This is one of those subjects, a little like Marmite, you either love Graffiti? Or you hate it. But when does graffiti stop being vandalism, and start being art ? This got me thinking about my local graffiti, and the history and meaning of this popular sub-culture.
A Brief history….
The word “graffiti” comes from the Greek “Graphein” meaning to write, draw or scratch. This then gives us the common root word – graph. Now, the word Graffiti, originates from the Italian language, and is actually a plural of the word “graffito“. These are both derived from the word “graffio” which means “a scratch” and it was the original graffiti that was “scratched” (not painted), into the surfaces of walls in ancient Greece, Pompeii to be precise. (keeping up? Good.)
Graffiti was first labelled like this in 1851, with reference to inscriptions “scratched” onto the walls in Pompeii. The definition has since grown to include all sorts of public “art” from hastily written tags, to the more time-consuming , elaborate murals. Artistic expression seems to be an old human impulse, especially on the surfaces surrounding us. Trees, walls, pavements etc. Some of the oldest art/graffiti dates back to Paleolithic times.
Picture courtesy of Ancient history encyclopaedia
Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Paleolithic, or “Old Stone Age” is the earliest era of human existence, where stone tools were made and used, and its people took shelter in caves. This “Old stone age” continued until about 10,000 years ago, and included the impulsion to express themselves artistically. They painted animals and abstract shapes onto the walls of their caves. The meanings are uncertain and arguments continue to this day about the meanings.
Personally, I think they were used to tell stories.
(like this scene in Ice age 🙂 )
However, natural historian, R. Dale Guthrie, has his own unique theory.
Based on handprints and other traces of the artists, he has concluded that the artists were often adolescent males, who may have been left out of hunts. They made these paintings as a way of entertainment, not unlike the adolescents of today. So you could say, that some of the first art known to humans, was in fact Graffiti.
O.K, O.K. If you live in a beautiful climate, like the people of the Paleolithic (granted it was kinda dangerous, what with the crazy predators) and the Med, what is there to be bored about?! It would seem that it grew into more of an expression of self and communication, than a means to pass time.
The Ancient Greeks started it as a way to advertise.
The people of the Mediterranean, some 2000 years ago, were no strangers to scribbling on walls and rocks. But these were different. One particular piece of greek graffiti was found in Ephesus (which now lies in Turkey) and was apparently an advertisement for a brothel!
The carving shows what seems to be a heart, a foot, a woman’s head and money. When you put those together, it is giving directions to a place you could exchange money for a woman’s ” Love” (hmm, go Figure?!) Granted ,this wasn’t exactly a beautiful carved piece of marble, in the shape of an Adonis, but a simple scribble, etched into stone for communication.
( this is maybe not true… but you get the idea )
The city of Pompeii, as we all know, was frozen in time by Mount Vesuvius blowing her top, preserving the city in a layer of ash, 15 feet thick. The graffiti found on these walls, range from sexual boasting to simple declarations that friends had visited a place.
In the Basilica you can ponder the words “A small problem gets larger if you ignore it” (typically ancient Greek…)
Graffiti speaks and has spoken to basic human impulses throughout history. Ancient Rome’s graffiti mocked politicians, and simply declared “I was here” (some things never change #YK17 ) So throughout human history, Graffiti has been a way of provoking a response, expressing opinions, claiming territory or declaring love.
writing down our thoughts and ideas or even a simple affirmation of our presence seems to be a universal impulse.
The 20th Century…
So what about graffiti today? Well, it turns out, just because technology has changed and evolved, human nature hasn’t( huh? you don’t say?). People still have an impulsion to scribble their graffiti onto surfaces they see. Think about the last public loo you went to and brad declared his love for Janice, or the last train you were on where “Soph Woz ‘ere”
Graffiti is most commonly associated with the hip-hop culture of America. Along with MC’ing, DJ’ing and dancing, graffiti is a central part of its sub culture. The origins of all these are traced to the Bronx in N.Y.
“TAKI183” popularised a subset of graffiti, “tagging”. He was messenger who dubbed himself “TAKI183” by shortening his actual Greek name, Demetraki, and the street he lived on, 183. Throughout the 60’s and 70′ he would scrawl his “tag” on surfaces around the city. His name gained recognition and, as usual, imitators popped up everywhere, including Britain
Pictures courtesy of Widewalls.ch
Street art could be the most important phenomenon in the history of art itself. Consider the fact that there practically, isn’t an urban space, without pieces of street art. The supermarket, school hallways, bus stops, you name it if there’s a blank space, there’s gonna be art…Graffiti…Art?!
Manchester, Birmingham, London, Bristol etc, have started developing distinctive styles which could shape the street art scene of Europe. It started in the 80’s with car paint being the only form of media widely available. It coincided with the hip-hop and electro music movement on the radio.
Here in England, the line between vandalism and art has been blurred, with the likes of Banksy making millions, but remaining anonymous. Thus, adding to the mystery and allure of Graffiti as an art form. The ability to express controversial opinions, with little repercussion has an intriguing, vigilante feel to it. This makes Graffiti so fascinating and popular.
Other British graffiti artists include Smug, Aroe, Dave Bonzai, Remi Rough, Tizer ID, (I could go on) all have differing approaches to their art.
Art or Vandalism, that is the question..
Many people have varied opinions about Graffiti. If someone came and painted on your house without permission, you would be narked and would class that as vandalism. But would you feel the same if you saw a breathtaking piece of graffiti art on a dull wall in the city? The authorities probably wouldn’t care that it was the next undiscovered Picasso, if it was on an owned property, it’s still vandalism. So, is graffiti art if it’s done legally and with consent? and does the fact that it has been given permission take the excitement and meaning out of graffiti, thus rendering it vandalism?
Personally: I see nothing wrong with a beautiful mural, covering what would otherwise be a dowdy, grey, urban jungle. It can showcase raw talent and gives people a means of communication that they may otherwise struggle with.
Locally, there is a place where artists go and create murals, remembering loved ones, and to stand up for the things that they believe. I have nothing against art of any kind, and graffiti, like it or lump it, will be around for generations.
Take a look at some of the art from my town.
What do you think? should artists be prosecuted for creating art? whats the graffiti like where you live?
P.S I would just like to point out that most of this information came from some websites off of the internet. I do not claim the rights to any of this information.i just did my research 🙂 You can find more information about this subject by clicking these links: