I laugh at the way some people think graffiti is all selfish tagging and vandalism. Thoughtful street art is like good fiction – it speaks out on behalf of everyone, for us all to see.
There’s a scene in the 2011 movie CONTAGION, where Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould) says to conspiracy theorist, antagonist and blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) “Blogging is not writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation”. The comment was meant to be taken as an insult to bloggers. More often than not, the word graffiti will conjure up images of buildings, trains, subways, memorials etc. being defaced.
Use of the word has evolved to include any graphics applied to surfaces in a manner that constitutes vandalism. In many places it is regarded criminal act. But, being a cup-half-full, optimistic sort, I decided to find out more that might reveal a positive side to the practice.
I turned to Wikipedia and was amazed at all the information on offer. Here are just some of the fact I discovered: Simply put, the word Graffiti means: “ Writing or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or painted, typically illicitly, on a wall or other surface, often within public view.”
It turns out that graffiti has been around since ancient times. The term graffiti referred to the inscriptions, figure drawings, and such, found on the walls of ancient sepulchers or ruins, as in the Catacombs of Rome. The eruption of Vesuvius preserved graffiti in Pompeii, which includes Latin curses, magic spells, declarations of love, alphabets, political slogans, and famous literary quotes, providing insight into ancient Roman street life.
The ancient Romans carved graffiti on walls and monuments, examples of which also survive in Egypt. Graffiti in the classical world had different connotations than they carry in today's society concerning content. Ancient graffiti displayed phrases of love declarations, political rhetoric, and simple words of thought, compared to today's popular messages of social and political ideals.
It was not only the Greeks and Romans who produced graffiti. The site of Tikal in Guatemala contains examples of ancient Maya graffiti. Vikings graffiti survive in Rome and at Newgrange Mound in Ireland, and a Varangian scratched his name (Halvdan) in runes on a banister in the Hagis Sophia in Constantinople. Errors in spelling and grammar in these graffiti offer insight into the degree of literacy in Roman times and provide clues on the pronunciation of spoken Latin.
The first known example of "modern style" graffiti survives in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey). Graffiti, known as Tacherons, were frequently scratched on Romanesque Scandinavian church walls. When Renaissance artists such as Pinturicchio, Raphael, Michelangelo, Ghirandaio, or Filippino Lippi descended into the ruins of Nero’s Aurea, they carved or painted their names and returned to initiate the grottesche style of decoration.
There are also examples of graffiti occurring in American history, such as Independence Rock, a national landmark along the Oregon Trail. French soldiers carved their names on monuments during the Napoleonic campaign of Egypt in the 1790s. Lord Byron’s survives on one of the columns of the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion in Attica, Greece. These early forms of graffiti have contributed to the understanding of lifestyles and languages of past cultures.
During World War II and for decades after, the phrase “Kilroy was here” with an accompanying illustration was widespread throughout the world, due to its use by American troops and ultimately filtering into American popular culture. Shortly after the death of Charlie Parker (nicknamed "Yardbird" or "Bird"), graffiti began appearing around New York with the words "Bird Lives".
The student protests and general strike of May 1968 Paris bedecked in revolutionary, anarchistic, and situationist slogans such as L'ennui est contre-évolutionnaire ("Boredom is counterrevolutionary") expressed in painted graffiti, poster, and stencil art. At the time in the US, other political phrases (such as "Free Huey" about Black Panther Huey Newton) became briefly popular as graffiti in limited areas, only to be forgotten.
Graffiti may also express underlying social and political messages and a whole genre of artistic expression is based upon spray paint graffiti styles. Controversies that surround graffiti continue to create disagreement amongst city officials, law enforcement, and writers who wish to display and appreciate work in public locations.
Wikipedia covers graffiti in great detail and I found it all fascinating. In some quarters it is regarded as a modern-day art form. In 1979, graffiti artist Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy were given a gallery opening in Rome by art dealer Claudio Bruni. Its value is highly contested and reviled by many authorities while also subject to protection. In fact in some circles, it has been positively encouraged.
In 2001, computer giant IBM launched an advertising campaign in Chicago and San Francisco which involved people spray painting on sidewalks a peace symbol, a heart, and a penguin (Linux mascot) to represent "Peace, Love, and Linux." Due to laws forbidding it, some of the "street artists" were arrested and charged with vandalism, and IBM was fined more than US$120,000 for punitive damages and clean-up costs.
Examples of graffiti can be seen in every corner of the world, from Brazil to Iran, from London to Tokyo. If you consider the aim of the graffiti artist, it tends to be to make a political comment or statement about the order of the day. Graffiti often has a reputation as part of a subculture that rebels against authority, although the considerations of the practitioners often diverge and can relate to a wide range of attitudes.
I would argue that, in this respect the role of graffiti is very similar to that of the blogger, in today’s society. Wikipedia defines a blog as: “A discussion or informational website published on the World Wide Web consisting of discrete, often informal diary-style text entries.”
Graffiti is a means of prompting discussion in a different way, but it voices opinions which can be informal, engaging and thought-provoking, just as a blog might. As with graffiti artists, bloggers use their social media platforms to do the same and blogs promote perfect reader engagement.
There are also many differences between the way in which the blogger and the graffiti artist communicate their ideas, messages and opinions, but I don’t necessarily think that the use of punctuation is the most obvious.
About the Author
Martin Parnell is the Best-Selling author of MARATHON QUEST and RUNNING TO THE EDGE and speaks on having a “Finish the Race Attitude – Overcoming Obstacles to Achieve Your Full Potential”. Martin has written for, or been covered by CNN, BBC, CBC, The Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Runners World, Men’s Journal, Canadian Business, and Maclean’s.
In a five year period, from 2010 to 2014, Martin completed 10 extreme endurance “Quests” including running 250 marathons in one year and raising $1.3m for the humanitarian organization Right To Play. Find out more about Martin at www.martinparnell.com and see what he can do for you in the long run.