A Conversation About Graffiti

Surprising stories and history about the most popular of art forms

Okay, so what is graffiti exactly? Just spray paint on the side of a building?

That’s what the city dweller might think. But graffiti’s a little of everything – it’s art, advertising, and self-expression rolled into one painted genre. You may think it’s new, but it’s super-vintage, dating all the way back to cave paintings, street murals in Pompeii, and evolving with newer artists like Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Banksy. Graffiti even included the commissioned murals of today. From caves to streets to galleries, it’s come a pretty long way.

The key, Dmitri Aske, 2013 (From the collection of Artmossphere Studio)

Where does the actual word graffiti come from?

It’s no coincidence that the first graffiti was etched into a wall—the word itself comes from the Italian term graffiato, which literally translates to “scratched.”

Lascaux (Montignac) Caves, Ralph Morse, 1947 (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

What is the first known record of graffiti?

The earliest graffiti got its roots in cave drawings and paintings, when artists sketched the world around them, like big-bellied bulls, and in cities like Pompeii, where murals were everywhere, from streets to tombs. Murals were once used to advertise almost everything in Pompeii, from relaxing bath houses to more risqué services as well.

Pompeii Ancient City, wall mural at the Tomb of Vitorio Prisco, during conservation, 1998 (From the collection of the World Monuments Fund)

What is the difference between graffiti and a fresco painting?

A fresco is painted onto wet plaster, and the wall and fresco dry at the same time to form one surface. Graffiti is sprayed or painted onto walls that are already finished, and murals are much more orderly, placed in harmony with the building and with permission from the owner.

Nebamun’s garden, fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun-1350/-1350 (From the collection of British Museum)

Where did modern day graffiti gets its origins from?

Graffiti started in Philadelphia, believe it or not. As graffiti legend has it, Darryl McCray first painted the name “Cornbread” on everything from a zoo’s elephant to the side of the Jackson 5’s plane, starting in the early 1950s. He pioneered that first trend of independent self-promotion through street art, and neither the street artists nor the world at large has looked back since.

Does graffiti have a function?

Yes. It’s a dash of expressive art mixed up with a splash of advertising. Think about the tagging on subway cars, or bubbly letters decorating the outside of a passing truck. What’s a better way for your name to go viral than situating it on a boxy surface that speeds around your city, or rattles across the train tracks through your town? Graffiti gets the artist’s message out into the public eye.
Graffiti artists today make the most of social media, adding their social media handles to their work to gain even more followers. It’s gone from low art to a higher realm, an art boom of its own.

Truck Two, Horphee, 2012 (From the collection of Underground Paris)

Is graffiti limited to streets?

Once upon a time it was, but now it’s everywhere, from the basketball court to the street, and even to museums and galleries. Above all, graffiti is the most democratic of art.

Graffiti Collectif 2012 Black & Basque (From the collection of 9eme Concept)
Written by Jesse Aylen
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