Graffiti, Art, Banksy - History and Meaning of Graffiti
The Meaning of Graffiti
If you say the word "graffiti" in some company, you will get raised eyebrows, tutting and shaking heads.
It's against the law, how dare people use spray paint to daub public buildings. Who gave them the right to do that?
Is it art? Is it just ugly scrawl? Did it deface the building onto which it was sprayed? Does it serve a cultural purpose? Is there something deeper to it than just words, drawings and colours?
I am sticking my neck out here - I think graffiti can only be called 'art' if you enjoy looking at it, otherwise it is just colour/message/words meant to convey something which didn't appeal to you as a viewer.
You might adore the artist Mark Rothko or you might think it looks like thick coloured bands on a huge canvas, it's all in the eye of the beholder.
I digress....art will do that to people. Let's look at some graffiti from around the world from our time and from the past and see if we can draw any conclusions about it.
Ancient Graffiti - Tomb Scratchings
In July 2011, archaeologists studying a Jewish burial site found many examples of graffiti written inside of tombs.
The graffiti was usually in reference to the death of their loved ones - they were a sort of message of goodbye to loved ones, a message which stays in the tomb.
'Take courage, holy parents of Pharcitae, no one is immortal' was one such scratch into the walls. As the archaeologists moved from tomb to tomb, they found message after message. It seems that this graffiti was an accepted means of creative epitaph.
So is graffiti about communication?
Is there any difference between 'Kilroy Was Here' and 'One Nation Under CCTV'?
Graffiti Isn't A Modern Day Phenomena
Graffiti in Europe existed way back in ancient times.
The photo to the right shows an example of Roman graffiti, it reads "Dominus Est Non Gradus Anus Rodentum" - this translates to 'the lord/sire/boss isn't worth a rat's ass'.
Ancient Pompeii is now a world heritage site; you can stroll the city destroyed by a volcano but keep your Latin phrasebook handy. Pompeii has a lot of graffiti, some of it just plain rude with sexual connotations galore, other graffiti is more romantic in nature.
'If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should look at my girlfriend' is rather more pleasant than 'I screwed the barmaid' but you'll find both of them in Pompeii.
But isn't 'Lovers are like bees in that they live a honeyed life' just lovely?
Graffiti - A Personal Message
The first time the word 'graffiti' was used in England was during the Victorian period (1837-1901) and there were a number of arrests for individuals caught applying paint, chalk and other media to public walls.
Strangely some of the graffiti was created by people advertising products:-
In Marylebone in 1831 a man was prosecuted for scrawling the words 'Warren's Liquid Blacking' on a building (in thick black letters, maybe using Warren's Liquid Blacking?), in court he admitted that he had also scrawled it on a wall elsewhere first. So strictly speaking, was this graffiti? Or just opportunist advertising?
In 1861, Edward Bambrook was released without charge after admitting he had scratched the words "What nation can fight?" onto a wall. This time, he admitted he felt compelled to put the words on a wall after reading the Book of Daniel, his favourite book in the bible. When asked why he felt this kind of thing was appropriate he said his desire was to make the Bible universal.
Is this graffiti or religious fanaticism?
How about a 'lady' daubing rude words on the door of a known brothel in London? She was prosecuted for profanity but the brothel owner was completely overlooked, in spite of prostitution being illegal.
Sometimes graffiti is about territory - 'Kilroy Was Here' started that one - most of New York's early graffiti started with people writing their names on street signs after they had visited; then gangs took over and the covered 'their' area with their graffiti - 100% territorial.
Sometimes it is political - either in words , Banksy's high above West End London, 'One Nation Under CCTV' or the Sandanista supporters 'El Frente - La Solucion' found in Nicaragua.
And sometimes, just sometimes, it is art?
Banksy - Street Art or Graffiti
I asserted at the start of this article that graffiti is only art if you enjoy looking at it and I stand by that when I discuss England's most famous graffiti 'artist', Banksy.
Banksy has created graffiti all over the world now but some of his most 'iconic' (I am loathe to use the word because he is, in many respects, an iconoclast) work can be seen in the UK.
He has his own website. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 2010 for his first movie and premiered his movie at the Sundance Festival - the 'alternative' film festival.
But nobody knows who he is! His anonymity is what has made him famous but there can be no denying his talent as an artist, even if he has given his 'art' to the public through the 'media' of graffiti.
Astonishingly in February 2013, one of his works of graffiti appeared in a sale in a Miami auction house. The asking price was likely to reach a cool £400,000. The work, 'Slave Labour', was removed from a wall in Wood Green, London by persons unknown.
The people of Wood Green have been outspoken in their right to get the work back from whoever took it - it is 'their' graffiti, their Banksy. He gave it to them and they wanted it back.
The item was withdrawn from sale at the last moment. Let's see if this famous Banksy graffiti is returned to London.
'Artistic Graffiti' - You Decide
Once thing which stands out from ancient times to modern is that graffiti, in its first incarnation, belongs to the person actually carrying it out and they all seem to have their own reason for doing it.
Some do it because they are trying to make a point - political, religious, cultural, anti-establishment and this can be through either words or painting or both.
Some people do it because they want to make a point and are good at it - Banksy's paintings as you can see from the photos are very off-kilter, this is a man who thinks about things happening in the world, war seems to concern him a lot and he touches upon subjects like the loss of innocence, human beings losing basic freedoms but he can also do drawings which are just playful - notice his paintings involving and including England's infamous 'double yellow lines' (no parking zones).
And some people have the artistic flair to render an ugly urban building 'beautiful' again with spray pain, using colour to enliven dark spaces.
Other people do it because they are being wilfully criminal -it is all about doing damage, creating heartache for the people who have to clean up after them - these people will never be artists, they are vandals.
In some parts of the world now, there are schools for graffiti artists to learn how to improve their craft. Often they are given a space to explore their talents and others are invited to view their work; however, I imagine most of those 'artists' still like to create in subways, in urban areas, on factory and warehouse walls because they are public canvasses and they maybe this shows that graffiti is, at its heart, still about being subversive, whether you're artistic or not.
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