went to fan tip

  2. Having started writing in the early 90s in Germany I consider every piece oldskool (flavor) that was/is based on the CTK lettering styles (Bando and Shoe). For the new skool Berlin-styles became the main point of reference.

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  4. sounds like someone got their feelings hurt. haha
    good article and aspects of the word. but plain and simple i would think old school is the 70s and maybe early 80s and thats about it. most people that know anything about graffiti or whos opinion is worth a shit usually uses “old school” in relation to this era of graffiti. now using the term “old school” as a mentality is a whole other can of worms!

  5. I always went by the first third of the entire length of the scene (it’s my own retarded, completely arbitrary formula with no science to back it up). Miami’s scene pretty much started in the early eighties (81-82), so anyone that started by ’90-91 is Old School for that scene.

      • forget the streets i kinged the 4 line back in early 1983! the glory days!!!
        and killed the 2’s and 5 line! that was some real shit having war with seen ‘pjay’ cap and others!! i got pic’s which will be out in my next book!
        but you killin it rime!! keep doing yo thing homie!!

  6. very few actually have old school mentality anymore. I could maybe name 3. Every writer has a blog to share, a flickr to show, and a facebook to friend. sad.

  7. being old school is cool but i hate when them mofo’s bitch and complain like you owe them something!!! just cause there old school or paved the way!!
    real artist who do there history will know whos really old school and if not sometimes writers just dont really care!!! like me !! lolololololol
    and you cant just had did 1 or 2 trains in the 70’s now you come around like your a legend or the graff-artworld owes you something fuck outta here!!! you got put in years!!!! of work and have done crazy damage!!! homie 30+ baby like me!!! and many others!! then maybe youll get the respect cause mofos today straight up dont give a fuck if your old school or not!! cause there to busy trying to get theres off and do there thing!! but like 2pac said aint nothing like the old school!!!

    • lol i call my self old school caz i did the yards lay ups i was only 11/12 and i put in work and was up..not like up but i did my thing..when i met writers like SIKO,,OE3,,DURO,,NE,,MIN,, THEY WAS LIKE I SEEN YA SHIT UP…HOW OLD R U SHORTY LOL I’M OLD SCHOOL NIGGA TIL THE END…MR COPE

  8. Pingback: RIME’s TAKE ON “OLD SCHOOL” | Revok1

  9. Nice article. Just want to say I hit the NYC subway line started in 83 till 87. A,CC,J,L and M line all I can say is there is no other feeling like running through the A and CC tunnel layups between Shepard ave and Grant ave or hitting the J or M yard and getting chased by the work bums or looking up after bombing all night and realizing the sun is coming up and you better get out. hitting the M train at the last stop from the cementary side while people were inthe train waiting for it to take off. Or getting busted in grant ave lay up by the vandal sq then we did a whole car window down on the M line saying “FUCK DA VANDAL SQ” that didnt get any run time. But I did see a pic one time in the ENY vandal sq office hanging on the wall. Great times. I’m old school.

  10. dope article joe!! a lot of older writers from miami never referred to themselves as old school, they would always use 1st 2nd 3rd 4th generation to define our history. i almost feel as if graffiti should not have definitions but as the movement develops its almost unavoidable, eventually someone will come around and try to define the history of writing in some sort of timeline like fine art or art history is defined. in a sense you could already do that just by looking at all the separate movements within our culture.

    my opinion, i don’t like the term old school or the term new school or even the lame term true school.

    i just like graffiti in its rawest form, just like i found it, and just like i feel it will always be.

    skem- dme epc

  11. If u wrote on a running coal miner, then ur considered old school.
    All others are 2nd generation and so on…

  12. “I think the term ‘Oldschool’ operates on two timelines. One is the general history of writing and it’s early beginnings in Philly and NYC and the second time line is one relative to where you live and in context to when people pioneered a scene local to you”

    Good shit askew on the philly shoutout.

  13. Thanks for bringing this to light Joe. If I can chime in… There are many old schools and old schools of thought too! Granted NY is old school graff but truth be told Philly is the the real old school of subway graffiti as history proves it to be and across the country LA had its old school writing history long before us.

    But more than terms of schools its important to stress and promote history, proper and collective histories from all associated to writing cultures. When I used to kick it with Chaz in LA he would school me on heritage and legacy, to me he wore the Old School title with honor, I Iearned a few things from him that as I become more OG realize that if someone calls you old school in our culture it means that you were a survivor.

