Graffiti, Art, Banksy - History and Meaning of Graffiti

Double yellow line 'conceit'
Double yellow line 'conceit'

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?

Well my answer to the question posed in the Answers section by Peggy W is that I think graffiti is a difficult thing to define.

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'?

Roman graffiti - even the ancient Romans liked to slag off their bosses....nothing changes!
Roman graffiti - even the ancient Romans liked to slag off their bosses....nothing changes! | Source

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?


Nicaraguan political graffiti
Nicaraguan political graffiti

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?

Banksie's latest graffiti - is this making a statement about small children in developing nations working to create bunting for the Queen's diamond jubilee?  He is so astute.
Banksie's latest graffiti - is this making a statement about small children in developing nations working to create bunting for the Queen's diamond jubilee? He is so astute.

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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Is Graffiti Art or Vandalism Comments 52 comments

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Mary, Yes, indeed. More questions that answers and that is not going to change. In Britain at the moment, an arts society are trying to save old 'murals' done in the 20s, 30s and 40s. Some of them are absolutely gorgeous and have been platered and wallpapered over by developers over the years.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Audra, many thanks. Now you need to figure out how to create a 'mural' of numbers!


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 3 years ago from New York

You've made so many interesting points here Jools. The history of "graffiti" is fascinating. It is often hard to distinguish between graffiti, art, and historical artifacts...who should decide? Where should it be and what is offensive and what's not? I think more questions than answers.

Voted this up, useful, and interesting.


AudraLeigh 3 years ago

I think this piece of yours is my favorite coming from you! I think you cleverly touched base on all of the avenues whether or not graffiti can be considered art and why. I like how you brought some history in too. I think it is art; the pretty and the ugly. Wonderful job!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Daisy, thanks for your comment - I can see where you're coming from but it isn't all artistic. Some of it is just mindless scrawl and serves no purpose other than to annoy people who have to look at it. But the Banksy stuff is good :o)


dailytop10 profile image

dailytop10 3 years ago from Davao City

Graffiti is used for self-expression qualifying it as a form of art.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Andrew, I heard about the graffiti on Rome ruins but there is a historical precedent to this. Before the Renaissance, the people in Rome used Roman artefacts as troughs to fed their animals or as garden ornaments. I think it's a kind of Italian thing - snubbing their noses as what other people tell them is 'art'. I agree about the 'designated' areas for graffiti,that would be an ideal way for them to let off steam and also be artistic (if they are!) but as you say, for some people it's a state of mind. i think Banksy is a real talent but he has made most of his graffiti artistic. It is aesthetically pleasing and I would be happy if he scrawled something on my ugly front wall, though I'd be pee'd off if I kept getting loads of visitors :o)


chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 3 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

Great hub and thoughtful insights and history, thank you.

In an ideal world every town and city would have official graffiti walls positioned in public places and they'd employ cleaners to wipe clean the walls say every month. Graffiti artists would win prizes for the best creation - everyone would be happy!!?? Artist, public, authority.

BUT I guess the point of graffiti is just the opposite - it's done to annoy authority!! Therefore, graffiti is plain vandalism, almost by definition.

Banksy god bless him has taken vandalism to a new level and in this commercially and morally bankrupt world has made a heap of cash from his undoubted talents. Love him or loathe him you have to admire his cunning balls.

Personally I hate graffiti, except if it's scrawled on ugly concrete monstronsities like underpasses. I also hate concrete but that's another story.

When I visited Rome, the eternal city, I saw graffiti scrawled on ancient stonework. For some reason that made me really angry and helped form my opinion.

