A History of Graffiti

history of graffitiGraffiti – you see it everywhere from city streets to high school hallways. Graffiti can run the gamut from hastily scribbled tags of someone’s street name to carefully thought-out art that critiques contemporary society.

The word graffiti comes from the Italian language. “Graffiti” is actually the plural of the word “graffito.” They are both derived from the word graffio, which means “a scratch.” The original graffiti was scratched into the surface, not just painted. Ultimately, the word is derived from Greek – graphein – meaning to write, draw, or scratch. (This gives us the common word root –graph.)

Graffiti was first labeled as such in 1851 in reference to ancient inscriptions etched into the walls – that is, “scratches” – of the ruins of the city of Pompeii. The definition has since expanded to include all sorts of public art, from hastily made drawings to elaborately executed street art.

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Cave Paintings and Graffiti

Artistic expression – especially on the surfaces around us – seems to be a very old human impulse. There are instances of art dating back as far as human history goes. The earliest art – which some might call graffiti – dates back to the Paleolithic era.

The Paleolithic – or “Old Stone Age” – is the earliest era of human existence, when stone tools were used and humans took shelter in caves. This era started with the first people at an uncertain date in the distant past. The Old Stone Age continued until about 10,000 years ago. During that period, even these early humans expressed themselves artistically.

These people painted animals and abstract shapes onto the walls of their caves. The paintings’ meaning remains uncertain. Perhaps these early artists were invoking natural powers to bring about a successful hunting expedition. Perhaps they were part of a religious ceremony. Art historians debate their meaning.

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However, natural historian R. Dale Guthrie has his own unique theory. His research has concluded – based on handprints and other traces of the artists – that these artists were most often adolescent males who may have been left out of hunts and were entertaining themselves by doodling on the walls. In essence, some of the first art known to humankind was graffiti! Far from being exquisite representations of the natural world – although some paintings are indeed such – these cave paintings were more likely a way for bored kids to pass the time, Guthrie contends.

Petroglyphs – which are images etched directly into the stone – are an equally ancient form human artistic expression as cave painting. These etchings have been discovered around the world, from Australia to Africa to North America to Siberia. They may have had a use, such as historical records or astronomical notes, or they may have simply been observations.

The Ancient World

The people of the Mediterranean some two thousand years or so ago were no strangers to scribbling on walls and rocks. The distinguished Ancient Greeks, who you can learn about in this course, also gave us the first documented piece of modern graffiti. The nature of petroglyphs and cave paintings is uncertain – perhaps they were just that era’s fine art or were doodles. But in Ancient Greece, the art and the graffiti were clearly different.

This particular Ancient Greek graffito was found in Ephesus, which now lies in Turkey, on the west coast. It was apparently an advertisement for a brothel! The carving shows what seem to be a heart, a foot, a woman’s head, and money in tandem. Put those together and it’s giving you directions to a place where you can exchange money for a woman’s love. This was certainly not a carefully carved marble statue of Zeus. It was a simple scribble etched into the stone for everyday communication.

Indeed, graffiti speaks and has spoken to basic and base human impulses throughout its history. The graffiti of Ancient Rome mocked politicians, touted the author’s sexual prowess, or just simply declared “I was here.” There were the taunts and philosophical musings that you could still find on the average bathroom wall, even so many years ago. Graffiti involved words and drawings alike that were meant to evoke a response, express the artist’s opinion, claim territory, or declare one’s love for someone.

The city of Pompeii was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 CE. Scalding ash rained down from the volcano and covered the town almost instantly in a tomb that lay 15 feet deep. The town was preserved, frozen in time, and it was not rediscovered for nearly 1500 years. This ancient city – where life was halted in its tracks nearly 2000 years ago – gives us a glimpse into the lives of its inhabitants. Graffiti remains on the walls of the buildings of Pompeii. It ranges from sexual boasting to scatological quips to simple declarations that friends had visited a place.

Near the Vesuvius gate, you can read, “Marcus loves Spendusa.”

Friends declared, on the wall of a bar, “We two dear men, friends forever, were here.  If you want to know our names, they are Gaius and Aulus.”

In the basilica, you can ponder these words of wisdom: “A small problem gets larger if you ignore it.”

And, even in an age long before Internet comments, there were people chiming in on the very nature of the dialogue, such as this graffito in the basilica “O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.”

