What Is Graffiti? - Definition, History & Types

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  • 0:02 Definition of Graffiti
  • 0:56 Ancient Beginnings
  • 2:38 Graffiti's Modern Era
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Denise Miles
Modern graffiti art can be traced to the late 1960s in the United States. However, the history of graffiti goes much further back to ancient times. This lesson will explore the history of graffiti from these early beginnings.

Definition of Graffiti

You've walked by it hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Sometimes it annoys you, sometimes you admire the talent of its artist, and sometimes you just glance at it and keep walking. Regardless of how you feel about it, graffiti has become a part of our everyday visual experience. From the tiny tags of an experimental teenager to the detailed protest art of a master, graffiti has an important place in culture.

Graffiti comes from the Italian word graffere, which means 'to scratch on a surface.' This 'scratching' can be done on any surface with any implement, permanent or not. Today we have come to know graffiti as 'illicit application of a medium to the surface.' These media can include spray paint, pencil, stickers, charcoal, etc…

Ancient Beginnings

Graffiti can be traced back to the cave art of the Paleolithic Age. The first cave paintings can be traced to this period 10,000 years ago, also known as the 'Old Stone Age.' Historians have tried to identify the purpose of these cave paintings, and theories range from the documentation of important events (hunts, war, etc.) to ways for the young men of the era to fill time. This may sound familiar, as the same conversation still occurs around modern graffiti.

As time continues, etchings and paintings document the stories of the people creating them. These stories are as varied as the artists telling them. There is graffiti dating back to ancient Greece that includes a brothel advertisement in Ephesus to the first-known depiction of Jesus on the side of a school traced back to the second or third century. This graffiti is believed to be the first depiction of Jesus Christ.

We have another clear demonstration of graffiti from Pompeii, the ancient Roman city destroyed and preserved by Mount Vesuvius 2,000 years ago. There, historians have found graffiti ranging from sexual boasting to documentation of important events in the city to statements similar to 'Joe was here.'

As we move toward the modern era, graffiti is evident in many cultures. From the ancient palaces of Sri Lanka to the Viking structures and beyond, the evidence of artists' work remains. These drawings, paintings, and etchings include poetry, prose, comments on love, art, and the social issues of the day.

Graffiti's Modern Era

Even in these early times, graffiti served as a voice for people standing in opposition to the choices of the government or mainstream society. Cries for revolution, attempts to reclaim spaces, or reactions to social injustice are found among the personal stories.

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