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Encyclopedia > Graffiti art
For the handwriting system, see Graffiti (Palm OS).

Graffiti is a type of deliberate human markings on property. Graffiti can take the form of art, drawings, or words, and is illegal vandalism when done without the property owner's consent. Its origin can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as the Roman Empire and Ancient Greece. If one's definition of graffiti is broad enough, one could even include prehistoric cave paintings by Homo erectus.

The word "graffiti" is the plural of "graffito", although the singular form is less commonly used. Both words have been borrowed from the Italian language, and along with the English word "graphic", are in turn derived from the Greek γραφειν ("graphein"), meaning "to write". Where the term "graffiti" was first used to refer to this form of marking is unknown, and a topic of much speculation among its historians.

Graffiti on the banks of the in , .
Graffiti on the banks of the Tiber river in Rome, Italy.

History of graffiti

Ancient times

Pompeiian graffiti.

Graffiti originally was the term used for inscriptions, figure drawings, etc., found on the walls of ancient sepulchers or ruins, as in the Catacombs, or at Pompeii. It has evolved to include any decorations inscribed on any surface that are considered to be vandalism or pictures or writing placed on surfaces, usually outside walls and sidewalks, without the permission of the owner. Thus, inscriptions made by the authors of a monument are not considered graffiti.

The first known example of "modern" graffiti is found in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey and appears to be an advertisement for prostitution, according to the tour guides of the city. It is found near the long mosaic and stone walk way and consists of a handprint, a vaguely heart-like shape, a footprint and a number. It is believed that this indicates how many steps one would have to take to find a lover with the handprint indicating payment.

The Romans carved graffiti into both their own walls and monuments and there are also, for instance, Egyptian ones. The graffiti carved on the walls of Pompeii were preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius and offer us a direct insight into street life: everyday Latin, insults, magic, love declarations, political consigns. One example has even been found that stated "Cave Canem", which translates as "Beware of Dog".

, as in this political graffiti at , was the language of the ordinary people of the , distinct from the of literature.
Vulgar Latin, as in this political graffiti at Pompeii, was the language of the ordinary people of the Roman Empire, distinct from the Classical Latin of literature.

On the other hand, Viking graffiti can be found in Rome and Newgrange Mound in Ireland, and Varangians carved their runes in Hagia Sophia. The Ancient Irish carved stones with an alphabet called Ogham.

Frescos and Murals are art forms that involve leaving images and writing on wall surfaces. Like the prehistoric cave wall paintings, they are not graffiti, as they are created with the explicit permission (and usually support) of the owner of the walls.

Modern times

A graffiti artist at work with spray paint at a graffiti competition in Spitalfields market London.

In the 20th century, especially during World War II, 'Kilroy was here' became a famous graffito, along with Mr. Chad, a face with only the eyes and a nose hanging over the wall, saying "What No [scarce commodity]...?" during the time of rationing. Twentieth century warfare saw the advent of many new aviation technologies, closely followed by the advent of airplane graffiti, including the nose art made famous during World War II.

Starting with the large-scale urbanization of many areas in the post-war half of the 20th century, urban gangs would mark walls and other pieces of public property with the name of their gang (a "tag") in order to mark the gang's territory. Near the end of the twentieth century, the practice of tagging became increasingly non-gang related and began to be practiced for its own sake. Graffiti artists would sign their "tags" for the sake of doing so and sometimes to increase their reputation and prestige as a "writer" or a graffiti artist.

Tags, like screennames, are sometimes chosen to reflect some qualities of the writer. Some tags also contain subtle and often cryptic messages. The year in which the piece was created, and in some cases the writer's initials or other letters, are sometimes incorporated into the tag. In some cases, tags or graffiti are dedicated or created in memory of a deceased friend, and might read something to the effect of "DIVA Peekrevs R.I.P. JTL '99".

