Graffitiare writing or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or painted illicitly on a wall or other surface, often within public view. Graffitiism is a social and cultural event spread throughout the planet, based on the expression of creativity through pictorial interventions on the urban fabric. Graffiti range from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings, and they have existed since ancient times, with examples dating back to Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire.
Every graffiti artist, whatever his inclination and origin, researches and studies a personal evolution, to arrive at a style of his own in such a way as to distinguish himself from others and be more praised.Over the years, many artists have however matured new creative tendencies for which, while maintaining roots in graffiti writing, they have managed to trespass into typography, design, clothing, contaminating the typical style of the ’80s with more rational and close ideals to the graphics. There is talk of artistic trends “post-graffiti” in particular referring to street art, and Graffiti Design for influences now evident in advertising techniques and fashion. In modern times, paint (particularly spray paint) and marker pens have become the most commonly used graffiti materials. It is possible to affirm that many artists now integrated into the conventional system of the art market, derive their value from previous experiences that are often formally illegal.
In most countries, marking or painting property without the property owner’s permission is considered defacement and vandalism, which is a punishable crime. 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; 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.
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 have 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.
The term graffiti referred to the inscriptions, figure drawings, and such, found on the walls of ancient sepulchres 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.
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 they carry 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”).
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 refer to the frescoes of semi-nude females found there.
Literacy or illiteracy often revealed in graffiti
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 Maya site of Tikal in 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. These early forms of graffiti have contributed to the understanding of lifestyles and languages of past cultures.
Graffiti, known as Tacherons, were frequently scratched on Romanesque Scandinavian church walls. When Renaissance artists such as Pinturicchio, Raphael, Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio, or Filippino Lippi descended into the ruins of Nero’s Domus Aurea, they carved or painted their names and returned to initiate the grottesche style of decoration.
There are also examples of graffiti occurring in American history, such as Independence Rock, a national landmark along the Oregon Trail.
Later, French soldiers carved their names on monuments during the Napoleonic campaign of Egypt in the 1790s. Lord Byron’s survives on one of the columns of the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion in Attica, Greece.
Graffiti writing is often seen as having become intertwined with hip hop culture and the myriad international styles derived from Philadelphia and New York City Subway graffiti. However, there are many other instances of notable graffiti in the twentieth century. Graffiti have long appeared on building walls, in latrines, railroad boxcars, subways, and bridges. The example with the longest known history, dating back to the 1920s and continuing into the present day, is Bozo Texino.
Some graffiti have their own poignancy. In World War II, an inscription on a wall at the fortress of Verdun was seen as an illustration of the US response twice in a generation to the wrongs of the Old World:
During World War II and for decades after, the phrase “Kilroy was here” with an accompanying illustration was widespread throughout the world, due to its use by American troops and ultimately filtering into American popular culture. Shortly after the death of Charlie Parker (nicknamed “Yardbird” or “Bird”), graffiti began appearing around New York with the words “Bird Lives”. The student protests and general strike of May 1968 saw Paris bedecked in revolutionary, anarchistic, and situationist slogans such as L’ennui est contre-révolutionnaire (“Boredom is counterrevolutionary”) expressed in painted graffiti, poster art, and stencil art. At the time in the US, other political phrases (such as “Free Huey” about Black Panther Huey Newton) became briefly popular as graffiti in limited areas, only to be forgotten. A popular graffito of the 1970s was the legend “Dick Nixon Before He Dicks You”, reflecting the hostility of the youth culture to that US president.
Advent of aerosol paint
Rock and roll graffiti is a significant subgenre. A famous graffito of the twentieth century was the inscription in the London tube reading “Clapton is God” in a link to the guitarist Eric Clapton. The phrase was spray-painted by an admirer on a wall in an Islington station on the Underground in the autumn of 1967. The graffito was captured in a photograph, in which a dog is urinating on the wall.
Graffiti also became associated with the anti-establishment punk rock movement beginning in the 1970s. Bands such as Black Flag and Crass (and their followers) widely stenciled their names and logos, while many punk night clubs, squats, and hangouts are famous for their graffiti. In the late 1980s the upside down Martini glass that was the tag for punk band Missing Foundation was the most ubiquitous graffito in lower Manhattan, and was copied by hard core punk fans throughout the US and West Germany.