Shared your hub.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Lizzy, glad you saw the Banksy news item. Banksy, as you know is still anonymous. He deliberately draws on walls or in spaces which get a lot of foot fall. He has said again and again that his graffiti 'belongs' to the public. That is why there has been such an outcry about the Miami gallery situation, basically some greedy unknown Brit saw fit to steal his graffiti from Wood Green, London and sell it, oh well, they lost out, thanks goodness. I agree with you that it is best enjoyed in designated spaces. The ship's idea sounds like a good one, a sort of 'legal' graffiti.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Sunshine, I'm with you on that - some is good, some is pretty bad and is just vandalism.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

xstatic, it does seem to be an emotive subject. I hate it when I see vandalised graffiti but even I enjoy seeing something 'artistic', in the right place of course :o)


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

Gang-related graffiti, deliberate damage to property for the sake of ugly "tagging" marks related to the gang, I hate seeing. I'd like to catch them, and see how they like it if someone spray-painted their house, car, or clothing...it's just plain unacceptable.

That said, there are some very talented artists who do create either very lovely artwork, or make social commentary; the Banksy item was just on the news the other day. Even so, the fact that they cannot find a canvas besides someone else's property for display of their talent still bothers me.

I'd rather see the art on display on real canvasses, so they could be moved about and enjoyed by a greater audience, and so building owners don't have the expense of obliterating it (if it offends them), or the city the expense of prosecution.

I recall, when I was a child, we toured a brand-new cruise ship that was open to the public just prior to its maiden voyage. One of the recreation rooms featured walls of soft wood, into which young passengers were actually ENCOURAGED to carve initials, or what have you.... to spare other parts of the ship from such 'artistic' enterprises....

As you say, what constitutes art is in the eye of the beholder; I prefer realism, and I don't like Van Gogh, for example, and I really dislike Picasso and Dali.

Up and interesting!


Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

I consider graffiti art, it's eye candy. When displayed appropiately it has a special meaning and symbolizes something to someone. Now when graffiti is used in a negative or hurtful way I consider it an eyesore.


xstatic profile image

xstatic 3 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

Very interesting and well done article about a fascinating subject. Much graffiti is rubbish, but the occasional work that approaches Banksy's talent is worth seeing. I agree with your opinion about this strange and very old "art."


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

torrilynn, as you'll see from other comments, everyone seems to have their own view. I think where it is done on 'provided' space (more prevalent now) and as long as it is genuinely 'good to look at' (and not on people's homes etc) then it could be called art. It is its own form of art though and will always provoke strong opinions. Many thanks for your comment.


torrilynn profile image

torrilynn 3 years ago

jools99, i feel that graffiti can be see as art and vandalism. in the minds of people that spray paint buildings and other things they feel as if graffiti is art form and that it allows them to express themselves freely and creatively. on the other hand, in the minds of adults they feel as if graffiti is vandilism because they are able to understand why these kids can't just express themselves by drawing or painting. in my eyes i feel that graffiti is an art form that does help people, even though some of it may be pointless and not serve an actually purpose of being inspirational to others. great hub. voted up and sharing.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Mohan, thanks for your comment. I agree with you, some of it is just ugly and put in place to impress peers whilst other stuff, like Banksy's is real art. Even then though, I'm still glad it is not on my house!


Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK

this wonderfully expressive artform that can equally border on vandalism is captured here by your words really well. Like all art forms there is wheat and the chaff and one needs to separate the good from the bad in order to appreciate its true potential. Great examples and history here, Julie. voted up/shared.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Keith, many thanks for your comment. I like most graffiti but I'm still glad that it is not on my house :o)


KDuBarry03 4 years ago

Graffiti is art. I only have a problem with graffiti that gives hints and meanings of murder and death in detailed ways. Graffiti is art for everyone to see on a daily basis. Why would people want to see art symbolizing death on a daily basis if they don't need to? That's the only problem I see with Graffiti.

Thank you for another great hub, Jools!

-KD


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Thomas, Sherry and Angela, many thanks for your comments! Graffiti certainly is a subject which gets people heated up :o)


Angela Brummer profile image

Angela Brummer 4 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

Maria Montessori was one doctor who I have interest in that studied Graffiti in order to enhance her educating children. However, If I were just to give my opinion by my viewing.... I who considers myself talented, am in awh at the art that is produced. What a great idea for an article!


Sherry Hewins profile image

Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

It depends not only on the viewer, but on the intent of the "artist" some graffiti is meant as self expression, and some to mark territory or simply deface.


