Graffiti origins

June 7, 2021
Parc Archeologico di Pompei credit - old graffiti

The origins of graffiti

Graffiti: a human story


Graffiti has long been part of urban culture. Some consider cave frescoes or cave art to be the first graffiti in history. However, it seems more sensible to consider the many examples dating from Ancient Greece or the Roman Empire as historical evidence of graffiti.

A visible message

Graffiti has always been traces left by one person for another. These traces therefore had to be visible in order to be read or seen by a certain number of people.

Whether it is these simple scratched marks on the walls or these elaborately painted frescoes during these ancient times, some are still visible today. In fact, they offer themselves to us in the same conditions as at the origin. They immerse us in their historical world of color, form and message.

This is obviously less the case for the caves, whose remote and protected accesses are further removed from this notion of immediate visibility. They were nevertheless visible to the artists’ peers at a minimum.

Graffiti tells us about our past.

It always seems as if there are not that few historical traces. Regularly the press relays new discoveries, which gives this impression of a drip of past history. This is especially true for the period from -60,000 years to -20,000 years, for the discoveries of the caves.

In contrast, when considering the more contemporary period, no one realizes the abundance of evidence and discoveries.


Pompei and the graffiti

Pompeii street graffiti

Pompeii is an impressive example of the use of graffiti 2000 years ago. Indeed, not just a few marks were discovered, but more than 11,000 graffiti. And even then, the historic site has only been cleared to about 60% of its surface, which is to say that there is still more to discover.

These traces and drawings are directly written testimonies of this remote time. They reveal to us, through their varied and spontaneous contents, new aspects of this society that produced them: astonishing example, a graffiti made with charcoal discovered in 2018 allowed to formally reposition the famous deadly eruption 2 months after its supposed date of the end of August 79.

The many other messages in the city show a society using graffiti as a social exchange. Some graffiti are dedicated to promoting prostitution services or gladiatorial tournaments. Others present the inventory of a store, while others praise the qualities of this or that store. Finally, many are simple messages of the present moment.

These concrete testimonies plunge us back into the daily lives of these urbanites and lead us to rethink the forms of communication in these ancient societies.


Graffiti and painting accompanies human history


During centuries, Man has thus used the means at his disposal to leave his traces, sometimes colored, often monochrome. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether we link the first graffiti to prehistoric men or associate them with the Greeks or Romans.

Human history shows above all that artists have always existed and participated in the collective good.

Street art is growing

The advent of spray paint in the 1960s allowed some graffiti to take on a more colorful
and aesthetic dimension.

This contemporary urban art began in the United States in the late 1960s. An early movement, “Graffiti writing,” was launched by two Philadelphia artists, Cornbread and Cool Earl.

New York urban art is rapidly exporting

During the same period, artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat stormed the corridors and trains of the New York City subway system to paint them.  These strong and impactful actions quickly gained momentum, allowing this art to cross the Atlantic and spread rapidly to Europe by the 1970s.

While not many artists initially tried their hand at this vandal art, the movement nonetheless grew steadily, and more and more artists took over external as well as internal public places to paint them. Street art is in the square and will never leave.

Urban art is everywhere

Since the 2000s, urban art has been growing at an increasing rate in all of the cities of significance around the world. The number of artists is increasing, the most prominent ones such as Banksy or Shepard Fairey are establishing their notoriety. They are quickly followed by many committed artists who, thanks to spectacular actions such as those of JR in the favelas in Brazil or on the wall separating Mexico from the United States, popularize street art and make it visible to all.

Faced with this wave, the most committed municipalities are beginning to adapt their points of view, positions and rules, distinguishing in particular between vandal acts and acts agreed with the artists and the many associations participating in this movement of unparalleled scope.

St+art India Foundation kannagi Nagar district photo by Pranav Gohil

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