“Graffiti” (both singular and plural) is writing or drawings on a wall or other surface, usually without permission and within public view. Graffiti has existed since ancient times, with examples dating back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire. Graffiti often has a reputation as part of a subculture that rebels against authority.
“Graffiti” is from the Italian word graffiato, meaning “scratched.” Art history describes it as works of art produced by scratching a design into a surface. In ancient times graffiti were carved on walls with a sharp object, or chalk or coal. Today, spray paint and marker pens are commonly used.
Graffiti may be art, but it is also controversial. In most countries, marking property without permission is considered vandalism, a punishable crime. It is seen as a growing urban “problem” for many cities. On the other hand, graffiti artists, particularly those with no access to mainstream media, continue to display their art or political views in public locations.
Territorial graffiti marks urban neighborhoods with tags and logos to differentiate groups from each other. These images show whose turf is whose. Gang members use graffiti to designate membership throughout the gang.
Ancient graffiti displayed love declarations, political rhetoric, and simple messages, whereas today’s popular subjects are social and political ideals. One example of graffiti survives in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey). Local guides say it is an advertisement for prostitution.
Ancient tourists visiting the 5th-century citadel at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka scribbled over 1800 individual graffiti there between the 6th and 18th centuries. Etched on the surface of the Mirror Wall, they contain prose, poetry, and commentary. Most of these visitors appear to have been the elite of society, but some were soldiers, archers, and metalworkers.
Guatemala contains examples of ancient Maya graffiti. 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. Such early graffiti have contributed to the understanding of lifestyles and languages of past cultures.
The oldest known example of modern graffiti are the “monikers” created by hobos and rail workers on train cars since the late 1800s. During World War II and after, the phrase “Kilroy was here” with an accompanying drawing was widespread throughout the world, due to its use by American troops and ultimately filtering into American popular culture.
With the popularity and legitimization of graffiti has come a level of commercialization. In 2001, computer giant IBM launched an advertising campaign in Chicago and San Francisco which involved people spray painting on sidewalks.
Banksy is one of the world’s most notorious and popular street artists who continues to remain faceless in today’s society. He is known for his political, anti-war stencil art mainly in Bristol, England. Banksy’s art is a prime example of the classic controversy: vandalism vs. art. Art supporters endorse his work distributed in urban areas as pieces of art and some councils, such as Bristol and Islington, have officially protected them, while officials of other areas have deemed his work to be vandalism and have removed it.
A tattoo could be regarded as a legitimate form of graffiti. What message do I send if I have a rose tattooed on my ankle?