The Palace of Sigiriya

Sigiriya is an historical site in Sri Lanka. It was the capital city and royal palace of King Kasyapa from around 477-495 CE. Abandoned after the king’s death, Sigiriya was turned into a monastery. However, the monastery apparently fell on hard times and to turn open its doors to pilgrims and tourist groups in the 600’s.

Sigiriya is famed for its frescoes of beautiful women, who may have been the members of the king’s harem. We know what these long-ago tourists thought of the palace and the paintings from the graffiti they left etched in the Mirror Wall.

The Mirror Wall, now stained in deep shades of orange, was once a polished shimmering white. The wall winds its way around the face of Sigiriya Rock and runs for two hundred meters. It still stands today, some 1500 years later.

The graffiti etched into the wall was written sometime between 600 CE and 1400 CE. Over 1800 inscriptions can be seen. There are poetry (learn more with this course), commentary, and prose left behind by these visitors. Many of the graffiti examples refer to the frescoes depicting beautiful women. Others express things done, things regretted, declarations of love, or simple statements like “I was here.” These writers used Sanskrit, Sinhala, and Tamil. The visitors were presumed to be powerful and educated people based on the level of erudition in the writings.

From the ancient Mayans site of Tikal in Guatemala, to runestones of the Vikings in Scandinavia, graffiti has been found etched onto surfaces throughout history and around the globe. Writing down our thoughts and ideas – or even a simple affirmation of our presence – seems to be a universal human impulse.

Graffiti in the 20th Century

Technology has changed but human nature has not. Even in the modern era, with the advent of trains, cars, computers and more, people still scribble their graffiti onto surfaces they see.

Itinerant people – those whom some might derisively call “hobos” – who rode on freight trains in search of work used their own language of graffiti to communicate. Their symbols were simply drawn but obscure to outsiders. (Many hobos were illiterate, and also did not want their secret tips revealed, so actual words and letters were avoided.) These wanderers would scrawl their messages in coal or chalk near train yards, under bridges, or by other gathering spots. They would warn other wanderers about strict police officers in certain areas, or recommend a good place to camp in others.

The World Wars brought us the phenomenon of “Kilroy was here” – a simple doodle sometimes accompanied by words – that occurred, with variations, throughout the war arena. From the “Foo” of Australia to the “Chad” of the U.K., Kilroy graffiti abounded. Soldiers and sailors scribbled the drawing on shipments and equipment across the world. You can still find the occasional “Kilroy” drawn today.

The Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 as a way of dividing Communist East Berlin from West Berlin. The wall stood until 1989 when political liberalization started to sweep across the countries behind the Iron Curtain. Germany finally reunited in 1990.

On the east side of the wall, there was a “death strip” to deter people from approaching the wall and escaping to freedom in the West. There were trenches, guard towers, and other defenses. However, on the Western side, people were free to approach the wall. And people did approach and adorned the free side of the wall with a wild array of graffiti and street art. The east side stood stark and bare facing the “death strip” while the west side was alive with colorful commentary and self-expression.

Today, graffiti is most commonly associated with the hip-hop culture of American cities. Along with MCing events, DJing music, and hip-hop dancing, graffiti is a central part of this subculture. The origins of all of these can be traced to the Bronx, in New York City.

Tagging, a subset of graffiti, was popularized by a New York City messenger who dubbed himself TAKI 183. (“Taki” was short for his Greek name, Demetraki, and 183 was the street he lived on.) Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, during the course of his delivery work, Taki 183 would scrawl his “tag” on surfaces around the city. His name gained recognition and imitators sprang up around the world.

Graffiti style is constantly evolving; it has grown from simple bubble lettering spray-painted on a surface to skilled and esoteric lettering like wildstyle. Street artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring transformed their work into mainstream art gallery fare. The mysterious and anonymous English street artist Banksy uses spray paint and stencils to adorn walls with his creations.

Pixnit is a Boston-based anonymous street artist who uses stencils to put up her work around her hometown. “Pinxit”, the word that her name is slyly referring to, means “I painted it” in Latin. And interestingly, you will find this word adorning the walls of Pompeii as a way of saying “I wrote this” and signed to bottom of great oil paintings alike. Pixnit, with her name that harkens back to both graffiti and major artworks, is just one of the many street artists today giving graffiti gravitas and vitality.