The Geography of Graffiti


“Two things I hate: graffiti and hypocrites” (graffiti on the door of a men’s room in Ellison Hall, UCSB).

Graffiti is writing or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface, often in a public place. Graffiti ranges from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings, and it has existed since ancient times, with examples dating back to Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire. Both “graffiti” and its occasional singular form “graffito” are from the Italian word graffiato (“scratched”). “Graffiti” is applied in art history to works of art produced by scratching a design into a surface. A related term is “sgraffito”, which involves scratching through one layer of pigment to reveal another beneath it. This technique was primarily used by potters who would glaze their wares and then scratch a design into it. In ancient times graffiti were carved on walls with a sharp object, although sometimes chalk or coal were used. The word originates from Greek γράφειν — graphein — meaning “to write.” (Wikipedia: Graffiti).

The term, graffiti, referred to the inscriptions, figure drawings, and such, found on the walls of ancient sepulchers or ruins, as in the Catacombs of Rome or at Pompeii. Use of the word has evolved to include any graphics applied to surfaces in a manner that constitutes vandalism. 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 (Ibid.).

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 today’s popular messages of social and political ideals. The eruption of Vesuvius preserved graffiti in Pompeii, which includes 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” (Ibid.).

Ancient tourists visiting the 5th century citadel at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka scribbled over 1800 individual graffiti there between 6th and 18th centuries. Etched on the surface of the Mirror Wall they contain pieces of prose, poetry, and commentary. The majority of these visitors appear to have been from the elite of society: royalty, officials, professions, and clergy. There were also soldiers, archers, and even some metalworkers. The topics range from love to satire, curses, wit, and lament. Many demonstrate a very high level of literacy and a deep appreciation of art and poetry. Most of the graffiti refers to the Sigiriya Frescoes of semi-nude females found there (Ibid.).

Among the ancient political graffiti examples were Arab satirist poems. Yazid al-Himyari, an Umayyad Arab and Persian poet, was most known for writing his political poetry on the walls between Sajistan and Basra, manifesting a strong hatred towards the Umayyad regime and its walis, and people used to read and circulate them very widely (Ibid.).

Historic forms of graffiti have helped gain understanding into the lifestyles and languages of past cultures. Errors in spelling and grammar in these graffiti offer insight into the degree of literacy in Roman times and provide clues on the pronunciation of spoken Latin. It was not only the Greeks and Romans who 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 (Ibid.).

Present-day graffiti, “the style of urban graffiti that most people have seen and know about, the kind that uses spraycans, came from New York City in the late 1960s, and was born on the subway trains. Taki 183, who lived on 183rd street in Washington Heights, worked as a messenger who traveled all throughout the city. While he did so, he would use a marker and write his name wherever he went, at subway stations and also the insides and outsides of subway cars. Eventually, he became known all throughout the city as this mysterious figure. In 1971, he was interviewed for an article by the New York Times. Kids all over New York, realizing the fame and notoriety that could be gained from “tagging” their names on subway cars (that traveled all over the city, naturally) began to emulate Taki 183. The goal was to “get up” (using the slang of the day), to have one’s name in as many places as possible, and as kids competed against each other to get famous, the amount of graffiti on trains exploded” (source).

“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 and reviled by many authorities, while also subject to protection, sometimes within the same jurisdiction” (Wikipedia, op. cit.).

Today, graffiti, in many of its guises, has begun to be regarded as a contemporary art form which has brought commercial success to many aspiring ‘street artists.’ One such artist, Frank Fairey, distinguishes between graffiti as art and graffiti as vandalism by saying, “It’s about the use of public space and the dynamics of public space, about what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed. The criteria wasn’t necessarily aesthetic…more about what facilitated commerce and what didn’t, not what looked good” (source). “Graffiti is revolutionary, in my opinion, 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” (Terrance Lindall, an artist and executive director of the Williamsburg Art and Historic Center; quotation cited in Wikipedia: Graffiti).

Article by Bill Norrington. For more on the subject, see the November 13, 2008 article, titled “Wheatpasting and Psycho-Geography,” which was written by Ryan Goode, a PhD candidate in the UCSB-SDSU Joint PhD Program.

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Ancient Pompeii graffito caricature of a politician (Wikipedia: Graffiti)

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The cultural historian R. Dale Guthrie theorizes that Paleolithic cave paintings also qualify as graffiti. “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” (https://www.udemy.com/blog/history-of-graffiti/; picture of the Altamira bison is from Wikipedia: Cave painting)

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“The most recognized contemporary street artists include the likes of Banksy and Shepard Fairey. Banksy, who uses stencils in his street art, recently took the media by storm during his self-proclaimed month-long artist’s residency in New York City, where his works and social experiments drew hordes of fans, the ire of politicians, and intense media scrutiny regarding issues surrounding the nature of graffiti. This, in turn, sparked national dialogue concerning larger structural questions, such as what constitutes art, what is public and what is private, and a variety of other sociopolitical issues. Banksy’s unique vision, self-referential style, and examination of the hypocritical capital “A” Arts scene, can be viewed in the award-winning documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)” (http://crln.acrl.org/content/75/4/208.full). “Hammer Boy” was Banksy’s 20th installment in New York, located on the Upper West Side, October 2013 (Wikipedia: Better Out Than In)

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Frank Shepard Fairey (born February 15, 1970) is an American contemporary street artist, graphic designer activist and illustrator who emerged from the skateboarding scene. He first became known for his “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” (…OBEY…) sticker campaign, in which he appropriated images from the comedic supermarket tabloid Weekly World News. He became widely known during the 2008 U.S. presidential election for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston calls him one of today’s best known and most influential street artists. His work is included in the collections at The Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (Wikipedia: Shepard Fairy)