In some cases, graffiti (especially those done in memory of a deceased person) found on storefront gates have been so elaborate that shopkeepers have been hesitant to clean them off. In the Bronx after the death of rapper Big Pun, several murals dedicated to his life appeared virtually overnight, the same occurred after the deaths of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.

Other highly elaborate works covering otherwise unadorned fences or walls may likewise be so elaborate that property owners or the government may choose to keep them rather than cleaning them off. The wall in front of Abbey Road Studios in London has been a favorite spot for Beatles-related graffiti ever since The Beatles recorded there in the 1960s, left in various languages by visitors from all over the world. The studio makes no attempt to stop this graffiti, and has the wall repainted regularly to provide a fresh surface for inscriptions.

Some graffiti may be local or regional in nature, such as wall and street sign tagging in Southern California by gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips. The name Cool "Disco" Dan (including the quotation marks) tends to be commonly seen in the Washington, DC area. Another famous graffiti in the DC Metro area was found on the outer loop of the beltway on a railroad bridge near the Mormon temple as seen here (http://www.lds.org/multimedia/files//5310_WASHINGTONDC_hr.jpg). Its simple scrawl "Surrender Dorothy" summoned visions of the Emerald City of Oz and has remained on the bridge for nearly 30 years off and on. Arriving sometime in late 1973 pressure from the Temple has had it removed, only to reappear. This "giraffiti (http://www.wordspy.com/words/giraffiti.asp)" was so well known among the Mormon community that it was often mentioned by name in their newsletters [1] (http://www.mormonstoday.com/011207/D1WashDCTemple01.shtml)[2] (http://www.mormonstoday.com/991114/D1WashingtonTemple01.shtml) as an example of being misunderstood.

Theories and use of graffiti by avant-garde artists has a history dating at least to the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism in 1961.

This construction scaffolding has been "tagged".

Some of those who practice graffiti art are keen to distance themselves from gang graffiti. There are differences in both form and intent. The purpose of graffiti art is self-expression and creativity, and may involve highly stylized letter forms drawn with markers, or cryptic and colorful spray paint murals on walls, buildings, and even freight trains. Graffiti artists strive to improve their art, which is constantly changing and progressing.

The purpose of gang graffiti, on the other hand, is to mark territorial boundaries, and is therefore limited to a gang's neighborhood; it does not presuppose artistic intent. The designs, while chosen to be distinctive and recognizable, are more likely to be influenced by the speed with which they can be executed (thus minimizing the chance of the tagger being caught).


A number of words and phrases have been coined to describe different styles and aspects of graffiti:

  • A tag is a stylized signature, while a tagger or a writer is a person who "tags".
  • A crew is a group of writers or graffiti artists.
  • To line somebody's tag is to put a line through it and is considered a deep insult.
  • The phrase back to back refers to a graffito that is done all the way across a wall from one end to the next. This could be seen in some parts of the West side of the Berlin Wall.

Informal competition sometimes exists between taggers as to who can put up the most, or the most visible or artistic tags (see the section below titled Graffiti art battle). Writers with the most tags up tend to gain respect among other graffiti artists, although they will also incur a greater risk if caught by authorities.

To gain notoriety, and make pieces difficult to remove, graffiti artists will sometimes paint hard-to-reach spots such as rooftops. A heavens piece (also known as giraffiti) is a common term for this, and by the nature of the spot is often dangerous to execute. Another technique used to make hard to remove graffiti is scratching or etching a tag into an object, generally using a key or other sharp object such as a knife

Legal situation

Illegal graffiti can be elaborate, but may be seen as a nuisance

Graffiti is subject to different societal pressures from popularly-recognized art forms, since graffiti appears on walls, freeways, buildings, trains or any accessible surfaces that are not owned by the person who applies the graffiti. This means that graffiti forms incorporate elements rarely seen elsewhere. Spray paint and broad permanent markers are commonly used, and the organizational structure of the art is sometimes influenced by the need to apply the art quickly before it is noticed by authorities.

