What do you think of when you hear the word graffiti? Disturbing, violent messages spray-painted on walls? Truth is graffiti is an art form with a long, fascinating history.
Millennia before the Italians coined the word ‘graffiti’, human beings have been scrawling messages and pictures on various surfaces. Ancient rock carvings are the first instances of graffiti. From simple, striking imagery, graffiti acquired more nuances during the Age of Reason.
Beneath the perfectly preserved ruins of Pompeii, archaeologists discovered graffiti that, when deciphered, rivalled modern street art in humour and vulgarity! In ancient China, it was hard to find a wall that wasn’t completely scrawled over.
Modern graffiti art has its origins in the 1970s, when spray-painted tags, predominantly political messages, began appearing in New York City and Philadelphia. Since then, graffiti has spread to cities worldwide, evolving into complex, stunning artwork on trains, subways and urban walls.
For years, civic authorities frowned upon these colourful, sometimes subversive but always eye-catching works executed in secrecy with great panache. Today, with ordinary citizens wholeheartedly endorsing the validity of informal street art, urban authorities even commission graffiti artists for specific murals.
Strategically placed, interesting graffiti art can brighten up the most boring of localities. A famous example, the graffiti art of Banksy in Bristol (UK) that became a tourist draw.
Graffiti art has its own lingo and specific styles. The most basic style is the single coloured tag, typically, the writer’s name, executed with spray cans, pens or markers. Throw-ups consist of large, colourful bubble letters. Stencils, favoured by graffiti artists like Banksy and Blek le Rat, portray detailed, multi-coloured images.
Wildstyle, a complex, stylised writing technique with 3D effects in fluorescent hues was created by New York artists like Stay High 149, Tracy 168 and Zephyr. A ‘piece,’ shorthand for masterpiece is a full-blown painting, requiring much time and effort.
Blockbuster graffiti features enormous block letters, executed with paint rollers and 2–3 colours. ‘Heaven’ is graffiti art done in inaccessible locations like freeway signs or near the top of high buildings. Such risky sites win graffiti artists’ considerable respect from their community.
Advertisers are increasingly drawn to street art for promoting brands. Not everyone approves, deeming this a deceptive tactic to hitch a free ride on the popularity of street art.
In 2005, Sony recruited graffiti artists to spray-paint images on urban walls in several American cities, marketing strategy for its Playstation Portable (PSP). The campaign encountered enormous protest and criticism.
Graffiti has come a long way from its origins as a primitive form of expression to a school of art that is recognised and feted in art galleries for its breakthrough techniques and ability to make powerful statements.