Spread of hip hop culture
In 1979, graffiti artist Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy were given a gallery opening in Rome by art dealer Claudio Bruni. For many outside of New York, it was their first encounter with their art form. Fab 5 Freddy’s friendship with Debbie Harry influenced Blondie’s single “Rapture” (Chrysalis, 1981), the video of which featured Jean-Michel Basquiat, and offered many their first glimpse of a depiction of elements of graffiti in hip hop culture. JaJaJa toured Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Holland with a large graffiti canvas as a backdrop. Charlie Ahearn’s independently released fiction film Wild Style (Wild Style, 1983), the early PBS documentary Style Wars (1983), hit songs such as “The Message” and “Planet Rock” and their accompanying music videos (both 1982) contributed to a growing interest outside New York in all aspects of hip hop.
Style Wars depicted not only famous graffiti artists such as Skeme, Dondi, MinOne, and ZEPHYR, but also reinforced graffiti’s role within New York’s emerging hip-hop culture by incorporating famous early break-dancing groups such as Rock Steady Crew into the film and featuring rap in the soundtrack. Although many officers of the New York City Police Department found this film to be controversial, Style Wars is still recognized as the most prolific film representation of what was going on within the young hip hop culture of the early 1980s. Fab 5 Freddy and Futura 2000 took hip hop graffiti to Paris and London as part of the New York City Rap Tour in 1983. Hollywood also paid attention, consulting writers such as PHASE 2 as it depicted the culture and gave it international exposure in movies such as Beat Street (Orion, 1984).
Stencil graffiti emerges
This period also saw the emergence of the new stencil graffiti genre. Some of the first examples were created in 1981 by graffiti artist Blek le Rat in Paris, in 1982 by Jef Aerosol in Tours (France); by 1985 stencils had appeared in other cities including New York City, Sydney, and Melbourne, where they were documented by American photographer Charles Gatewood and Australian photographer Rennie Ellis.
Graffiti as a memorial
People often leave their traces in wet cement or concrete. This type of graffito often commemorates the mutual commitment of a couple, or simply records a person’s presence at a particular moment. Often this type of graffito is dated and is left untouched for decades, offering a look into local historical minutiae.
Commercialization and entrance into mainstream pop 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 a peace symbol, a heart, and a penguin (Linux mascot), to represent “Peace, Love, and Linux.” Due to laws forbidding it, some of the “street artists” were arrested and charged with vandalism, and IBM was fined more than US$120,000 for punitive damages and clean-up costs.
In 2005, a similar ad campaign was launched by Sony and executed by TATS CRU in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami, to market its handheld PSP gaming system. In this campaign, taking notice of the legal problems of the IBM campaign, Sony paid building owners for the rights to paint on their buildings “a collection of dizzy-eyed urban kids playing with the PSP as if it were a skateboard, a paddle, or a rocking horse”.
Along with the commercial growth has come the rise of video games also depicting graffiti, usually in a positive aspect – for example, the Jet Set Radio series (2000–2003) tells the story of a group of teens fighting the oppression of a totalitarian police force that attempts to limit the graffiti artists’ freedom of speech. In plotlines mirroring the negative reaction of non-commercial artists to the commercialization of the art form by companies such as IBM (and, later, Sony itself) the Rakugaki Ōkoku series (2003–2005) for Sony’s PlayStation 2 revolves around an anonymous hero and his magically imbued-with-life graffiti creations as they struggle against an evil king who only allows art to be produced which can benefit him. Following the original roots of modern graffiti as a political force came another game title, Marc Eckō’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure (2006), featuring a story line involving fighting against a corrupt city and its oppression of free speech, as in the Jet Set Radio series.
Graffiti have become a common stepping stone for many members of both the art and design communities in North America and abroad.
Methods and production
The modern-day graffiti artist can be found with an arsenal of various materials that allow for a successful production of a piece. This includes such techniques as scribing. However, spray paint in aerosol cans is the number one medium for graffiti. From this commodity comes different styles, technique, and abilities to form master works of graffiti. Spray paint can be found at hardware and art stores and comes in virtually every color.
