The History of Graffiti, Graffiti Research by All Weather Artist Rik Cheetham



Definition of graffiti in English: plural noun (singular graffito)


Writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place: the station was covered in graffiti



The modern application of the word graffiti, has become so confused, many sources will yield different definitions depending on the publisher and date of publication. Not to mention the creative input of unregulated content of online encyclopaedias, dictionaries and web publications.


The origins of the word and it’s varying contexts show that throughout history there have been debates around graffiti and its role and application within and upon public surfaces.


A graffito (plural “graffiti”), originates from a word meaning a deliberate mark made by scratching or engraving on a large surface such as a wall. In a historic sense the word graffito may also describe a decorative process of partially scratching off a surface layer to reveal a differently coloured material. However the term is not usually used to describe engraved decoration on small objects such as bones, but instead, engraved images of animals that are commonly found on the walls of caves and prehistoric dwellings; A common misconception being that graffiti is art on a wall specifically. Some modern interpretations define Graffiti as simply painting or drawing on a wall, but others add ‘(often obscene)’ or illicit at the end of the sentence. However, could not the definition of painting or drawing on any surface be described as art? The qualities the art possesses is a matter to be judged by the individual, just as a picture in a gallery is judged.


So when should a piece of art be deemed Graffiti and vice-versa? Is graffiti not an act of creativity? Is it not criticised by the viewer? Disliked or alternatively enjoyed and praised from each individual perspective? Might graffiti be profound as well as obscene? Does not graffiti reflect and communicate an aspect of culture just as a piece of art does?


There is no difference between graffiti and art - One cannot exist without the other. The Arts collectively describe skills or means of expression and creation. The word Art describes the content, a communicative aspect or product of the skill.


Graffiti is not a specific form of art or style of image. Graffiti is a format for art. The word graffiti describes a canvas, more specifically, graffiti is an unpermitted canvas.


The word graffiti refers only to the ownership of a surface on which the art is produced. What qualities the work may have in the location whether it has creative or communicative intent, if that process leaves a mark, whether beautiful or what might be considered vandalism in an unpermitted location, is graffiti.


So why might a word like graffiti exist? What application does it serve to the description of a piece of art, the artist or the owner of the canvas?


In a sociological sense, the application of graffiti is the expression of a human need to communicate within a social arena. The power of this need can now be observed in online public formats such as message boards and social media. People in a community like to have a public presence and a means to communicate with, express themselves to, or simply observe others.



Graffiti as a creative pursuit is  often compared and related to Cave art, the earliest examples of human ability to be able to express Himself via using visualisation and met the same function of social commentary, means of possession and environmental influence as modern graffiti - but they are not the same thing.


Graffiti can not exist without a hierarchy or social structure within which ‘private’ ownership or control of property are present. Without a body to grant permission or otherwise deem the act criminal, illicit or unpermitted; it is reduced to simply being an act of destruction or creation and that what only be subject to opinion.


The ability to control and censor information within a space and the resulting control this power allows, is the condition required for graffiti to exist. It is often the target or provocation behind the response to create and express via what can only then be deemed graffiti by the governing party.


The human need to feel possession, self-expression, influence or ownership by marking spaces, creates a territorial reaction of the owner to protect, control  and re-assert ownership of those spaces. Thus the to impulse to create graffiti and the need to eradicate graffiti is born from the same intention to possess, control, and influence the space. The desire to communicate using graffiti is anti-social only by the definition it must be unpermitted or unwanted to be so. Graffiti as a communicative tool in the wrong hands has the potential to undermine authority, unite revolutionaries and spread rebellious attitudes. In the right hands it might bolster moral, open a channel of communication to  educate and inform. Of course it depends which side you are on as to which phrase you might use.


As such the environment in which graffiti is propagated is also considered “undesirable” in an “ideal” modern society; the appearance of graffiti is seen as the sign of civil unrest or a troubled community. It is performed illicitly so the word indicates a criminal act rather than a creative one, an act associated with deviancy. Graffiti will also often express matters of social taboos, voice unspoken issues or reflect the opinions of those whose opinion is not otherwise heard on a public platform. As a crime or an anti-social act, the intention and communicative values of the graffiti should be considered to really determine how damaging the act is upon the community.


