In 79AD, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii under countless tons of volcanic ash, instantly extinguishing the lives of the inhabitants but also preserving the ancient city until it was rediscovered in 1748 by a Spanish engineer. On the walls of this ancient city, archaeologists discovered some of the earliest examples of graffiti, including a touchingly crude paean to the broken hearted which read: “Who ever loves, go to hell, I want to break Venus’s ribs with a club.”

Since time immemorial, man has felt the compulsion to elucidate his Freudian id and pour the inner mechanics of his consciousness onto the public walls of those edifices to civilisation known as cities. And whether the motivation was political, such as the graffiti that emerged after the May 1968 student protests in Paris, or a signifier of a broader cultural evolution, such as the graffiti that accompanied the emergence of the hip-hop scene in New York in the early 1980s, it has always been one of the most visceral methods of artistic communication.

In 2015, Harlem-born graffiti artist JonOne was commissioned to paint a mural entitled Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – based on Eugène Delacroix’s famous Liberty Leading the People – for the Palais Bourbon, the seat of the French National Assembly. Conspicuously on the wrist of this artist was none other than a Richard Mille RM 005. When asked about it, he replied simply: “It’s the only watch I’ve ever wanted and it was a dream come true when I got it.”

A MILLE A MINUTE

There is no greater iconoclast in Swiss high watchmaking than Frenchman Mille, and this year Richard Mille integrates the universe of street art into that of the artisanally made high complication. The RM 68-01 is a collaboration with graffiti artist Cyril Kongo. Through a chance encounter, Richard Mille and Kongo were immediately charmed by one another. Mille said: “We soon began to discuss whether it was possible to use a watch movement as the canvas for his painting.”

Kongo realised that he would have to develop new technology to be able to integrate his work within the dimension of a watch. He explained: “It took the development of special tools and a year of experimentation for me to be capable of painting on a watch some 5cm square. Certain pieces were barely a few millimeters long, some even smaller, and I had to put the lettering directly on them, enough for the visual effect but without using much paint so as to avoid throwing off the balance of the movement.”

Mille said: “Once Kongo was able to achieve his micro-painting, I decided that the movement should reflect the energy of his street art. That’s why the bridges of the movement arc in different directions like the wild paint strokes seen in graffiti and why, from the back, the central form of the base plate radiates outwards like paint thrown against a wall. To me the movement had to bring additional energy to Kongo’s painting. There had to be this artistic synergy between the painting and themechanics.”

But Richard Mille is by no means the first to blend the worlds of graffiti and horology, joining a long list of watchmakers to collaborate with graffiti artists.

KAWS AND EFFECT

One of the most recent came to fruition in 2012, after avant-garde watchmaker Ikepod enlisted the help of KAWS – a.k.a. New Jersey-born artist and designer Brian Donnelly – to produce the Horizon by KAWS. Priced at $14,000 and available in four different colourways, the 44mm wristwatch incorporates the emblematic criss-cross and rounded three-dimensional cartoonish shapes found throughout much of the artist’s portfolio of work. Successfully producing not only a desirable and interesting watch horologically-speaking, but also an exemplary piece of applied art.

Hublot has forged a relationship with LA-based French graffiti artist Mr Brainwash, which has seen him visit the factory, create Hublot themed artwork, participate in events and store openings and also customise a Hublot Big Bang Unico 45. As a keen advocate of brand ambassadors in general, Hublot Chairman Jean-Claude Biver says on the subject of urban artists and his company: “We wanted street artists first…they are young, disruptive and different..disruptive is, for me, very important. ”

But street art collaborations are not confined to the haute horlogerie club. Casio G-Shock is a trailblazer in the field of collaborations, producing watches with everyone from Wu-Tang Clan to the RAF and welcoming more than a few graffiti artists into the fold along the way. Most recently Futura (formerly know as Futura 2000) has joined forces with the brand to produce a limited-edition G-Shock – their third project together.

