Friday, July 6, 2012

Reader Request: The Origins of Graffiti


Byter John requested an item on the origin of graffiti and the earliest known examples.

"People probably chipped these things on the walls of Egyptian bathrooms 2,000 years ago. So progress is a ball-point pen."
-          Graffiti on bathroom wall of a Berkeley coffehouse

·         Graffiti is the term for writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.  Stickers and other adhesives are not considered to be graffiti.

·         The singular of the term is graffito.

·         The word’s use in that context dates from 1851, when it was used in Italy for ancient wall inscriptions found in the ruins of Pompeii.  It comes for the Latin “graffiti” meaning “a scribbling”, which in turn comes from the Greek “graphein”, meaning “to scratch, draw, write.” 

·         The term “graffiti” was applied in art to the creation of a work by scratching a design into a surface.  A related term, “sgraffito”, applied to a technique of scratching through one layer of pigment to reveal another below it, a device utilised by potters who scratched designs into the glazes.

·         Although the earliest forms of drawing on, and scratching into, walls dates back to 30,000 BC  - prehistoric cave paintings and pictorial depictions – it has been disputed that these constitute graffiti.  Certainly in the modern sense the term graffiti refers to unauthorised works, often in the nature of vandalism, whereas the prehistoric works were endorsed by the tribe.

·         The first known example of "modern style" graffiti survives in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus in modern day Turkey. 

It is an advertisement on one of the marble paving stones for a brothel and shows a heart, a cross, a woman’s head, a foot and cash.  It has been translated as “turn left at the cross roads where you can buy a woman’s love”.

·         Craved graffiti has also been found on the walls and monuments of ancient Rome and Greece, where it declared love, made political comment and expressed thoughts.  Graffiti has been preserved in Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius and shows that graffiti was widespread, especially in the brothels and the gladiator school, so much so that the basilica contains a graffito:  “O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.” 

Graffito from ancient Pompeii showing a caricature of a politician

·         Some examples of word graffiti from Pompeii:

"Satura was here on September 3rd"

"…If she can break my tender heart, why can't I hit her over the head?"

"Celadus the Thracier makes the girls moan!"

"Here Harpocras has had a good fuck with Drauca for a denarius."

"Lucius painted this."

"To the one defecating here.  Beware of the curse.  If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy."

"Gaius Sabinus says a fond hello to Statius.  Traveller, you eat bread in Pompeii but you go to Nuceria to drink.  At Nuceria, the drinking is better."

"The city block of the Arrii Pollii in the possession of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius is available to rent from July 1st.  There are shops on the first floor, upper stories, high-class rooms and a house.  A person interested in renting this property should contact Primus, the slave of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius."

"If anyone sits here, let him read this first of all: if anyone wants a screw, he should look for Attice; she costs 4 sestertii."

“Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates.” 

"Chie, I hope your haemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they ever have before!"

·         The most famous of ancient graffiti, dating back to the end of the second century, refer5s to the advent of Christianity. It is a caricature of Jesus in which he is tied to a cross with his feet restiing on a horizontal board--and he has the head of a donkey. Next to him is a Christian with arms raised in adoration, and underneath is the commentary, "Alexamenos worships his god."

·         Modern graffiti began appearing in the early 20th century on American boxcars and subways. 

Engraving of Kilroy was here on the World war 11 Memorial in Washington, DC

Dating from the 1920’s the graffito “Kilroy was here” began to appear and spread internationally.  In England the phrase was changed to “Chad was here”; in Australia it was “Foo was here”.  Some historians claim that “Foo was here” predates “Kilroy was here” by twenty years or more – see:

Although political messages on walls developed in the 60’s and 70’s, especially associated with student unrest and opposition to the Vietnam War, the real spread of modern graffiti was associated with the development and spread of hip hop culture in the early 1980’s.  That culture also brought break dancing and rap to prominence, the depictions in the film Style Wars causing international emulation. 

Stencil graffiti also began appearing in this period, including in Australia as documented by photographer Rennie Ellis.

·         Today the popularity of graffiti has led both to a degree of legitimisation and its commercialisation.  It is now the subject of numerous video games and numerous graffiti artists – for example 123Klan and Banksy – have built professional careers in design and art as a result of popularity and high profiles from graffiti.

 An example of 123Klan graffiti

Some of Banksy’s graffiti

·         In May 2012, just before the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, a graffito appeared on the side of a London shop which, in 2010, had been found to be selling items produced by an Indian sweatshop where a 7 year old boy had been working 100 hours per week. 

The graffito depicted a young boy, appearing to be of Asian origin, producing Union Jack bunting on an old sewing machine.  The image has been interpreted as a comment on the exploitation of third world cheap labour by the West, by nationalistic celebrations and by the corporations which profit from them.

Whilst the graffito is in the style of Banksy, it is not known whether it was made by him.  Most people accept that it is a Banksy work.

Another Banksy street art work.

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