A Brief Intro to…the origins of Graffiti
Updated: Feb 5
Dictionary Definition: “Writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.”
Graffiti; a beautiful word for something traditionally associated with illegal urban activity. As the plural of the Italian archaeological term Graffito, its original context, meant a deliberate mark made by scratching or engraving on a large surface such as a wall.
Whilst the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians may have first coined the term, the definition and origins of modern day graffiti continue to be debated. When and where it first started causes much controversy, especially amongst the graffiti community, but here we’ve detailed some of the most widely held views:
Some say it was during WW2; when American soldiers fighting in Europe left ‘Kilroy was Here’ messages on walls or other places they were stationed, encamped, or visited. The phrase and the distinctive accompanying doodle (a bald-headed man with a prominent nose peeking over a wall with his fingers both clutching it) has since become popularised in a number of television series and films including American Dad, Doctor Who, and Futurama.
Others feel it began after the death of a Jazz legend in the 1950s when mourning fans started to write the motto ‘Bird Lives’ on walls. Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker was a highly influential jazz soloist, a leading figure in the development of bebop and a blazingly fast virtuoso. He acquired the nickname “Yardbird” early in his career and the shortened form “Bird”, continued to be used for the rest of his life, inspiring the titles of a number of compositions, such as “Yardbird Suite”, “Bird Gets the Worm”, and “Bird of Paradise”.
Many believe it was French students rioting in Paris leaving their anarchistic slogans across the city in 1968 that first began the trend. Marking ‘Sous les pavés, la plage!’ (‘Under the cobblestones, the beach’) on public walls, the protesters were trying to convey the message that it was possible to escape from a regimented life.
Some argue that true graffiti began in Philadelphia in the late 60s. This was when the (previously anonymous) activity changed, with individuals like Daryl McCray painting not just messages but ‘tags’ (essentially their names or nick names) in public spaces. Daryl’s tag, ‘Cornbread’ popped up everywhere across the city and he was later credited amongst his peers as the first modern graffiti artist.
A few regard the Punk Rock movement as the starting point of graffiti with bands such as Crass and Black Flag widely stenciling their names and logos across punk night clubs, squats and hang outs.
But the vast majority believe in was 1970s New York that was the home of modern day graffiti. Indeed it was in 70s New York that graffiti was brought into mainstream conversation after the New York Times reported on the work of one key protagonist. Taki 183 (a tag name combined from the writer’s name Demetrius/Demitraki and address West 183rd Street) worked as a foot messenger in the city and would write his name around the streets he visited.
It was also in New York that tagging evolved into a more creative art form, with letter size growing into an interlocking block of text complete with symbols and motifs. This ‘wildstyle’ required more space and time to complete and so many graffiti writers, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, started working in railyards. Hidden away from interruptions, they had more time to adorn train carriages with their work opposed to when working in Subway stations.
And it was in 80s New York, that graffiti become more competitive with writers’ keen to outdo each other with their designs. This meant the quality of work improved and the art world started to take notice. Collectives of the best graffiti writers, were formed and galleries started to approach them to showcase work and the phrase ‘graffiti artist’ began to emerge.
Equally important, it was amongst New York’s Hip Hop scene, that graffiti thrived, with many music videos featuring break-dancers against a graffiti artwork backdrop.
Where New York leads, London often tends to follow. In the mid 70s, having read an article about graffiti culture in New York, a teenager began spraying his name ‘Kix’ around North London out of boredom, often in the company of friends ‘Mr B’, ‘Cat’ and ‘Columbo’. Their work was featured in a book called ‘The Writing on the Wall’ which documented graffiti in 70s London. With the arrival of Hip Hop music in the UK in the late 80s, London artists began spray bombing trains and the development of the London graffiti scene took on a similar pace to that of New York.
The early 90s saw the start of Banksy’s career, arguably one of the most famous graffiti artists in the world. Initially a member of Bristol’s graffiti gang DryBreadZ Crew, by the late 90s he had developed his unique signature style. Using predominantly stencils and slogans with a topical or political nature, his work became more widely recognized around Bristol and London.
Many regard Banksy and the ‘Banksy effect’ as the game changer in terms of how graffiti is viewed. Having traditionally been seen as an act of vandalism, many pieces are now deemed ‘street art’ and valued alongside high end gallery art work.
And it was of course Banksy who we have to thank for the Leake Street Tunnel. It was his ‘Cans Festival’ in May 2008, during which he invited street artists to paint their own artwork on the walls, that put the space on the map and helped secure one of the first legal (and still largest) walls in the city.