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Graffiti History - How Much Have Graffiti Changed?

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August 25, 2014
Ana Bambic Kostov is an art historian with passion for contemporary art.

From simply scribbled to elaborately written tags, over plethora of witty, colloquial and vulgar messages, graffiti history has been a part of urban life for millennia. I always laugh remembering a local inscription (now whitewashed) ‘women fart, too’, or the universally blemishing ‘you painted for nothing’ usually jotted on a freshly painted wall. But when we read these funny communiques, or admire the skill of an illicit nightly artist who took the time and money to whip up a glorious wild style tag somewhere along the street, we are hardly aware that the cultural phenomena called graffiti hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries. Our linear timeline does testify to stylistic evolution of the art, but the core message is still there.

Graffiti still aggravate, agitate and stun, causing outrage as much as amazement, fighting for millions of causes, for their right to be in the world of art.

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Banksy

Pompeii and Even Before

Man had the need for self-expression from the very beginning, and with the dawn of civilization, graffiti were born. The name of the art derives from Greek, meaning ‘to write’, or the latter Italian lexeme ‘graffiato’, meaning ‘scratched’. Although graffiti were present in Antiquity, the most famous examples today are inscriptions preserved in Pompeii, where a whole culture can be studied based on the number of readable wall notes. These words were literally scratched into walls of public buildings, bathrooms often, expressing the widest range of ideas, moods, or sometimes just marking the presence of the writer. They are either vulgar, simple or poetic, demonstrations of exceptional literacy and talent, or diary-like notes that for whatever reason needed to be remembered. Universal or personal, we read them like croquis of love, lust, friendship, wisdom, trade, defecation (I know?!), while ancient graffiti tell the story of a bubbly urban activity, not too distant from ours today. Contemporary parallels to ‘Sarra, you are not being very nice, leaving me all alone like this’, ‘Once you are dead, you are nothing’, ‘Rufus loves Cornelia Hele’ or even ‘Epaphra is not good at ball games’ are easy to find everywhere, tailored to the locale and mentality, note the mention of ball games!

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Banksy gives New York graffiti a Broadway makeover

Graffiti Communication Now

History of contemporary graffiti is normally considered to have started with tags on New York subway trains. The movement has evolved greatly since in the visual sense, but the essence of the message born within the art of writing is of a much earlier origin, in fact. Even the tags of, say Cope2, or SAMO even, are modern interpretations of ancient inscriptions such as ‘Aufidius was here. Goodbye’. Although pertinent to the culture of the moment, graffiti still carry strong social, political and emotional quality, engaging the readers to stand up, accept, fight and love. Humor and eloquence are held in very high regard in the world of street writings as they have always been, which can be seen in the fact that Banksy, one of the wittiest characters on the scene today, is insanely popular. His rats, kids, coppers or spies inspire the giggles and the thoughts on what’s wrong and what’s right with the world, documenting the currents of this era, just as the Pompeian graffiti did once.

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Journalism Inspired Graffiti, courtesy of globalhealth

Change of Looks

From tags to pictures, graffiti is a much broader term now than it ever was, incorporating numerous media and being a part of a planetary street art movement. It’s used for propaganda as well as for personal expression, suddenly keen on aesthetics and approach, where artists become known for much more than their names on the wall. However, when it comes to written content, it’s obvious that graffiti have not changed all that much. They still possess the informational quality of the ancient kind, bear messages of love and desire, they are greetings or slander, or timeless imprints of sage, executed easily with the development of spray cans, stencils and other techniques, while some still prefer to scratch their morals into a wall. They are still public, open and popular, addressing the everymen, making an ephemeral stamp on the margins of our culture.