History and Information about Graffiti Part 1

About the history of Graffiti, origins and meanings, uses and reasons behind graffiti.

Graffiti--the Handwriting on the Wall

"Why write on a wall?"

"Because it's there."

Graffiti are generally thought of as a recent phenomenon, something that appeared simultaneously with the modern bathroom. Actually, Kilroy has been here for a long time: Graffiti are one of mankind's oldest forms of communication.

The term "graffiti" derives from an Italian word meaning scribbling or scratching, and is used by archaeologists to designate the casual writings and drawings on ancient buildings. The most famous of ancient graffiti dates back to the advent of Christianity. It is a caricature of Jesus, in which he is tied to a cross but his feet rest on a horizontal board--and he has the head of a donkey. Next to him is a Christian with arms raised in adoration, and underneath is the commentary, "Alexamenos worships his god."

Since ancient documents generally record history from an aristocratic viewpoint, graffiti provide a rare record of the folk culture of antiquity. Graffiti in Pompeii were preserved almost intact when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. and buried the city under volcanic ash. Pompeii's man in the street, like modern man, used walls to write humorously about politics, sex, and love:

The United fruitmen with Helvius Vestalis urge you to make Marcus Holconius Presicum duumvir with judiciary powers.

I liked a girl with a proper mat, not depilated and shorn, Then you can snug in from the cold, as an overcoat she's worn.

Serena hates Isadore.

Graffiti have been discovered in diverse places such as the Roman catacombs--"While I lived, I lived well. My play is now ended, soon yours will be. Farewell and applaud me"; the Tower of London--"While robed in the sacred vestments and administering the sacred mysteries, I was taken and held in this narrow cell"; medieval English alehouses--"Clarinda lay here/With a young Cavalier/With her Heart full of Fear/For her Husband was near"; and frontier American outhouses--"Patrons are forbidden to leave seat while bowels are in motion." One wit wrote on the bathroom wall of a Berkeley coffeehouse: "People probably chipped these things on the walls of Egyptian bathrooms 2,000 years ago. So progress is a ball-point pen."

Contemporary graffiti can be divided into several general categories: identity, message or opinion, and art. A 4th type, dialogue graffiti, overlaps the other categories.

Identity graffiti represent an attempt by the anonymous individual to communicate and immortalize his existence by writing his name and the date, or announcing his current romance--"John and Mary"--or simply stating shyly, "I was here." This urge to leave one's mark seems as old as mankind; signatures of ancient Greek mercenaries still exist on an Egyptian sphinx and on the Great Pyramid at Giza.

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