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A Brief History of Graffiti

Updated on December 2, 2009

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 in Pompeii. Photo by skiena @ flickr.com.
Graffiti in Pompeii. Photo by skiena @ flickr.com.

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.

Ancient graffiti on a cave wall near Sigulda in Latvia. Photo by mrlederhosen @ flickr.com.
Ancient graffiti on a cave wall near Sigulda in Latvia. Photo by mrlederhosen @ flickr.com.

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.

Longest graffiti

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.

A call to rebel -Cochabamba rebellion, Bolivia. Photo www.eerola.com.
A call to rebel -Cochabamba rebellion, Bolivia. Photo www.eerola.com.

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.

Graffiti in Pompeii in passageway to the large theatre. Photo commons.wikimedia.org.
Graffiti in Pompeii in passageway to the large theatre. Photo commons.wikimedia.org.

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.

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    • truthfornow profile image

      truthfornow 6 years ago from New Orleans, LA

      In New Orleans, we have some guy that goes around and covers graffiti with the ugliest gray paint in the world. I would rather look at the graffiti than ugly gray paint. What is the point of that? A lot of people think graffiti is all bad and obviously don't understand the history. Great hub!

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 6 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      This is an impressive hub on graffiti. It does reflect the society at the time it was written. Some are interesting to read especially those reflecting one's sentiments on politicss, social issues and even religion. But graffiti is graffiti. I find it juvenile and invasive (if it's on your wall or on your car). Not everyone can stir up change as Mao did. Most graffiti nowadays are merely vulgarity - although some are artistically done.

    • L. Ray Haynes profile image

      L. Ray Haynes 6 years ago from the biosphere

      As a 'writer', I found this to be very informative on the deep historical origins of graffiti. It puts the subject in context and raises an awareness of this as a ubiquitous form of expression for humanity. Big-ups to ya!

    • DaveysRecipeRead profile image

      DaveysRecipeRead 7 years ago

      wow! you really did your homework!

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 8 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Graffiti in my town is so artistic, it can hardly be called graffiti. Love this Hub.

    • dashingclaire profile image

      dashingclaire 8 years ago from United States

      I grew up w/graffiti in NYC. It was a form of expression w/unique signatures like Revs and TAKI 183. Nice hub!

    • FredIndy profile image

      FredIndy 8 years ago from Queensland

      For the sake of accountability, I also came across this hub thanks to Norah and the email.

      It's great though, I've always liked graffiti as an expression, and as part of a culture. Love everything from Banksy art to witty scribbles in the public johns!

    • manthy profile image

      Mark 8 years ago from Alabama,USA

      I ran across this hub because I got a email from hubpages and Norah Casey recommended it, I think it is a cool hub and it brings to mind a documentary I saw awhile back on Aleister Crowley " the self proclaimed evilest person to ever leave and the vast amount of graffiti that is in his house and how people to this day break in to due rituals... weird... I liked your hub and I wish you much success

    • Norah Casey profile image

      Norah Casey 8 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Great hub! I've always been a fan of the social context of graffiti, though I didn't know about its archaeological significance. The graffiti on the west bank barrier by banksy ranks as some of my all time favorite pieces of artistic expression.

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 8 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Our culture has lost quite a bit of graffiti with the advent of cell phones; phone booths have all but vanished in many cities. I always knew I'd have something interesting to read while dialing.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      I guess some things never change. But I love the graffiti along the Metro in DC. The train goes past some pretty ugly spots, old warehouses and places like that and the graffiti really makes it so much more interesting to look at.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 8 years ago from Chicago

      I can now see that what you lack in quantity, you more than make up for in quality. This Hub is great! I learned a lot from you and I enjoyed it very much.

      I saw some graffiti once in Chicago where someone had spray painted "Life is but a contradiction."

      Someone else came along and wrote below it: "No it's not"

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