Modern graffiti art often incorporates additional arts and technologies. For example, Graffiti Research Lab has encouraged the use of projected images and magnetic light-emitting diodes (throwies) as new media for graffiti artists. Yarnbombing is another recent form of graffiti. Yarnbombers occasionally target previous graffiti for modification, which had been avoided among the majority of graffiti artists.
The street art category includes stencils, urban furniture interventions, advertising hijinks, stickers, posters, collages, paintings that are not centered on lettering, and installations, among others.
A character can represent an individual, a monster, a superhero, an animal, a portrait, a chimera, or any type of unified form from the artist’s imagination. It can be realized in a cartoon style, realistic like Twix 33 or surrealistic.
A piece is a set of stylized letters, it is an elaborate representation of the artist’s name. A piece is made with three or more colors and can be accompanied by a character. It is often more sought after and complex than other types of graffiti.
The sketch is a sketch or an advanced drawing on paper. It can be made in black and white or in color. It can be simple or complex, representing a lettering, a character or a landscape. The graffiti artist sometimes exposes his best sketches in a blackbook.
There are many techniques of graffiti or street art that can be assimilated, such as: aerosol paint (with or without stencil), airbrush painting, etching (on glass, on walls, on metal plates , on the bark of trees, etc.), marker and pen, chalk, roller or brush paint, acid (for glass or metal) 29 to which may be added, in an expanded definition of graffiti, the poster (see: silkscreen by Antonio Gallego), stickers, casts (resin or plaster stuck on the walls) and mosaic.
The “cap” is the valve placed at the top of the bomb, through which the paint comes out. It is removable. There are different kinds; it regulates the flow of paint.
Ultra skinny cap,used for very precise details for the realization of a graffiti or a character, it allows to make very fine and precise features, for more refined effects.
Skinny cap,used mostly for lines in a graffiti, it allows to make relatively fine and precise features.
Semi fat cap,used for filling graffiti. His line is between the Original Cap and the Fat Cap.
Fat cap, tags, flops or traits are made with a fat cap. The fat cap is a cap that once attached to the spray paint, allows for thick lines. This is the course that allows you to create big tracks.
The ultra fat cap allows for thicker lines than the fat cap. It is very used in vandal tag because we see it very well and it can quickly fill the lettering of a graffiti.
“New York” graffiti is characterized by relatively defined forms in which individual creativity is expressed in a coded framework and implies adherence to a whole culture (vocabulary, places, concerns, musical tastes). There are generally three levels of production.
The tagging (mark, signature) is the simple drawing of the name of the artist. The gesture is usually very worked, in the manner of Chinese or Arabic calligraphy. It is a logo more than a writing, and often only the regulars manage to decipher the name that is written. The techniques used are generally the aerosol, the marker, the sticker (“sticker”) and, since the late 2000s, the sprayer. This last technique, difficult to master, imposes a basic and readable style of letters.
Some of the most common styles of graffiti have their own names. A tag is the most basic writing of an artist’s name; it is simply a handstyle. A graffiti writer’s tag is his or her personalized signature. Tagging is often the example given when opponents of graffiti refer to any acts of handstyle graffiti writing (it is by far the most common form of graffiti). Tags can contain subtle and sometimes cryptic messages, and may incorporate the artist’s crew initials or other letters.
One form of tagging, known as pissing, involves taking a refillable fire-extinguisher and replacing the contents with paint, allowing for tags as high as approximately 20 feet (6.1 m). Aiming and keeping a handstyle steady in this form of tagging is very difficult, usually coming out wavy and sloppy.
Another form is the throw-up, also known as a bombing, which is normally painted very quickly with two or three colors, sacrificing aesthetics for speed. Throw-ups can also be outlined on a surface with one color. A piece is a more elaborate representation of the artist’s name, incorporating more stylized letters, usually incorporating a much larger range of colors. This is more time-consuming and increases the likelihood of the artist getting caught. A blockbuster or roller is a large piece, almost always done in a block-shaped style, done simply to cover a large area solidly with two contrasting colors, sometimes with the whole purpose of blocking other writers from painting on the same wall. These are usually accomplished with extended paint rollers and gallons of cheap exterior paint.
A more complex style is wildstyle, a form of graffiti usually involving interlocking letters and connecting points. These pieces are often harder to read by non-graffiti artists as the letters merge into one another in an often-undecipherable manner.