    Adding to that is that we are all continuing to expand the definition of what we practice and promote so 20 years in will not be uncommon among us Joe and if you are that deep in that only means that you are not only old school but todays school for the next generation.

  14. Good shit! great blog! Thanks for putting in the time it was cool to read and hear peoples views. ( I probably should have clarified I would be considered old school in LA and not NY) speaking of…I came across some great old slides. I’ll pass them on to you when I get them scaned…

  15. Great article Rime!
    Not trying to debate or anything but seems to me that graffiti history always puts aside the 50’s Cholo writing (probably even older) from the game. Just a thought.

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  18. I’ve got a flick from 1956 of a Chicago garage with a “Gary” tag on it in cursive.
    THAT is Old School.

  19. Great post, Real interesting to read both the article and the comments. This can be said both for people and for styles, it’s funny how some people claim certain styles as being oldschool and others nwewschool. Often people doing straightletters today with the edge shines are considered to be doing oldschool pieces whereas people who do abstract letters are considered newschoolers when both styles have been around for almost as long each.

    On a personal note I’d agree with Askew, every place has it’s history and I guess those who where at the begining of that particular history would be considered oldschool in that area. After I think every 5years is a good timeline to define a new genereation of writers. I’d be a 3rd generation french writer 🙂

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  21. Im sure that sometime into the future some academic anthropologist will classify all this and it will forever be debated…in a similar way, I’ve always disliked how when you go into an art museum or gallery, they tend to classify artwork from the 60s and 70s as “contemporary” which is retarded. I dont consider Warhol a contemporary, and as the world grows and speeds up, our classification methods are becoming more and more obsolete. There are more artists than ever and it will only get harder to label hi-bread movements, eras and even harder to stand out from the rest.

    Thanks for putting this out there, I’ve always wondered about it myself.
    Much respect!

    Peru143 – Montreal, QC

  22. Thanks for all the comments regarding this topic.

    Some points I did not mention in the above article…

    Just after I spoke with Martha Cooper outside the MoCA, I met TAKI 183. We chatted for a bit, in that, he told me that he only wrote graffiti for two years and that he is unaware of much that goes on in graffiti. Besides the MoCA show TAKI told me the only other graffiti art show he went to was a recent show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The idea of writing for such a short time and inspiring so many really caught me off guard and altered the way I saw the old school definition.

    On another occasion about 10 years ago, I had chance to paint with a well respected NY writer. In conversation that night Skeme’s name came up. I said something to credit Skeme, and this writer responded by calling Skeme a “flash in the pan”. He said that Skeme was only active for 3 years and did not do as much compared to other writers who kept at it. Not sure how much of this is true, but it was the first real criticism I heard of a respected writer from that era.

    Based on the above experiences we could conclude that being “Old School” does not necessarily mean that you wrote for a long period of time, just that you were active during a certain era. It also does not mean that you are an expert on graffiti as a whole . I’m not going to dig more into it. It was just another aspect that I thought about when writing this blog post.

    • Here’s an interesting new interview with Skeme:

      Even if Skeme was active only for a short period of time, he had a pretty substantial influence. I guess I see it as the difference between how prolific a writer is, or how innovative or influential they are. An artist doesn’t have to stick with it for 30 years to make an impact. But putting in 30 years of work is, without a doubt, something that deserves respect. Being innovative or influential is also deserving of respect.

      A lot of young writers with access to the internet might say things like “I wish I was alive in the ’70s in NY, because I would be king.” This time-travel fantasy notion is based on the idea that, knowing what they know NOW, they could make a huge impact on things in the past. But time moves forward. All artists stand on the shoulders of giants. True “innovation” is dependent upon context. The writers in NYC in the ’70s didn’t have a template and they created something new (but not without precedent), and aspects of the thing that they created is still living and breathing and changing with the times.

      Is this a relevant time to say “It’s all good”?

      Noname One

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  24. Old school graffiti is “that era” in nyc. THATS when the foundation was built- or the door was opened. The term old school now is used as in describing someone/thing thats of earliest memory or teaching. If you missed the NYC subways on the early 1970s you simply missed the train on truly being labeled old school. No matter how many times or ways you write your name it wont make you any more old school. Apparently if you’re a semi-illegal artist with good internet skillz your opinion carries weight in todays age though…

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  28. Its not old school, as far New York Graffiti is concern, it’s Pioneers, Legends, Kings and Icons, all sure be respected. We are all in the smame game.

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