ThoughtSandwiches profile image

ThoughtSandwiches 4 years ago from Reno, Nevada

jools99,

Interesting question that I would wholeheartedly agree depends on the viewer. If you like it it is art...otherwise just visual trash. I have found both forms of the medium in my travels...lol. What I (usually) do like are train cars that have been all graffiti-ed up. Something to watch when you are sitting at the gates.

Thanks,

Thomas

PS...Happy Birthday!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Vinaya, thanks for your comments - graffiti will always be seen as subversive but that's why people do it, it's a way of thumbing their nose at authority. Banksy, though, is a real artist.


Vinaya Ghimire profile image

Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

I believe graffiti is certainly an art form. We cannot dismiss graffiti simply because it is mostly done on the streets. Fifty years from now, Banksy will be compared to Picasso.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Lesley, thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment, I appreciate it :o)


Movie Master profile image

Movie Master 4 years ago from United Kingdom

Interesting hub Jools, some graffiti looks a mess and is vandalism, but some can be real art,

Voting up/interesting and shared


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Sonykkid, thanks for your comment, inmagine that - an iconic logo and it was originally graffiti :o)


sonykkid profile image

sonykkid 4 years ago

Someone is my class did a speech on this and he got to the finals, he didn't win but he raised a point that the Olympics logo was based on graffiti (he said I thought it was meant to be illegal)- good hub


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Suzette, greeat comment and your experience of graffiti across the world certainly gives you a wide perspective of it. The graffiti in Salamanca by a famous artist is fascinating. Graffiti is a way for people to express themselves but, as you say, when it is defacing a building, it can never be condoned - it's vandalism. It is a shame that even if graffiti 'artists' were provided with legal spaces to do it, some of them would still deface in a public place.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Molly, many thanks for your comment - sadly, most of stuff in my area is 'tagging', just vandals spray painting their nicknames, and even if it was artistic, I wouldn't care for it on my wall!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Natashalh, yes, there is something inside of human beings which uses graffiti to express themselves; in ancient times and still now.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Peggy, many thanks for your comment. Of course, you are right; art or not, graffiti is vandalism and therefore criminal and they never pay for the expensive clean up - we do. Banksie is not alone though in having a genuine artistic talent but has chosen to stay anonymous, still preferring this subversive way of expressing his art, human beings are so complex!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Wayne, thanks for your comment - graffiti is crime, full stop but human beings will always find ways to cross the line - as you say, even if its artistic, it shouldn't be expressed on someone else's property. I wonder how many of Banksie's site owners are now regretting his crime though? He has made some of the buildings famous landmarks now.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Xenonlit, this story is so disturbing - graffiti used as political expression is nothing new but a dangerous thing is a place like Homs but they must have been so desperate to get their point across to their compatriots. Great comment, thanks.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Nell, I agree with all of your comment - criminality can never be condoned but where someone does have genuine talent, they need an outlet - maybe they should start on their own wall though :o)


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM

Personally, I like graffiti. I have viewed it all over the countries I have visited. It tells me what issues the people have with their government, the world and sometimes the U.S. I do consider it art and I appreciate it in that light. I thought the graffiti on the Berlin Wall was beautiful and necessary. It is a form of free expression but I know it can deface certain buildings rather than doing good. I love it see it in the metros of the large cities of the world. It doesn't bother me.

When I studied at the University of Salamanca in Spain, I was so surprised to see graffiti from the 13th and 14th centuries on the walls of the buildings. Even Miguel Cervantes de Saavadra name was part of the graffiti from the 1500's on the university walls. I found that amazing and fascinating.

Probably the rebel in me likes graffiti. But I appreciate how interesting it is and what it says about a people and culture.


mollymeadows profile image

mollymeadows 4 years ago from The Shire

Thought-provoking hub, Jools. I've seen some graffiti that may have qualified as art or political commentary, but I'm not sure because it was working alive and I had no idea what it was supposed to be ;-)


Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

I love that you pointed Roman graffiti. It's funny how people never change!


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

What a great hub in response to my question! Except in rare cases, I personally think negatively when I see graffiti scrawled on walls, fences, signs and the like.