In an effort to reduce vandalism, many cities have designated walls or areas exclusively for use by graffiti artists. It has been suggested that this discourages petty vandalism yet encourages artists to take their time and produce great art, without worry of being caught or arrested for vandalism or trespassing. Some disagree with this approach, arguing that the presence of legal graffiti walls has not been shown to reduce illegal graffiti elsewhere.

Many people regard graffiti as an unwanted nuisance, or as expensive vandalism that must be repaired. It may be seen as a quality of life issue, and it is often suggested that the presence of graffiti contributes to a general sense of squalor and a heightened fear of crime. Advocates of the broken window theory believe that this sense of decay encourages further vandalism and leads to more serious offences being committed. Former mayor Rudy Giuliani's subscription to broken window theory promoted an aggressive antigraffiti campaign in New York City, however graffiti is not always treated as a minor nuisance crime worldwide.

Computer generated graffiti No Guts, No Fame, its noticeable "anti-police" theme shows both its subject's and its creator's frustration with the perceived illegal threat of graffiti, and the belief that the possible fame is worth the likely penalty.

Graffiti made the news in 1993, over an incident in Singapore in which several expensive cars were found spray painted. The police arrested a student from Singapore American School, Michael P. Fay, who was questioned and subsequently charged with vandalism. Fay pleaded guilty for vandalizing the car in addition to stealing road signs. Under the 1966 Singapore Vandalism Act, which was originally passed to curb the spread of communist graffiti in Singapore, he was sentenced to four months in jail, a US $2,233 fine, and caning. The American news media sensationalized this incident because the US does not use corporal punishment for crimes such as vandalism. The New York Times had several editorials and op-eds that condemned the punishment and called the American public to flood the Singaporean embassy with protests. Although the Singapore government received many calls for clemency, Fay was caned in Singapore on May 5, 1994.

In 1995, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani created the Anti-Graffiti Task Force a multi-agency initiative to combat the problem of graffiti vandals. This began a crackdown in "quality of life crimes" throughout the city, and also one of the largest anti-grafitti campaigns in US history. That same year Title 10-117 of the New York Administrative Code bans the sale of aerosol spray paint cans to children under 18. The law also requires that merchants who sell spray paint must lock it in a case or display them behind a counter, out of reach from potential shoplifters. Violations of the city’s anti-graffiti law carry fines of $350 per count. The full text of the law can be found here (http://www.nyc.gov/html/nograffiti/html/legislation.html). An opposing viewpoint written by famous NYC graf artist Zephyr can be read here (http://www.zephyrgraffiti.com/zephyrwrt/crackdwn.html).

The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 is the latest anti-graffiti legislation to be passed in Britain.

In August 2004, the Keep Britain Tidy campaign issued a press release (http://www.encams.org/News/newsRelease.asp?ArticleID=65&Sub=0&Menu= calling for zero tolerance of graffiti, with support for proposals such as issuing "on the spot" fines to graffiti offenders and banning the sale of aerosol paint to teenagers. The press release also condemned the use of graffiti images in advertising and in music videos, arguing that real world experience of graffiti was far from the 'cool' or 'edgy' image that was often portrayed. To back the campaign, 123 British MPs (including Prime Minister Tony Blair) signed a charter which stated: "Graffiti is not art, it's crime. On behalf of my constituents, I will do all I can to rid our community of this problem."

Types of graffiti

Aerosol or "spray can" art

Graffiti in Melbourne, Australia

The strand of graffiti art which is considered one of the four elements of hip hop is usually denoted urban 'Aerosol Art'. Sometimes synonymous with "hip-hop heads," so-called graffiti artists have gone beyond that stereotype and are abundant even among middle-class white children. There are different genres, from Philly's wicked style to California and New York's wild style graffiti. Graffiti artists are classified based on their style or even on what surface they use.

