From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"The 1983 PBS documentary Style Wars documented hip hop culture and its American roots. The film has an emphasis on graffiti, although breakdancing and rapping are covered to a lesser extent. The documentary captures many historical moments and is noted for its soundtrack, which includes Rammellzee's "Beat Bop" (1983), The Fearless Four's "Rockin' It" (1982) as well as some Richard Wagner."--Sholem Stein
Graffiti (singular: graffito; the plural is used as a mass noun) is writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place. Graffiti ranges from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings, and has existed since ancient times, with examples dating back to Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.
In modern times, paint, particularly spray paint, and marker pens have become the most commonly used graffiti materials. In most countries, marking or painting property without the property owner's consent is considered defacement and vandalism, which is a punishable crime. Graffiti may also express underlying social and political messages and a whole genre of artistic expression is based upon spray paint graffiti styles. Within hip hop culture, graffiti has evolved alongside hip hop music, b-boying, and other elements. Unrelated to hip-hop graffiti, gangs use their own form of graffiti to mark territory or to serve as an indicator of gang-related activities.
Controversies that surround graffiti continue to create disagreement amongst city officials/law enforcement and writers who wish to display and appreciate work in public locations. There are many different types and styles of graffiti and it is a rapidly developing art form whose value is highly contested, reviled by many authorities while also subject to protection, sometimes within the same jurisdiction.
The term graffiti referred to the inscriptions, figure drawings, etc., found on the walls of ancient sepulchers or ruins, as in the Catacombs of Rome or at Pompeii. Usage of the word has evolved to include any graphics applied to surfaces in a manner that constitutes vandalism.
The earliest forms of graffiti date back to 30,000 BCE in the form of prehistoric cave paintings and pictographs using tools such as animal bones and pigments. These illustrations were often placed in ceremonial and sacred locations inside of the caves. The images drawn on the walls showed scenes of animal wildlife and hunting expeditions in most circumstances. This form of graffiti is subject to disagreement considering it is likely that members of prehistoric society endorsed the creation of these illustrations.
The only known source of the Safaitic language, a form of proto-Arabic, is from graffiti: inscriptions scratched on to the surface of rocks and boulders in the predominantly basalt desert of southern Syria, eastern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia. Safaitic dates from the 1st century BCE to the 4th century CE.
The first known example of "modern style" graffiti survives in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey). Local guides say it is an advertisement for prostitution.Located near a mosaic and stone walkway, the graffiti shows a handprint that vaguely resembles a heart, along with a footprint and a number. This is believed to indicate that a brothel was nearby, with the handprint symbolizing payment.
The ancient Romans carved graffiti on walls and monuments, examples of which also survive in Egypt. Graffiti in the classical world had different connotations than it carries in today’s society concerning content. Ancient graffiti displayed phrases of love declarations, political rhetoric, and simple words of thought compared to toady's popular messages of social and political ideals.
The eruption of Vesuvius preserved graffiti in Pompeii, including Latin curses, magic spells, declarations of love, alphabets, political slogans and famous literary quotes, providing insight into ancient Roman street life. One inscription gives the address of a woman named Novellia Primigenia of Nuceria, a prostitute, apparently of great beauty, whose services were much in demand. Another shows a phallus accompanied by the text, 'mansueta tene': "Handle with care".
Disappointed love also found its way onto walls in antiquity:
- Quisquis amat. veniat. Veneri volo frangere costas
- fustibus et lumbos debilitare deae.
- Si potest illa mihi tenerum pertundere pectus
- quit ego non possim caput illae frangere fuste?
- Whoever loves, go to hell. I want to break Venus's ribs
- with a club and deform her hips.
- If she can break my tender heart
- why can't I hit her over the head?
- -CIL IV, 1284.
Historic forms of graffiti have helped gain understanding into the lifestyles and languages of past cultures. Errors in spelling and grammar in this graffiti offer insight into the degree of literacy in Roman times and provide clues on the pronunciation of spoken Latin. Examples are CIL IV, 7838: Vettium Firmum / aed[ilem] quactiliar[ii] [sic] rog[ant]. Here, "qu" is pronounced "co." The 83 pieces of graffiti found at CIL IV, 4706-85 are evidence of the ability to read and write at levels of society where literacy might not be expected. The graffiti appear on a peristyle which was being remodeled at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius by the architect Crescens. The graffiti was left by both the foreman and his workers. The brothel at CIL VII, 12, 18-20 contains over 120 pieces of graffiti, some of which were the work of the prostitutes and their clients. The gladiatorial academy at CIL IV, 4397 was scrawled with graffiti left by the gladiator Celadus Crescens (Suspirium puellarum Celadus thraex: "Celadus the Thracian makes the girls sigh.")
Another piece from Pompeii, written on a tavern wall about the owner of the establishment and his questionable wine:
- Landlord, may your lies malign
- Bring destruction on your head!
- You yourself drink unmixed wine,
- Water sell your guests instead.
It was not only the Greeks and Romans that produced graffiti: the Mayan site of Tikal in Guatemala also contains ancient examples. Viking graffiti survive in Rome and at Newgrange Mound in Ireland, and a Varangian scratched his name (Halvdan) in runes on a banister in the Hagia Sophia at Constantinople.These early forms of graffiti have contributed to the understanding of lifestyles and languages of past cultures.
Graffiti, known as Tacherons, were frequently scratched on Romanesque Scandanavaian church walls.
When Renaissance artists such as Pinturicchio, Raphael, Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio or Filippino Lippi descended into the ruins of Nero's Domus Aurea, they carved or painted their names and returned with the grottesche style of decoration. There are also examples of graffiti occurring in American history, such as Signature Rock, a national landmark along the Oregon Trail.
Later, French soldiers carved their names on monuments during the Napoleonic campaign of Egypt in the 1790s. Lord Byron's survives on one of the columns of the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion in Attica, Greece.
Decorative and high art
A 2006 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum displayed graffiti as an art form that began in New York's outer boroughs and reached great heights in the early 1980s with the work of Crash, Lee, Daze, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
It displayed 22 works by New York graffiti artists, including Crash, Daze, and Lady Pink. In an article about the exhibition in the magazine, Time Out, curator Charlotta Kotik said that she hoped the exhibition would cause viewers to rethink their assumptions about graffiti. Terrance Lindall, an artist and executive director of the Williamsburg Art and Historic Center, said regarding graffiti and the exhibition:
"Graffiti is revolutionary, in my opinion", he says, "and any revolution might be considered a crime. People who are oppressed or suppressed need an outlet, so they write on walls—it's free."
In Australia, art historians have judged some local graffiti of sufficient creative merit to rank them firmly within the arts. Oxford University Press's art history text Australian Painting 1788–2000 concludes with a long discussion of graffiti's key place within contemporary visual culture, including the work of several Australian practitioners.
Many graffiti artists have used their design talents in other artistic endeavors. In 2009 graffiti artist "Scape" published GRAFF; the Art & Technique of Graffiti, the world's first book dedicated to displaying the full techniques of creating graffiti art. Other books that focus on graffiti include Faith of Graffiti by Norman Mailer, Trespass by Taschen press, and the comic book by Elite Gudz, Concrete Immortalz, which has a graffiti artist as its main character.
Figurines by KAWS, featuring icons of pop culture, often with crossed-out eyes, run in limited editions and sell for thousands of dollars. World-renowned street artist Banksy directed a film in 2010, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which explored street art and commercialism.
- Anti-graffiti coating
- Graffiti abatement
- Graffiti terminology
- Kilroy was here
- Spray paint art
- Street art
- Visual pollution
- Yarn bombing
- Graffiti post 2011 Egyptian Revolution