Graffiti [noun] can be defined as any ‘writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.’ Whilst forged it’s markings within the contemporary space thanks to Banksy (as seen on city apartment blocks and buildings), the concept is not a ‘new phenomenon’ and dates back to prehistoric and ancient times, as evidenced by the Lascaux cave painting in France or even Roman and medieval ruins across the British aisles.
Coined way back in 1851, graffiti and it’s singular counterpart ‘graffito’, derives from the italian noun ‘graffiato’, which literally translates to ‘scratched’. Archaeologists utilized these terms extensively to describe the ancient inscriptions they found carved on the walls in the ruins of Pompeii. Ironically, some of the oldest forms of Graffiti are as simple and effective as they are today, with early examples like ‘Gaius was here’ some of the oldest examples of this style of art, as well as some of the oldest - yet authentic - glimpse of the past. Consequently, the simplicity of such a sentence is extremely poignant in the way that it truly expresses what the concept of Graffiti is all about; ordinary people making their mark on the world around them.
Key tip: Even the earliest examples of the English language as we know it was a form of graffiti.
Graffiti has evolved throughout history and is presumably one of the most powerful sources of society and people within each given time frame, particularly the past. This is because only those literature were able to forge their marks within the history books as literacy and wealth came hand-in-hand. Consequently, Graffiti gives us the opportunity to see those individuals who may be at the bottom of society, or even those that are often forgotten…
Graffiti has had a place in society since mankind began and maintains the same kind of authenticity thousands of years later. Whether it was during world war II when pieces like ‘kilroy was here” were sketched on walls to create a motif of connection for soldiers during their difficult times, or just in contemporary graffiti we see on the streets today. Each piece of graffiti art created by individuals has the same intention of asserting existence and to repeat their mark in as many places as possible.
Beginnings of Contemporary Graffiti in the United States
Contemporary graffiti can be seen as early as 1960, popping up in many Black and Latino neighbourhoods across New York City. This came in conjunction to the emerging hip-hop music and street subcultures.
As opposed to more visual imagery and cartoons we see in present day graffiti murals, the style first formed in what was known as ‘tagging’, which is where graffiti artists would write simple ‘tags’ or their stylized signatures on a number of locations, typically across urban areas. The main goal was to get their creation seen by as many people as possible, which is why taxis and subways became a prime spot for many notorious taggers across the city. In fact, the dynamic aspect of graffiti is one of its unique selling points, a sort of ‘artwork in motion’.
Despite emerging from simple ‘tags’ across the cities, graffiti evolved into an artform, with new calligraphic styles and large colorful elaborate pieces aided by aerosol products and spray cans that helped create varying effects and line widths. Overtime, graffiti grew in size and developed into artistic, colorful pieces.
The graffiti phenomenon was deemed problematic by law enforcement in the US, with New York Mayor Ed Kock labelling it as a ‘lack of authoritarian order’. Consequently, there was many schemes put in place to crack down on graffiti, such as the MTA’s increased budget to remove its presence from subways, highways and any form of transportation. The result was probably not what the police had wanted, as many artists saw this as a challenge and tried even harder to get their artwork seen across the city.
From Graffiti to Street Art
Graffiti has evolved into a completely new form of art, with greater variation, style, techniques and materials.
Since the turn of the 80s and later in the millennium, graffiti took on a whole new image and interest. Artists and people alike became fascinated with how other artists would create such masterpieces outside traditional art galleries. Today, they are seen as highly revered street art pioneers and some of the most iconic artists of the contemporary era.
Bright, bold and completely authentic in design, graffiti has evolved from its simplistic ‘tagging’ into a creative and authentic style that showcases the artist's raw talent. It’s also a great reflection of our society in the given moment, with cultures adopting the idea of graffiti to further spread this art form all over the world. We need only look at the price tag of the notorious Banksy and Barry Mcgee designs to see the kind of cultural respect for this style of art.
Indeed, graffiti has come a long way from its place on the side of buildings, to a widely accepted and adorned art form...
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