The mediums used for Graffiti enabled its production making creative use of the new technological innovations of the 20th century. Art as a whole utilises technology to varying effects - Without the tool to make a mark the picture cannot be made. What would once be engraved in a cave with a flint or by natural dyes will use different technology as it becomes available. They may possess different qualities of stroke, colour or ease of production. To label graffiti in any specific manner whether based on form, content or media, fails to recognise the continual changes alongside our own human development. In a modern sense, the condition of being unpermitted also restricts the artistic content of graffiti due to surveillance technology and alarms for example, increasing the risk of apprehension before the creative intention is achieved.

However, the graffiti format maximises the potential of a public platform to communicate using the location to enhance the subject matter or to reach the target audience. The location gives art the ability to project more than what is written or drawn on the wall. It gives political or social commentary a platform to reach an audience. It provides irony or sarcasm, a sense of humour through placement; a way to enhance what is communicated.


The potential of complete freedom of expression in public spaces can be a very dangerous thing. Modern communities are diverse, we no longer share a common tribal belief or world view and what is considered positive in one culture could be regarded as offensive or negative to our neighbour. This gives graffiti the ability to hurt, bully, and provoke reaction or emotion in its viewers.


This demonstrates that in fact graffiti has no fixed form, common medium or specific value to every person, graffiti is however a means of communicative application of art and like all communication it can be perceived differently depending on the quality or how it is interpreted and who it communicates with.


Depending on your age and the society in which you grew up, the word graffiti may now sum up very different images ranging from old-fashioned desktop graffiti at school to toilet-graffiti (latrinalia), graffiti left by tourists (proskynemata), Style based graffiti, often referred to as American graffiti, and its derivatives on stickers, engravings and scratchings.


Some may imagine large murals produced on subway trains, bold, colourful letters and humorous characters painted in spray paint on the street. Many will now generalise that graffiti is beautiful or can be positive - that they “like” graffiti. Or rather the art applied to the graffiti format. Criminal damage would be the description if the artist should be apprehended and prosecuted. No matter the artistic quality or public benefits of the work, graffiti is still a crime should the property owner deem it so. Only with a compliant is this deemed a crime.



Many readers will question this. Our modern perception is that graffiti is a particular style or type of art. You may also find graffiti for sale or on display at a gallery. So I ask the same question, what does graffiti look like? If graffiti were a style of art the question of what graffiti looks like would be easy to answer. Graffiti does not describe art. It can describe art; but it also describes an act of vandalism or defamation in the same stroke. How has the simple concept of what graffiti is become so confused within discussions of art in recent decades? The parameters have remained the same, the difference is still permission.


Over the last century and a half, our communities have changed, expanded and integrated, as has global culture. During the late 1960’s and early 70’s, traditional disciplines of dance, music, and art of all manner of global influences were re-claimed and manipulated by everyday people in the lower echelons of society.  People who owned nothing. I believe this is important to remember in understanding why a graffiti format became the platform on which visual art was shown and exhibited. It was the fundamental message behind this artwork which ensured the quality of production would be to the greatest possible level despite the risks present in producing graffiti.


Graffiti’s role in making the arts accessible and popular was hugely important, but was it the art or the location and rebellious image however which appealed to such a global audience? This answer to this question is as individual as each participant or viewer of graffiti, every piece of graffito has its own story and we can now see the result of style based graffiti in all corners of the earth and under the noses of the most repressive regimes.


The term ‘graffiti’ is now used to both censor art on one hand, yet also celebrate, commission and educate on the other. It is a term that can devalue the artistic content or enhance the credibility of art or an artist. There is no doubt that graffiti can be highly artistic, but the art that is created as a result, may never be valued, legitimised, justified or be elevated to its full potential under the title of graffiti.


What’s in  a name?....


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