Graffiti tagging existed in Philadelphia during the 1960s, pioneered by Cornbread and Cool Earl. Another Philadelphia product, Top Cat, later exported the characteristic Philly style of script (tall, slender lettering with platforms at the bottom) to New York City where it gained popularity as "Broadway Elegant". It wasn't until it reached popularity in the New York City subway system that it took on an extravagant artistic role, expanding from tags to full-blown "pieces".

One of the originators of New York graffiti was TAKI 183 – a foot messenger who would tag his nickname around New York streets that he daily frequented en route. Taki was a Greek-American – his tag was diminutive for Demetrius, while 183 came from his address. After being showcased in the New York Times, his tag was being mimicked by hundreds of urban youth within months.

This wall in Gainesville, Florida has been set aside for use by graffiti artists and passersby.

It should be noted that there were other writers active in NYC before Taki, such as JULIO 204, but he brought the most attention to the movement. With the innovation of art, and the craving to gain the widest audience, attempts by taggers were made. What developed was a strict adherence to spraypaint, sampling foreign calligraphy, and the much anticipated mural (that usually covered an entire subway car). The artist was called a "writer," and so were groups of associated artists, called "crews". The movement spread on the streets, returned to the railroads where tagging was popularized by Hobos, spread nationwide with the aid of media and rap music; thus, being yet mimicked again worldwide.

One of the earliest women to become active on the graffiti scene was New York City's "Lady Pink". Also known as Sandra Fabara, Lady Pink starred in the classic 1982 hip hop film "Wildstyle" when she was 18. The 1984 film Beat Street documented all the elements and many of the personalities of the early hip-hop movement. Graffiti features strongly in the film, and one of the main characters is a writer who works on walls and on subway cars.

In the early 1980s, the combination of a booming art market and a renewed interest in painting resulted in the rise of a few graffiti artists to art-star status. Jean-Michel Basquiat, a former street-artist known by his "Samo" tag, and Keith Haring, a professionally-trained artist who adopted a graffiti style, were two of the most widely recognized graffiti artists. In some cases, the line between "simple" graffiti and unsanctioned works of public art can be difficult to draw.

Aerosol safety and removal

a typical half face particulate mask designed to filter harmful paint particles

Spray paint usually contains volatile organic compounds that are often highly toxic. Some graffiti artists who regularly work with spray paint develop neurological problems due to overexposure to VOCs. This article (http://www.graffiti.org/faq/masks.html) from graffiti.org contains more information on the subject and recommends that spray painters wear a filter mask when painting. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC (http://www.cdc.gov)), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA (http://www.osha.gov)), and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/homepage.html)) also have protective guidelines for working with spraypaint [3] (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/topics/respirators/) [4] (http://www.osha.gov/dts/osta/otm/otm_viii/otm_viii_2.html) [5] (http://www.cdc.gov/od/ohs/manual/respprot.htm).

Some heavy duty permanent markers also contain harmful VOCs such as xylene, although the quantity of VOC released will probably be less than with spray paint. Paint markers are another concern, while on the surface they may seem to be less toxic due to lack of particulization, they also contain chemicals like xylene which can be absorbed through the skin (not just through inhalation). Those who use permanent or paint markers should check the label and follow the recommended safety instructions. Care should also be made to reduce skin contact; latex or vinyl gloves are useful for this purpose.

It is not just graffiti artists who must deal with these volatile chemical compounds, the compounds designed to remove graffiti can also be highly toxic. The maintenance workers who work with these substances, however, are usually more highly trained to use them safely. To remove graffiti they use generally use techniques such as high pressure cleaning or paint thinning solvents such as Acetone or Toluene; they may also paint over or, as a prevention, apply a specially formulated anti-graffiti coating to the surface of high-risk areas.

Graffiti art battle

In the early 1980s one of the largest community "graffiti art battles" took place next to the Bull Ring shopping centre in Birmingham, England. The city invited a selection of the UK's most renowned graffiti artists, including Wolverhampton local artist Goldie, Bristol's 3D (who went on to form Massive Attack), London's Mode from the Chrome Angelz, with Bronx Man Brim and his New York alter ego Bio attending for good measure.

