Graffiti

Graffiti is an often overlooked but nonetheless integral part of inner-urban culture. Graffiti has transcended the written word and has now become a cross between vandalism and art. Graffiti began to gain prominence in the mid 1970s as a series of colorful images, names and messages that were spray-painted on walls, subway trains and handball courts though it certainly did not originate then. Graffiti art is a melting pot of pop influences that draws its influence from 1960s nostalgia, music, dance, television, comic books, computer graphics and jargon.

Graffiti is as old as the history of humankind. People have been marking and making art on walls ever since cavemen. The word itself originates from the Italian verb graffiare, which means "to scratch." Written graffiti, as opposed to pictorial graffiti, originates in Western culture from the Greeks who were the first civilization to learn to write and therefore hold the distinction of being the first to express themselves graphically. Interestingly enough, many examples still remain from the Greek era, especially from the ancient Athenian marketplace. Many of these graffitiare, however, obscene.

The Romans carried on the tradition of graffiti from the Greeks. Roman graffiti mainly dealt with either sexual or scatological subjects or politics or both at the same time. A lot of Roman graffiti has been preserved in the ruins of Pompeii after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Other ancient people who engaged in graffiti include the Mayans at Tikal; Guatemala, whose graffiti can be dated back to between 100 BC and 700 AD; and the Phrygians in the area that is now central Turkey. Phrygian writings can be dated back to around 1200 BC.

The medieval period also had its own share of graffiti artists. They inscribed the walls, pillars and floors of monasteries, churches and dungeons with their graffiti. The Tower of London, especially, has quite a few grim descriptions daubed on its walls by those who were held prisoner within it. Disturbingly, some of this graffiti is written in blood.

During the 18th century, graffiti turned away from its vulgar past and a cultural blossoming took place with graffiti becoming inspired by literature and encompassing such topics such as love, insults, health and diseases. In 1731, Hurlo Thrumbo collected examples found in taverns and inns in England and published them in his book The Merry-Thought or the Glass-Window and Bog-House Miscellany. Graffiti in the 18th century was not limited to Europe and was seen across the Atlantic in the "New World." This is seen most famously in graffiti by Daniel Boone on a tree in Tennessee, which says, "D. Boon Cilled a BAR in THE YEAR 1760."

No real scholarly attention was paid to graffiti in the United States until the publication of Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America: A Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary by Allen Walker. One of his notable conclusions was the interesting difference between the traditional definition of words in the English language and the way they were actually used in common practice.

After World War II, graffiti began to evolve and become a hallmark of youth culture, which was itself undergoing a period of rapid growth. In the 1950s in America, there was growing ethnic pride and identity among different immigrant groups. Graffiti became a way of communicating between rival groups. For instance, in Los Angeles, Mexican-American gangs used graffiti to mark their territory. For the first time, graffiti became an expression of groups and not just the individual.

In the 1960s, "tagging" became popular, especially in New York City. Tagging was simply writing one's initials and a street number and this trend set off a graffiti explosion that lasted 20 years. What distinguished tagging from simple vandalism was its territorial significance and the representation of a new kind of powerful subculture of youth that had little respect for the laws of mainstream society. The popularity of tagging is generally thought to be traced back to an individual known as "TAKI 183," whose tag appeared throughout the five boroughs of New York.

The New York City authorities passed a tough anti-graffiti law in October 1972 to make it illegal to carry spray paint in a public building. The city spent $10 million a year to remove graffiti but unsurprisingly this only had the opposite effect and graffiti continued to grow. The backlash also manifested itself with rival groups competing to create the largest and most outrageous pieces in various style wars or aesthetic experiments that began to differentiate between graffiti art and graffiti. A famous piece of graffiti art from this period is the John Lennon "memorial train" created by Lady Pink and Iz the Wiz in 1981.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Painting without Permission: Hip-Hop Graffiti Subculture
Janice Rahn.
Bergin and Garvey, 2002
On the Margins of Art Worlds
Larry Gross.
Westview Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 11 "Graffiti as Public and Private Art"
Youth Crime and Youth Culture in the Inner City
Bill Sanders.
Routledge, 2005
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Graffiti, Joyriding, Vandalism"
Judging the Image: Art, Value, Law
Alison Young.
Routledge, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Written on the Skin of the City"
Handbook of American Popular Culture
M. Thomas Inge.
Greenwood Press, vol.1, 1989 (2nd Rev. edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Graffiti" begins on p. 549
Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became An Urban Crisis in New York City
Joe Austin.
Columbia University Press, 2001
European Landscapes of Rock-Art
George Nash; Christopher Chippindale.
Routledge, 2002
Political Protest and Street Art: Popular Tools for Democratization in Hispanic Countries
Lyman G. Chaffee.
Greenwood Press, 1993
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