The throw-up, or flop is an intermediate form between the tag and the piece. The letter undergoes a very simplified first volume and often done in a Bubble style. In general, throw-ups are made in minutes using two colors (a fill and an outline). They are intended to cover a medium surface, such as a metal blind, a truck or a street wall in a minimum of time. Often, we use a background like bubbles where a cloud.
The block letters are made by bomb or roller on large surfaces visible from afar (edge of highway, railroad). Originally shaped rather square (hence their name), they are most often made with a chrome filling (which is the only color bomb to effectively cover and durable unprepared walls) and a black outline , or the opposite. In recent years, more and more graffiti artists have developed roller block letters, which has had the effect of adding color to these peri-urban spaces.
Pieces and frescoes
When the graffiti artist has the time, on legal spots (free expression walls, festivals, professional orders) or not (“Halls of Fame” located in disused factories, under bridges or in vacant lots), he can let free rein to the technique and finesse of graffiti by making pieces individually or in groups. In these cases, the work of colors and shapes is no longer constrained by time as in illegal action. The individual style of the artist is revealed just as the era determining this style. Insiders easily recognize the work of graffiti artists or outstanding crews such as Daim (Germany) and his 3D parts, HoNeT (France) and his simplistic pieces and third degree on train as on wall, the XL, Xtra Largos (Spain) and their graphic compositions or the MSK, Mad Society Kingdom, taking an American style behind their work derived from typography. The most commonly used styles are the Wildstyle (in which the letters are difficult to read, abstracted, entangled and decorative), the 3D (highlighting and lighting of letters), the Ignorant style (in which graffiti artists experimented attempt to reproduce beginner effects and where the second degree is appropriate).
Some graffiti-artists paint few letters and specialize in drawing figurative or abstract sets, or characters. The New York graffiti is inspired by several so-called “minor” arts, such as the comic book, the tattoo and the poster.
Theories on the use of graffiti by avant-garde artists have a history dating back at least to the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism in 1961.
Many contemporary analysts and even art critics have begun to see artistic value in some graffiti and to recognize it as a form of public art. According to many art researchers, particularly in the Netherlands and in Los Angeles, that type of public art is, in fact an effective tool of social emancipation or, in the achievement of a political goal.
The murals of Belfast and of Los Angeles offer another example of official recognition. In times of conflict, such murals have offered a means of communication and self-expression for members of these socially, ethnically, or racially divided communities, and have proven themselves as effective tools in establishing dialog and thus, of addressing cleavages in the long run. The Berlin Wall was also extensively covered by graffiti reflecting social pressures relating to the oppressive Soviet rule over the GDR.
Graffiti artists constantly have the looming threat of facing consequences for displaying their graffiti. Many choose to protect their identities and reputation by remaining anonymous.
With the commercialization of graffiti (and hip hop in general), in most cases, even with legally painted “graffiti” art, graffiti artists tend to choose anonymity. This may be attributed to various reasons or a combination of reasons. Graffiti still remains the one of four hip hop elements that is not considered “performance art” despite the image of the “singing and dancing star” that sells hip hop culture to the mainstream. Being a graphic form of art, it might also be said that many graffiti artists still fall in the category of the introverted archetypal artist.
Radical and political
Graffiti often has a reputation as part of a subculture that rebels against authority, although the considerations of the practitioners often diverge and can relate to a wide range of attitudes. It can express a political practice and can form just one tool in an array of resistance techniques. One early example includes the anarcho-punk band Crass, who conducted a campaign of stenciling anti-war, anarchist, feminist, and anti-consumerist messages throughout the London Underground system during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In Amsterdam graffiti was a major part of the punk scene. The city was covered with names such as “De Zoot”, “Vendex”, and “Dr Rat”. To document the graffiti a punk magazine was started that was called Gallery Anus. So when hip hop came to Europe in the early 1980s there was already a vibrant graffiti culture.
