Street art in New York
Graffiti, from the Greek word γρáφειν, meaning “to write,” is defined as writing or drawing that has been placed on a public surface, usually illegally. Today, examples of graffiti vary greatly, with some pieces being considered public art while others are seen as mere vandalism that blight otherwise pristine urban scenery. Although it has often been viewed with controversy, there is no denying the fact that graffiti is gaining in significance and is becoming a more acceptable part of mainstream culture.
V-J Day in Times Square by Kobra in New York
Graffiti has been in existence for thousands of years and historical representations have been found in locations all around the world. Ancient graffiti examples have given us insight into the way of life of people in ages past; from graffiti we can decipher levels of literacy, language usage, customs and interests and social mores. There are numerous examples from various points in history of people leaving their name inscribed on the sides of buildings or walls; possibly as an attempt to preserve something of themselves throughout the passage of time or perhaps merely to announce their existence to the world. Other examples highlight diverse topics such as prostitution or discontent with business owners, curses, political messages and even declarations of love. These topics do not differ greatly from much of the graffiti found today.
Paris street art by Seth
In contemporary society, graffiti has marked moments of great significance within our modern history and remains as a reminder of volatile social and political situations that we have experienced collectively. For example, during World War II the graffiti phrase “Kilroy was here” became popular amongst American servicemen and appeared in locations all around the world where they were stationed or visited. Often accompanied by a drawing of a bald man with a bulbous nose, peering over a wall, “Kilroy was here” became a national joke as it appeared in so many far-flung and unexpected places. The phrase and associated doodle became a part of American culture for many years and continued to appear long after the war ended. Although its meaning and connotation may not be widely known today, it is still referenced in popular American culture, notably in several recent television series.
By David Walker in London
Another notable example of graffiti’s impact lies in its ability to mobilize the masses. In May 1968 in France, graffiti played a major role in communicating political messages and in inspiring people to take action in protest against a government that was viewed as overly controlling and too conservative. What began as a student protest soon broadened into a worker’s strike that paralyzed the nation. Encouraged by graffiti messages, the mood of the country spread and today is viewed as a month-long turning point; a political and social revolution that is still celebrated today. Many of the messages shared during that time in the form of graffiti have been preserved and are still referred to today as they represent a moment in France’s history when the people stood up for themselves and made a difference.
Paris graffiti from May 1968 “It is forbidden to forbid”
Graffiti also has a lengthy connection to music. In the early 1970s it became associated with punk rock music, which was often characterized as being anti-establishment. Many popular bands of the time stenciled their names and logos on public spaces wherever they toured to gain notoriety and further brand themselves as anarchistic and willing to partake in illicit activities.
By STMTS in Athens, Greece
The use of graffiti and the world of hip hop also have a shared history which began in the 1980s in New York. Early graffiti artists used “tagging” or the spray painting of a name on public surfaces to draw attention to themselves. As this act progressed, name presentation became more ornate and artistic and competitive as each artist tried to outdo the others in terms of quantity or quality. Early hip hop music heavily featured graffiti as it was considered a visual representation of the sound being produced. As hip hop gained in popularity, graffiti was brought into the mainstream as well. At the same time in America, graffiti also became the domain of gangs. Tagging an area with a gang’s name symbolized the gang’s ownership or control of that area and defined the geographical boundaries of a gang’s existence.
Primavera by Sainer of Etam Cruin in Lodz, Poland
Interestingly, it is when graffiti was in many ways at its lowest point, utilized chiefly by lawbreakers and self-declared outcasts that it also made clear-cut headway towards mainstream acceptance. In 1979, two well known graffiti artists from New York, Lee Quiñones and Fab 5 Freddy were offered an exhibition at a prestigious art gallery in Rome. Following, other popular graffiti artists were asked to produce works on canvas and several went on to transition into well-known artists; two of the most famous names from this period are Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Although both benefitted greatly from timely friendships with Andy Warhol, Basquiat and Haring were well known graffiti artists in their own right prior to attaining fame for their more traditional art productions. It is interesting to note that both Basquiat and Haring were extremely focused on social and political issues in their work; producing pieces that referenced anti-Apartheid, AIDS awareness and drug use.
Tuttomondo by Keith Haring in Pisa
The 1980s were a definitive period for graffiti. Not only did graffiti gain in recognition, but new methods of production grew in popularity. Although stenciling had existed for quite some time, in the 80s, its usage became more widespread. This may have occurred due to the need to produce graffiti more quickly as a result of police crackdowns on graffiti artists, or perhaps artists were interested in experimenting with different styles of creation. The earliest artist renowned for his stenciled graffiti is Frenchman Blek le Rat. Although he was greatly influenced by the graffiti artists of New York, le Rat chose to work with stencils as he thought the style better suited to architecture of Paris. The most well-known graffiti artist to employ stenciling is Banksy of the United Kingdom. Banksy began his work in the 1990s and developed a name for himself through his humorous, sardonic pieces that typically have an anti-war, anti-capitalism and anti-establishment message. Capitalizing on his success, Banksy has since produced a documentary about street art and also has been exhibited all over the world.
By Banksy in London
As with all other art styles, popularity and mainstream success lead to commercialization, and the story is no different for graffiti. In an attempt to seem trendy and up to date, many companies have endeavored to utilize graffiti with negative results. For example, in 2001 computer company IBM launched an advertising campaign which encouraged people to spray paint sidewalks with a peace symbol, a heart, and the Linux mascot, a penguin, to represent the logo “Peace, Love, Linux.” Unfortunately, due to anti-graffiti laws, several participants were arrested and IBM was fined over $120,000.
By Vinie Graffiti in France
Other companies have successfully integrated the use of graffiti into their advertising with positive results. It has now become quite common for businesses to hire graffiti artists to produce advertisements in public areas, and many shops pay to add custom artwork to the outsides of their buildings to add visual appeal and possibly attract a wider customer base. Additionally, although most major cities around the world have anti-graffiti laws, many cities have begun to commission artwork on public areas to beautify spaces that were previously overrun with unattractive, illegal graffiti.
By Tore in Paris
Reverse Graffiti in London
Today, graffiti continues to evolve, both in the level of artwork produced and the techniques used to create it. In an attempt to lessen the permanence of the result and therefore evade criminal charges when caught and to show environmental awareness, some graffiti artists have begun utilizing the process of reverse graffiti which involves the removal of dirt and grime from a surface to produce an image that is temporary or semi-permanent and does no lasting damage to the area. Other artists have turned to the use of stickers and the newest form of graffiti is “yarn bombing” which involves covering public surfaces or objects with colorful crochet in an attempt to beautify or personalize public spaces.
By 6emeia in Brazil
Despite its global existence and a gain in public acceptance, graffiti is still seen as mere vandalism by many. It is true that a visit to any major city will reveal buildings covered with ugly, spray-painted scrawls, but one can also easily find beautiful pieces of art which add another dimension to the typical concrete sprawl and allow us to enjoy an unexpected splash of color when we least expect it.
Man House by MTO