Described by Interview magazine as a “pioneer” of street art, Futura’s formative graffiti years were spent as part of the 1970s New York subway graffiti scene. In 1981 he painted backdrops live on stage with The Clash during their European tour – a primary introduction to contemporary graffiti for many Europeans. During the 1980s he transitioned into the sphere of mainstream art, exhibiting his work in shows alongside that of contemporaries such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Futura’s latest G-Shock – the GD-160 X6900FTR-1 – bears his signature atom pattern, which incidentally was inspired by the logo of a household-cleaning product called Future Floor Wax that he first saw as a teenager.

FANTASTIC PLASTIC

Swatch has a long-standing connection to the contemporary art world, and has produced more watches in collaboration with graffiti artists (and artists in general for that matter) than any other brand. One of the most memorable mash-ups resulted in the Keith Haring Swatches and featured his “graphic, cartoon- like figures and poppy colours”. More contemporary examples include that of Parisan artist Fafi – featuring an original illustration of one of her signature Fafinette characters on the dial and strap – and Bordeaux native graffiti artist and rapper Grems, which feature illustrations and slogans in graffiti-inspired typography and style throughout the dial, strap and case.

Fellow French graffiti artist Tilt participated in a three-way collaboration with Swatch (naturally) and collectable art-toy creator Kidrobot. The Swatch-Love Song proudly displays Tilt’s hallmark brightly coloured “bubble” letters spelling out lyrics from the 1980s French rock band Telescope. According to the PR blurb, the timepiece details “the story of a man who wants to go to NYC with the girl he loves”. It was also supplied with a Kidrobot gurine produced in a matching print.

Continuing the theme of three-way collaborations, last year Parmigiani Fleurier – in partnership with renowned Parisian boutique Colette – offered a collection of watches with dials featuring designs by André Saraiva. Called the Tonda 1950 Colette Special Edition, a total of 11 different models were available. As well as the expected Parmigiani, Colette and André Saraiva signatures, each watch featured either the words “New York”, “Paris” or “Love” daubed onto the dial in a graffiti-esque style. Saraiva has also previously worked with Parmigiani on the Ovale Mister A, another limited edition comprising 10 pieces, featuring motifs synonymous with Saraiva’s graffiti on the dial.

UNDER THE RADAR

It does not always take a brand’s invitation for a graffiti artist to use a watch as a canvas. In the graffiti spirit of leaving one’s mark on existing surroundings, several graffiti artists have taken it upon themselves to customise existing timepieces. In-vogue artist Alec Monopoly (who, indecently, is a keen watch collector) has modified a number of Rolexes.

Brooklyn-based “post-graffiti” artist José Parlá – in collaboration with eminent watch customiser George Bamford and his eponymous company Bamford Watch Department – customised an Explorer I. Luxury online retailer Moda Operandi sold a Cartier Panthère commissioned by Foundwell, on which Travis W. Simon had painted the phrase “FUCK 9-5” across the dial in a manner reminiscent of a graf ti tag. And a 1960s Patek Philippe dome clock, hand-painted by John “Crash” Matos, was sold by Antiquorum in 2012 for $30,000 – in 2013 an unadulterated version sold for $8,669 at the same auction house.

Although not a product of modern metropolitan graffiti culture, the influence of graffiti and urban art on watches can even be found in Breitling. The Kevin Kelly artwork used throughout their stores, promotional material, marketing and a few of their watch casebacks, draw inspiration from the “nose art” found on Second World War military aircraft. These expressive paintings, applied by servicemen to their aeroplanes, for purely decorative and whimsical reasons, were by definition a form of graffiti. Kelly said of his work with Breitling: “I’m really proud… they’ve been a great client and patron. It’s pretty neat.”

From walls to aeroplanes, to timepieces and everything in between, when it comes to graffiti any surface is a canvas. And the offerings from the combined spheres of horology and street art are some of the most interesting and accomplished.