Massive boards were erected with scaffolding in place to enable free movement of the artists. It was a rare occasion of the age for so many prestigious artists to come together on one wall - many battles would lead to gang rivalry especially if one artist would "bite", or copy, another's style. Clips from the Battle can be seen in a Channel 4 documentary titled Bombing.

"Bombing" the trains

Cover to Martha Cooper's popular 1980s subway graffiti book

Subway graffiti

A primary target for graffiti in urban environments are subway trains. This is especially true for New York City, where "going all city" is considered the holy grail. This phrase means to have your tag inside and outside on a train running each of the many lines of the NYC subway system. Would-be taggers will be hard pressed to paint the modern NYC subway, however: Rudy Giuliani's aggressive "Broken Window" approach to policing the city has all but eliminated subway graffiti. The Mayor's Anti-Graffiti Task Force (http://www.nyc.gov/html/nograffiti/html/aboutforce.html) has more details.

The phrase "bombing" means to cover an entire car with a large graphic. There are two types of paint jobs:

  • below the windows
  • coverall (entire side, windows included).

Many instances of this type of artwork can be seen in the movie Style Wars, in the documentary titled Bombing by Afrikaa Bambaataa, and in the book Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant.

Graffiti on boxcars travelling through Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, August 8, 2004.

Freight train graffiti

Freight cars and other railroad cars are another popular target for writers. The origins of train writing can likely be traced back to the hobos of the early twentieth century. Generally hobos while freighthopping would write their name or initials on the inside (or less frequently the outside) of a boxcar to show they had been there, occasionally other hobo symbols would be written in chalk to indicate where the train was headed and other routes. Although hobos were likely the originators of train tagging, it is unknown when or who introduced spray paint to train tagging.

Freight train tagging is generally a rural pastime, perhaps because other objects are less available. What is in common between freight and subway taggers is the urge to make their name widely known, as trains run their long and often circuitous routes other artists would see and occasionally write over the graffiti already there, creating the occasional nation wide challenges. Freight graffiti can be found wherever cargo rail travels, however it is more commonly found in the United States, Central Europe, and South America.

Street art and post-graffiti

See also Sticker art.
Stencil art by Banksy. Brick Lane, London

In the '80s and early '90s the writers Cost and Revs were the first to get up with their name with the new techniques that would be a new form of graffiti, i.e. post-graffiti (a term which comes from the French artist stak), also known as street art.

Street artists use media such as sticker, poster, stencil but also paint and put up installations in the urban space. What they all have in common is that the work is put up illegally. The aims are various. Some follow the aim of a graffiti writer to get up with a name or, in street art more likely with an image, others have a political aim. Many just want their art to be seen by the public. It is a worldwide movement.

Since the '90s Shepard Fairey influenced many of today's street artists with his 'Obey Giant' campaign. Other important street artists include C6.org, who incorporate new technologies into street graffiti art, Banksy, probably the most famous of the stencil artists, D*Face (UK), Stak, HNT, Alexone, André (France), Swoon (http://www.wearechangeagent.com/swoon/), famous for the cut-out poster technique, Faile, (USA), Os Gemeos, Herbert (Brazil), 6-_-©IIIII>@rtist.info, Flying Fortress, Gomes, Graffitilovesyou (Germany), Influenza, Erosie (Holland) and others.

A new form of tagging was created around 1995 in Berlin by 6-_-©|||||>@rtist.info. He painted his 500 000 "6" tags with lime on wildly pasted posters, garbage and on the street. 30 % of his tags he painted while cycling.

Radical and political graffiti

Anti-War Graffiti in Spain

Graffiti is often seen as being part of a subculture that rebels against authority. However, as can be seen for this article, the considerations of the practitioners of graffiti are often divergent and relating to a wide range of practices.

