“Graffiti art”—is it truly an art form, or simply childish vandalism? This essay will explore the meaning of graffiti, a brief background history of the evolution in society, as well as the the different motives of artists who uses graffiti in spiritual and social practices. From the start, society has had a general distaste with graffiti, however, this form of expression has strong evidence to propose that it can be a catalyst for the everyday person. What does the future hold for graffiti?
When it comes to the physical aspects of graffiti, Gach states that each graffiti expresses a thought, wish, or attitude. The word graffiti comes from the Italian verb graffiare, meaning “to scratch.” Graffiti is described as by the Oxford Dictionary as an often overlooked form of communication consisting of writing or drawings made on a public surface, usually as a form of artistic expression, without permission and within public view. Through graffiti, the everyday person is able to communicate attitudes and feelings that would usually be suppressed due to societal pressures. Unlike spoken thoughts, graffiti provide safety from the rebuttal of different opinions, as well as having an indirect lasting-impression while simultaneously reaching a larger audience over-time. (Gach 285) Graffiti can be used an an obtrusive measure to reveal patterns of customs and attitudes of a society. (Stocker 356) However, as discussed in Social Analysis of Graffiti, the patterns are not specific to a general conscious consensus, rather the beliefs of certain individuals in that social climate. They concluded that graffiti collected did not reflect important social issues directly. (Collins 733)
Pin-pointing a direct period in time as to when graffiti started can be quite difficult as there are many various embodiments and of the art style. One of the earliest contested pieces is found at a UNESCO World Heritage site, Cueva de las Manos, Río Pinturas located in the caves of Santa Cruz, Argentina. This work is dated between 9,300 and 1,300 years ago, showcasing the stenciled outlines of human hands, which some speculate to be the hands of the communities of Patagonia. (UNESCO) On the other hand, this piece can be argued along the lines of a mural as it focuses on community rather than graffitic practices. This work is not a form of vandalism nor does it express an anonymous thought. Modern-day graffiti uses the anonymous expression as a form of communication. (Gach 285) The earliest form of graffiti that follows along the lines of modern-day practices is dated around Roman 200 A.D. and is simultaneously the earliest known depiction as well as pictorial representation of the crucification of Jesus Christ. The graffiti showcases a person praying to a crucified, donkey-headed figure with a translation stating “Alexamenos worships [his] god,” indicating mockery as Christinatnity was looked down upon in first-century Rome.
Yet, the adaptation of graffiti that most people have seen, the kind that uses arsonal paint cans, seems to have appeared in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, and the latter part of the decade, it had reached New York and has made history ever since. Darryl “Cornbread” McCray is considered to be the first modern graffiti artist. (Montana) As reported on by Montana Colors, rather than take part in the ever-growing drug and gang epidemic in Philadelphia, Cornbread took to the streets adding his unique signature to the public spaces he frequented. His work was raw, and simply himself, he did not have any specific style in mind. During this time the graffiti that took to the streets was simply gang names and symbols, none of it being a personal moniker such as “Cornbread”. His biggest rise to fame happened when a local newspaper mistakenly reported that he had passed. However, Cornbread, alive and well, stated “I knew it was up to me to bring my name back to life,” (Montana) and with this he snuck into the Philadelphia Zoo and pained “Cornbread lives” on both sides of an elephant. This in-turn led him to a jail sentence, but that did not phase a single soul in the graffiti scene, he was considered a legend. His motives during this time was to get his name everywhere and anywhere he could, higher traffic areas such as tourist areas were target rather than poorer neighborhoods. Due to the fact of looking for an outlet of expression in a drug-infested community, Cornbread was able to pioneer a huge movement for art in general, even outside of the confines of the graffiti world: raw expression.
After the insurgence of the new style and motives of graffiti, the United States was hit hard. Cornbread and other pioneers such as TAKI-183 was able to show the youth that the world truly is a canvas. For awhile, the youth owned the city, not the officials. In mid-1970’s New York each and every train car, inside and out, was completely drenched in personal tags all working with each other to make a spontaneous collaborative art piece. However, some people do not see graffiti as a communal art. Instead, clumping it as part of a crime called vandalism. With these polarities, graffiti became a political target. City officials decided to crack down on this issue considering it as part of the ever-growing urban issue, reluctant to focus the blame on the homeless and drug issues that were more apparent. They wanted to take control back of the city in the only way they could think of, focusing on the subway trains. However, the youth was not going to go down without a fight, for this was their only outlet. Protest graffiti was all over the city, using inscriptions to warn each other of hot spots. As such, the circumstances that prevailed allowed graffiti artists just started focusing on new, clean canvases all over the city. The retaliation of the city officials worked against their favor as it fostered new and bigger graffiti styles, such as the use of stencils and multiple color throw-ups. More elaborate pieces were popping up every morning, in the most obscure places. Artistic expression and style soon took over the motives of graffiti over legibility of the monikers. The war on graffiti was not won, and today the youth still holds power over the city. Sociologist Gregory Snyder reports in his book, Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground, tagging allowed these young men and women the opportunity “to get fame and respect,” which in any other aspect of their life, were fleeting. In this sense, Snyder argues that “in its purest form, graffiti is an art form that revels in the American Dream.”