Friday, April 24, 2009

Make Your Mark

via Google Images

Graffiti: Italian, plural of graffito [scribbling; graffito, a scratch]:usually relating to unauthorized writing or drawing on a public surface.
(From the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

Whether you believe it to be an anti-social nuisance or a legitimate form of art and/or protest, Graffiti has been a part of society since the first scratchings on cave walls.
Prehistoric cave paintings and pictographs featuring animals, humans and symbols of daily life have assisted historians in compiling their impressions of how our earliest ancestors lived. Nor was it a phenomenon limited to geographical region. Graffiti has been found in the catacombs of Rome, the Mayan temple walls of Tikal and on the earliest Scandinavian church walls. The first known example of "modern style" graffiti survives in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (now a part of modern-day Turkey) and according to the tour guides of the city, appears to advertise prostitution. Consisting of a handprint, a vaguely heart-like shape, a footprint and a number, the marks purportedly indicates how many steps one would have to take to find a lover, with the handprint indicating payment.

It is from these earliest forms of public inscription that the word Graffiti originated: Its associations with vandalism or counter-authority have been a relatively recent change in its meaning, possibly starting with the notorious "Kilroy Was Here!", and Mr Chad, a face with only the eyes and nose hanging over a wall, saying "What No…?" during the time of rationing. "Kilroy was Here!" gained common useage during World War 2 and was thenceforth adopted by American military personnel to signal their presence around the world. The phrase is rumoured to have been found in places as far afield as Polynesia and the surface of the moon....!

"Kilroy was Here!" Graffiti on the WWII memorial

in Washington DC via

The concept of graffiti as an art form emerged in the 70's and 80's with the growth of an American underground subculture for whom the New York subway system proved the perfect canvas on which to affect their skills. It is possible that this entire movement can be traced back to a young American man working as a foot messenger in the late 60s - early 70s who would trace his steps through the city by "tagging" various landmarks with his name: Taki 183. Taki was Greek by birth and his "tag" was short for Demetaki. The number 183 came from his address on 183rd Street in Washington Heights. In 1971 the New York Times ran an article on Taki 183 and thereafter spawned a wave of copycat taggers eager to express a sense of their own disaffected identity.

Taki 183
via Google Images.

With the popularity of tagging not in question the emphasis shifted from quantity to quality with many artists developing their own stylised forms of writing in order to differentiate themselves from the masses. The subway system remained the canvas of choice but now it was not uncommon for whole trains to be covered in graffiti, ranging from large visually three dimensional tags to whole figurative art pieces that garnered the attention of modern galleries. In the 1980's the NYC metro authorities spearheaded a campaign to remove graffiti from the city's subway system, effectively labelling it as an unwanted and anti-social persuit. In addition Former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani's subscription to the broken window theory promoted an aggressive anti-graffiti campaign in New York as a whole. By this time, however, interest in the movement had already spread to Europe, Asia and Australasia all of which spawned their own wave of artists.

Since its heyday in the suburbs of New York graffiti artists have always had an intimate connection with the music scene, principally in the areas of hip-hop where it was viewed as visual expression of the form much as break-dancing became a physical expression. In the UK, the use of graffiti became associated with the punk band Crass who used the form to engineer a campaign of anti-war, feminist, anarchist and anti-consumerist messages along the London Underground system.

via Google Images.

Graffiti has had a long standing relationship as a tool of political and social protest.
In America around the late 1960s, graffiti was used as a form of expression by political activists, and also by gangs such as the Savage Skulls, La Familia, and Savage Nomads to mark territory.
Many purist defenders of graffiti as an art form seek to distance themselves from those individuals who merely use tagging as a form of boundary marking. Graffiti art (its practioners claim) aims at self-expression and creativity and there is a constant desire to improve and progress their art form. Gang graffiti, on the other hand, functions to mark territorial boundaries, and therefore does not transcend a gang's neighborhood or presuppose artistic intent. Outsiders to the form who may have to live amongst examples of both these endeavours may or may not agree with this differentiation.

One offshoot of the graffiti form is known as "propaganda graffiti" which, due to its illegality, is often chosen by advocates of groups outside of the political mainstream (for example, far left or far right groups) who would otherwise (according to its proponents) have no other way of getting their point across to a wider audience. Examples of propaganda graffiti can be seen in areas where fascist political interests still exist as well as representing both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Probably the most widely recognised expression of graffiti (at least to a certain generation) is also its most recent, that of street art.
Using a variety of media such as stickers, stencils and posters, street artists put up installations in urban spaces. All work is usually illegal but has various aims. Some wish to create a brand with their name or image, others have a more focussed political aim. Many just want the public to see their art. The street art movement operates worldwide. Here in East London the most famous proponent of the movement is probably Banksy, much of whose work can be seen along Brick Lane and the surrounding areas. The great irony of street art, and perhaps of graffiti as a whole is that what is at once regarded as anti-social and conducive to criminality is at the same time revered and preserved for posterity. To whit, Bristol council recently took consultative measures to see whether a mural created by Banksy on the side of a domestic dwelling should be protected from redecoration. Self expression, it seems, is alive and well.

Borf - via


TV Heads (Artist Uknown)


Banksy Image, Bristol

Banksy: Let them eat Crack, NYC


With thanks to the following resources:

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