Graffiti means different things to different people. For some, graffiti is not only an art but also a lifestyle. For others it is a matter of political practice and forms just one tool in an array of methodologies and technologies or so-called anti-technologies of resistance. One early example includes the political punk band Crass, who conducted a campaign of stencilling anti-war, anarchist, feminist and anti-consumerist messages around the London Underground system during the late 1970s and early 1980s [6] (http://www.southern.com/southern/label/CRC/09400a.html).

Graffiti by Crass stencilled on a London underground station wall, from the cover of their album Stations of the Crass

The developments of graffiti art which took place in art galleries, colleges as well as "on the street" or "underground", contributed to the resurfacing in the 1990's of a far more overtly politicized 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 graffiti art is still illegal in many forms, in most countries.

Contemporary practitioners are therefore varied and often conflicting in their practices. There are those individuals such as Alexander Brener who have used the medium to politicise other art forms, and have taken the prison sentences forced onto them, as a means of further protest.

Neo-Nazi defacement of a Jewish cemetery in France.

The practices of anonymous groups and individuals are also very varied, and by no means always agree with each others practices. Anti-capitalist art group the Space Hijackers, for example, in 2004 did a piece about the contradiction between the capitalistic elements of Banksy and his use of political imagery. An added complication to this picture is the existence of artists who receive a combination of government funding as well as commercial or private means, like irational.org who recently coined the term Advert Expressionism, replacing the word Abstract for Advert, in Clement Greenberg's essay on Abstract Expressionism.

On top of the political aspect of graffiti as a movement, graffiti is also used by political groups and individuals as a tool to spread a their point of view. This can be described as propaganda graffiti. This practice, as it is illegal, is generally employed 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 desire to, buy advertising to get their message across and that the mainstream press is controlled by a 'ruling class' that systematically exclude the radical/alternative point of view. This type of graffiti can be crude, for example fascist supporters often scrawl swastikas and other Nazi images.

Illegal fly posting, is also another popular visual method my which political groups seek to get their message across and advertise their events. In the U.K posters advertising the February 15, 2003 Global protests against war on Iraq could still be found months and years after the event.

Computer-generated graffiti

An in-game character of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas creating graffiti

Since many graffiti artists are considered vandals, many have moved to creating computer generated graffiti instead, using computer graphics to mimic and expand on the styles of aerosol art. When such art is created on a computer, it is not technically graffiti, in the sense of being unauthorized, but it is called so because of the stylistic influence. It is also not computer-generated, in the sense of a computer program actually determining the design; rather it is computer-assisted, and generated by human artists. Most of these types of artists are associated with ASCII art, ANSI art, and the computer underground.

Computer-generated graffiti is also used commercially in the creation of realistic computer simulations of city environments, for example in video games such as Grand Theft Auto, or tagging can be part of the object of the game itself, as in Jet Set Radio.

Bathroom graffiti

A very different sort of graffiti appears in many public bathrooms, such as those on university campuses. Bathroom graffiti tends more to the obscene than to the artistic, including sexual propositions, vulgar insults, toilet humour, bawdy poetry, pornography, and the occasional crude cartoon.

Graffiti on drunk people

An other special kind of graffiti is graffiti on drunk people sleeping off their inebriation. This kind of graffiti is often applied on festivals with many drunk people like sylvester parties, carn

  Results from FactBites:
Articles - Graffiti Art (4226 words)
The last form of graffiti is graffiti art which is the creative use of spraypaint to produce an artwork that is graffiti or done in a graffiti-like style, and this the is the concern of this discussion.
Graffiti art cannot be disregarded simply because it is not presented in the conventional location and manner, i.e., framed and placed in a museum or gallery.
Graffiti is also criticized for being too hard to understand, but certainly this cannot keep graffiti art from being art anymore than the obscurity of abstract art or Picasso's cubism prevents either one of those hard to understand art forms from being considered as art.
  More results at FactBites »



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