The developments of graffiti art which took place in art galleries and colleges as well as “on the street” or “underground”, contributed to the resurfacing in the 1990s of a far more overtly politicized art form in the subvertising, culture jamming, or tactical media movements. These movements or styles tend to classify the artists by their relationship to their social and economic contexts, since, in most countries, graffiti art remains illegal in many forms except when using non-permanent paint. Since the 1990s a growing number of artists are switching to non-permanent paints for a variety of reasons—but primarily because is it difficult for the police to apprehend them and for the courts to sentence or even convict a person for a protest that is as fleeting and less intrusive than marching in the streets. In some communities, such impermanent works survive longer than works created with permanent paints because the community views the work in the same vein as that of the civil protester who marches in the street—such protest are impermanent, but effective nevertheless.
In some areas where a number of artists share the impermanence ideal, an informal competition develops: the length of time that a work escapes destruction is viewed as a measure of the respect the work garners in the community. A crude work that deserves little respect would be invariably removed immediately, while the most talented artists might have works last for days.
On top of the political aspect of graffiti as a movement, political groups and individuals may also use graffiti as a tool to spread their point of view. This practice, due to its illegality, has generally become favored by groups excluded from the political mainstream (e.g. far-left or far-right groups) who justify their activity by pointing out that they do not have the money – or sometimes the desire – to buy advertising to get their message across, and that a “ruling class” or “establishment” controls the mainstream press, systematically excluding the radical and alternative point of view. This type of graffiti can seem crude; for example fascist supporters often scrawl swastikas and other Nazi images.
The murals often develop over an extended period and tend to stylization, with a strong symbolic or iconographic content. Loyalist murals often refer to historical events dating from the war between James II and William III in the late seventeenth century, whereas Republican murals usually refer to the more recent troubles.
Territorial graffiti marks urban neighborhoods with tags and logos to differentiate certain groups from others. These images are meant to show outsiders a stern look at whose turf is whose. The subject matter of gang-related graffiti consists of cryptic symbols and initials strictly fashioned with unique calligraphies. Gang members use graffiti to designate membership throughout the gang, to differentiate rivals and associates and, most commonly, to mark borders which are both territorial and ideological.
Graffiti has been used as a means of advertising both legally and illegally. Bronx-based TATS CRU has made a name for themselves doing legal advertising campaigns for companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Toyota, and MTV. In the UK, Covent Garden’s Boxfresh used stencil images of a Zapatista revolutionary in the hopes that cross referencing would promote their store.
Many graffiti artists see legal advertising as no more than “paid for and legalised graffiti”, and have risen against mainstream ads. The Graffiti Research Lab crew have gone on to target several prominent ads in New York as a means of making a statement against this practice.
Graffiti may also be used as an offensive expression. This form of graffiti may be difficult to identify, as it is mostly removed by the local authority (as councils which have adopted strategies of criminalization also strive to remove graffiti quickly). Therefore, existing racist graffiti is mostly more subtle and at first sight, not easily recognized as “racist”. It can then only be understood if one knows the relevant “local code” (social, historical, political, temporal, and spatial), which is seen as heteroglot and thus an ‘unique set of conditions’ in a cultural context.
A spatial code for example, could be that there is a certain youth group in an area that is engaging heavily in racist activities. So, for residents (knowing the local code), a graffiti containing only the name or abbreviation of this gang already is a racist expression, reminding the offended people of their gang activities. Also a graffiti is in most cases, the herald of more serious criminal activity to come. A person who does not know these gang activities would not be able to recognize the meaning of this graffiti. Also if a tag of this youth group or gang is placed on a building occupied by asylum seekers, for example, its racist character is even stronger.
Hence, the lack of obvious racist graffiti does not necessarily mean that there is none. By making the graffiti less explicit (as adapted to social and legal constraints), these drawings are less likely to be removed, but do not lose their threatening and offensive character.
Elsewhere, activists in Russia have used painted caricatures of local officials with their mouths as potholes, to show their anger about the poor state of the roads. In Manchester, England a graffiti artist painted obscene images around potholes, which often resulted in their being repaired within 48 hours.
Decorative and high art
Many graffiti artists have used their design talents in other artistic endeavors, explored street art and commercialism.
Spray paint has many negative environmental effects. The paint contains toxic chemicals, and the can uses chlorofluorocarbons or volatile hydrocarbon gases to spray the paint unto a surface. As an alternative, moss graffiti is starting to catch on, which uses moss to create text or images. The moss is glued onto a surface by means of beer, buttermilk, or yogurt combined with sugar.