A Brief History of Graffiti
While the words, 'I wonder, o wall, that you have not collapsed under the weight of all the idiocies with which these imbeciles cover you' are obviously not the first piece of graffiti, they do indicate the length of the history of writing on walls. For this dictum, which in variations has echoed down through the ages, was found on one of the walls of the city of Pompeii, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. It was one of 1600 pieces of graffiti uncovered in Pompeii during its excavation in the nineteenth century.
Graffiti before Christ?
While it is illuminating to know that the ancient Pompeiians busily carved and scratched where we now aerosol and scrawl, it is likely that ever since people have had walls and materials to scratch or paint with, they have been engaged in this simplest form of communication.
Not surprisingly, there is substantial evidence of graffiti writing on the pyramids and temples of ancient Egypt, and it could be argued that the rock paintings in Southern France, which date from 50 000 B.C. are early examples of a kind of graffiti.
Acceptance in language
The actual terms 'graffiti' and 'graffito' (the 'i' ending indicates the plural, 'o' the singular) are Italian words meaning 'scratchings or scribblings'. They entered the English language in the 1850s, specifically to describe the casual wall writing that archaeologists found in Pompeii and the Roman catacombs. Originally a specialist term used only in the context of ancient scribblings, the word 'graffiti' has undergone considerable expansion of meaning in the past 75 years so that it now refers to any written message on a wall. Graffiti are characterized by their casualness; if they were more formal, they would be known as inscriptions.
The longest piece of graffiti ever recorded in history was written by Mao Tse-Tung who, in 1915, wrote an attack of 4000 characters on China's most prominent teacher, Chang Kan. Mao was 22 at the time and the success of his graffito was that over 1000 students protested about the poor quality of Chang Kan's teaching.
Using anything they could lay their hands on--red chalk, black charcoal and a range of sharp instruments--the Romans were prodigious graffiti writers; so prodigious that a sign in Rome dating from the time of the Caesars begs people not to scribble on the walls.
Value as self-expression
It is easy to dismiss graffiti as being little more than a series of sexual innuendoes and obscenities written by louts who deface otherwise attractive blank walls, but this is to miss the point. The writing of graffiti gives people a unique opportunity to achieve some kind of public audience. Thus short poems, declarations of love, pieces of political and revolutionary polemic, and criticisms of institutions and people form a significant part of graffiti.
Thus the eternal 'Yankee Go Home' and, where relevant, 'No U.S. Bases' were, and still are, very real expressions of concern. Similarly, the piece of graffito which goes: 'America has Ronald Ray-gun, Johnny Cash, Bob Hope and Stevie Wonder, we have Malcolm Fraser, no cash, no hope and no bloody wonder' (an Australian version of a graffito that works just as well if the name of any political leader is substituted), was a witty comment on the Australian economic climate of the early 1980s.
Value to history
Apart from its value in terms of self-expression, graffiti are also valuable primary sources for the historian. The linguist is interested in them because they are close to everyday speech, the paleographer can study changes in alphabet and calligraphy from them, and the archaeologist can be helped to date a wall by the graffiti on it. There is always the possibility that historical events may be recorded either implicitly or explicitly by the presence of graffiti.
Graffiti can give us a unique view into the daily life and customs of a people, for their casual expression encourages the recording of details that more formal writing would tend to ignore. Perhaps the most interesting examples of this are the graffiti relating to the gladiatorial contests held in Pompeii.
Universality of graffiti
In the late 1970s, the collection and publication of graffiti became popular and lucrative. (This fact led to such graffiti as 'This wall soon to appear in paperback' and 'This wall is available on record and cassette from all good record shops' and to a genuine universality of graffiti). A thought written on a toilet wall in Wolverhampton can now be read in Chicago or Adelaide. In its own way, this is probably the most fascinating example of McLuhan's concept of 'the global village'. We now have a worldwide toilet wall.