We have an ordinance in Houston that requires business owners to cover up the graffiti at their own expense within a certain time limit or be fined. This causes problems for many of them and adds to the expense of running their businesses. Who pays in the end? Of course it is the consumer using those products or services when prices have to be raised to account for covering up the graffiti. Much of it is gang related and scary to see for that reason also.

Vandalism is vandalism, pure and simple whether it is artistic or not. Too bad that those with talents cannot turn their efforts into areas where their creativity can be put to more positive effects.

Voted up, interesting and will SHARE. Thanks!


Wayne Brown profile image

Wayne Brown 4 years ago from Texas

Regardless of whether it is the finest piece of art work in ever created, if it has been placed somewhere that it does not belong, then it is simply vandalism. Train cars were not built to be painted by idiots with spray cans regardless of their talent nor were buildings and, at times, one of a kind items which cannot be replaced. To me, it is the same as going into a cementery and kicking down all the gravestones only to say that you "rearranged them in a more artistic way". Art belongs in those places which are sanctioned for it. Anywhere else crosses the line to graffiti and vandalism. The ancient Romans might have done the same thing but that only goes to show how long it takes to eradicate ignorance from the world. Those who feel it is their duty and right deface the property of others in the name of art are simply showing their ignorance. WB


Xenonlit profile image

Xenonlit 4 years ago

Great post! Some artists are "outsider artists" and either cannot get into the arts mafia. Others get off on doing illicit art as a challenge or test of their skills. The rest are not artists at all, they are "taggers" who want their identity to be seen in as many places as possible.

I worked on a Graffiti art exhibit, and the craft, skill and talent of the best ones is amazing. But half of the hosting city was tagged on opening night! It was a celebration of graffiti! The grownups weren't happy, though.

The most heartbreaking graffiti was done by some boys in the town of Homs, Syria. They watched news of Arab Spring on television and decided to write their protest. The boys were rounded up, tortured and some were killed. This is why the Syrians are not going to stop until they prevail or are killed.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi, I do agree with you on the point that I think most of Graffiti is just a mess, and done by yobs who just want to make a mess, then there is Banksy! lol! I do think that there is a lot of talent out there that has no outlet, maybe they don't have any money to go to art school, or even draw for local shows, etc, and this needs to be encouraged, not on a wall of course, but somewhere they can go to express their talent, food for thought, great hub, voted and shared, nell


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Rob, yes I'm sure your personal experience will have coloured your view of it. I think where it is used to deface anything and the owner of a building has to clean it off then it's just plain wrong. We have a shop owner in our town who has let a graffiti artist spray pain his shutters and they are very eyecatching but I think this is probably rare!


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 4 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

I think my view of graffiti is colored by having lived in NY in the 1970s, when graffiti was everywhere and became a symbol of the urban decay that gave us such a terrible reputation at the time. Since then, the city has been cleaned up and the tourists have come back but as a kid, the images of the ubiqutous graffiti brings up very negative connotations.

Interesting article, though.

Rob


Angie Jardine profile image

Angie Jardine 4 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

Ah, a different perspective Bob ... excellent point.


diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico

Angie: I used to have a roof and area cleaning business. It takes a lot of work to get graffiti removed, only to see it come back again in days.

Bob


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Angie, thanks for commenting - I agree, the ugly stuff should go! Banksy - I would happily hang up on my walls.


Angie Jardine profile image

Angie Jardine 4 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

Hi Jools ... I have to say I enjoy Banksy's work as it is witty, erudite and amusing ... but most of the arty looking stuff is usually unintelligible.

The ugly stuff should just be scrubbed off ...


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK Author

Fair enough Bob! I wouldn't want it on my own property but I do really like a lot of Banksy's work. That said, it's still breaking the law!


diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico

It is art. And like the tradition forms, there's as many daubers and hopeless amateurs out there practicing on walls! Therefore, much of it offends rather than entertains.

I wouldn't like my house done like that, regardless of the artistic pretentions of the spray-can wielder.

I'm a BAN THE LOT OF IT, sorry to the few really great and creative perps.

Bob

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