Graffiti is defined in the modern world as markings in the form of initials, slogans or drawings made on the surface of a public space. It is commonly unknown that graffiti is the plural of the word graffito. This is due to the fact that the word graffiti was revived in the 1970s to describe the painting of street cars and, as a result, became a mass noun.
Graffito is defined as a drawing or writing scratched on a wall. Graffito is also defined in the OED as “a method of decoration in which designs are produced by scratches through a superficial layer of plaster, glazing, etc., revealing a ground of different colour; chiefly attrib., as in graffito-decoration, -pottery, -ware.” Graffiti and graffito stem from the Italian word sgraffio. Sgraffio is used to describe something that is scratched.
Prehistoric cave paintings such as those found in Lascaux Cave in France can be argued to classify as graffiti however the first forms of documented modern graffiti can be found in the Greek city of Ephesus. These drawings found on pottery were often carved or etched with a sharp object. In Pompeii, excavations revealed a great collection of graffiti, including obscenities, drawings and election slogans. Today we associate spray paint with graffiti however the word graffiti encompasses many other mediums such as ink, paint, and chalk. Stickers and any other forms of adhesives are not considered graffiti.
The vividly colourful murals that we classify as graffiti today have a relatively short history. The art form of graffiti we have come accustom too was developed in New York in the late 1970s.
“The unique make-up of New York City- in which the Harlem slums and the glamorous world of Broadway stand side by side- seems to have been a breeding-ground for the first graffiti artists. This environment fuelled an artistic battle against power brokers in society, and a breakaway from poverty and the ghetto.” –Nicholas Ganz
Graffiti has always been a controversial subject. Marking or defacing another’s property without consent is categorized by law as defacement and vandalism, and is a crime.
“Criminologists James Q Wilson and George Kelling developed a theory of criminal behaviour in the 1980’s that became known as the ‘Broken Window Theory’. They argued crime was the inevitable result of disorder and that if a window in a building is smashed but not repaired people walking by will think no one cares. Then more windows will be broken, graffiti will appear and rubbish get dumped. The likelihood of serious crime being committed then increases dramatically as neglect becomes visible.” –Wall and Piece
Some forms of graffiti are seen as activism. ‘The White Rose’ is an example of a group that used graffiti as a form of protest. ‘The white Rose’ was a group of German activists who spoke out against Hitler and his regime through leaflets and painted slogans, until their eventual arrest in 1943.
Ganz, Nicholas. "Worldwide History of Graffiti." Introduction. Graffiti World. New York: Abrams, 2009. 7-10. Print.
Graffiti (v.). N.p.: n.p., n.d. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Web. 21 Nov. 2012. <http://www.oed.com>.
Graffito (n.). Research rept. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Web. 21 Nov. 2012. <http://www.oed.com>.