From ancient tombs to city walls, the history of graffiti is a rare and valuable glimpse into everyday human life through the ages.
The story of graffiti is as old as when humans decided to band together and live in villages. The need to leave a mark, to say, “I was here,” can be found in Egyptian tombs, on the walls of the ancient city of Pompeii preserved in lava, in medieval churches. The American soldiers who stormed Europe during WWII left their famous “Kilroy was here” cartoon. Graffiti is found in almost every town or city today.
Graffiti can be made with mud, fingernail scratches, pens, stickers, house paint and, of course, spray paint. When most people think of graffiti, they remember images of 1970s and ’80s New York City buildings and trains plastered in calligraphic-style lettering and pop culture icons like Mickey Mouse. That visual extension of hip-hop culture was a way that kids living in poverty could express themselves and tell stories of the world they lived in.
The legal arguments around graffiti are many, but the artistic skill and importance of community images in a media-saturated world often overrun the criminalizing of the art. Bad art is bad art, and an amateur tag could be either an artist on their way to real craft or a good reason for graffiti to have limits.
Some of the earliest preserved graffiti is found in the Greek city of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey. Scratched into the ground, it shows images of a hand, heart and number that indicated how many steps to the nearest prostitute.
In the ancient city of Pompeii, Romans tried to outdo the classic erotic poetry of Catullus and Ovid with marks that say, “Restitutus says: ‘Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates.’”
Outside the history books, which often just paint the rulers and winners of wars, graffiti tells us about the lives and inner worlds of the everyday person. Recent medieval scholarship has been devoted to studying graffiti scratchings in churches, since almost no other written records by everyday folks have survived.
Medieval graffiti shares the religious fervor that hung over most of that time with depictions of churches, demons and angels.
Many artists traveling to study masters of the Renaissance left their names on the places they visited.
In 1754 the French sculptor Augustin Pajou left his elegant signature on the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s villa.
The old-school carving of a heart with two lovers’ initials and a + sign into a tree has the technical name of arboglyph, and examples have survived from the 19th-century Basque immigrants who settled in Nevada.
The story of modern graffiti is also a love story, one that set in motion generations of artists and would be sheer expressions of individuals outside cityscapes dominated by billboards. During the 1950s and ’60s an influx of immigrants from South America fled brutal dictatorships, and a great wave of Southern Black sharecroppers headed to the East Coast in search of better jobs, better schools and better lives. The realities of urban life didn’t always match their dreams, and while the civil rights movement pushed for more equality, city infrastructures began to fall apart.
In 1967, a young Darryl McCray moved to a new school in Philly. He fell in love with a beautiful girl named Cynthia. To get her attention he began writing “Cornbread loves Cynthia” on desks, lockers, walls, buildings and finally an airplane that carried the Jackson 5 into town for a show. That’s where American graffiti begins: with a love story.
Soon kids, some young teenagers, began drafting images of the diversity, pop culture and inner tensions onto buildings, subway cars, trains and buses. As hip-hop gained fans with the Manhattan gallery in the late ’70s and early ’80s, graffiti became a fluid, dynamic inspiration for younger artists who didn’t relate to the organized and static images that gallery mafiosos like Andy Warhol pioneered.
A train by one of the most famous graffiti crews, the Fab 5, who painted 10 train cars in New York in the 1970s.
In 1977 a young Jean-Michel Basquiat, the son of Haitian and Puerto Rican immigrants, began tagging the streets of New York with provocative statements signed by Samo (pronounced same-o). Samo quickly became a name around town and was a free way for Basquiat to advertise his artwork in one of the most competitive art markets in the history of the world. (Remember Basquiat’s Samo, because it appears again in the history of graffiti.) Basquiat became one of the most celebrated painters of the late 20th century and collaborated with Warhol extensively at the end of their lives.
Graffiti culture evolved and took on a new set of skills and challenges. Competition is a hallmark of the art of graffiti, and as artists created increasingly elaborate designs to one-up each other, the number of people needed to quickly get the illegal work done rose. Teams assembled to “kobra” (create masterpieces) on trains crossing America from coast to coast, with elaborate colorful displays that sent messages through every little town in the heartland to the inner cities where trains delivered their goods.
Graffiti was still stereotyped as “low culture” by most cities. As racial profiling and the “war on drugs” intensified in the ’80s, graffiti became a script affiliated with gangsta rap. In 1989 images of André the Giant’s face with the word “Obey” began appearing across the nation. It seemed like an official advertising campaign, but no one was sure who the messenger was. Shepard Fairey, a student at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, was the author, and much like Basquiat, it landed him in a career as a fine and outsider artist. Fairey would go on to create former President Barack Obama’s red, white and blue Hope campaign poster. Much like the Will I. Am anthem “Yes We Can,” the poster gave street cred to the legal scholar who was soon to hold the highest seat in the land.
Street mural by Shepard Fairey, who also created the André the Giant “Obey” and Barack Obama “Hope” images.
Graffiti has always had a political edge, since it’s the voice of the unheard and in some states a felony. The worldwide impact of statements became noticed with the rise of the anonymous superstar artist Banksy. Banksy is known for creating powerful statements about war, poverty and inequality and for placing his work in dangerous but symbolic places like Israel’s West Bank wall. He often incorporates the textures and place of each surface he works on with spray paint and paste-ups he makes in advance.
Graffiti and the culture surrounding it are celebrated in metropolitan cities around the world like Barcelona, Paris, Melbourne, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and even New York. The lines between murals and street art are becoming blurred with annual celebrations of city-endorsed graffiti like Colorado Crush in Denver, Forest for the Trees in Portland, Open Walls in Baltimore and Living Walls in Atlanta.
The debate over whether graffiti is a menace to society is diminishing. The generations who first drew graffiti in the US’s golden age of hip-hop and grew up with it are now in the driver’s seat, and they understand the value and beauty of a chorus of voices to a culture. As scholars also document and preserve the voices of the past and show how graffiti is an important document of human history, the conclusion seems clear: we need graffiti and it’s here to stay.