The History Of Graffiti

Ancient Graffiti

"Graffiti" derives from a latin term graphīre (to write) and later graffiato (scratch). It is used in historical articles in relation with scratching a design on a surface. This is exactly how graffiti looked like in ancient time – scratched on the wall. Though sometimes a piece of coal was used to outline the pictures. It was also a known practice for crockery makers to polish their plates and vases first and later on scratch the design onto them.

Graffiti appeared way before the written language and can be founded on the walls thousands of years ago. For example: “Cueva de las Manos” (The Cave of Hands), located in Santa Cruz, Argentina, contains one of the first existing ancient graffiti. These hands go way back to 13,000 - 9,000 BCE.

Hands, at the Cave of the Hands. Photo Credit

Later found in the the ruins of many ancient cities such as Pompeii or in the Catacombs of Rome or at Pompeii. In the city of Ephesus (ancient Greece and in modern day Turkey) can be seen one of the first representations of what we can call modern graffiti. It includes the drawing of a foot, a hand, a heart, and a number and local guides say it is an advertisement for prostitution.

As well as famous “The Alexamenos graffito” that's located on the wall of a house near Rome thought to be the earliest known image of Jesus Christ and was made around 200 AD. Here we can see Jesus with the head of a Donkey. The intention was indeed to mock christians for their beliefs.

Satirical Alexamenos graffito, possibly the earliest known representation of Jesus


The content of graffiti from these times was generally different to what we are used to see nowadays. Ancient graffiti displayed phrases of love declarations, political rhetoric, and simple words of thought looking to provoke the reader to think of his own personal life and his place in society.

After eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii, a lot of graffiti pieces were left preserved that included Latin curses, magic spells, declarations of love, insults, alphabets, political slogans, and famous literary quotes, providing insight into ancient Roman street life.

These graffiti carved into the paving of Ephesus' main street actually compose an advertisement for the city's largest brothel. Here you can see a heart, a picture of a woman, a jug of wine on a table, and a foot showing which way to walk. Photo Credit

Here is one love letter to very popular prostitute Novellia Primigenia of Nuceria from what seems a usual client:

Quisquis amat. veniat. Veneri volo frangere costas
fustibus et lumbos debilitare deae.
Si potest illa mihi tenerum pertundere pectus
quit ego non possim caput illae frangere fuste?

Whoever loves, go to hell. I want to break Venus's ribs
with a club and deform her hips.
If she can break my tender heart
why can't I hit her over the head?

Another good example of ancient graffiti were arabic political satire. Yazid al-Himyari, an Umayyad Arab and Persian poet, was most known for manifesting his political beliefs on the walls between Sajistan and Basra, expressing strong hatred towards the Umayyad regime. Those poems used to circulate between people quite a lot at the time.

Viking mercenary graffiti at the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, Turkey

All these ancient forms of graffiti not only gave us understanding of the cultural background of the street lifestyle, but also errors in spelling and grammar in these graffiti offer insight into the degree of literacy in Roman times and provide clues on the pronunciation of spoken Latin.

Greeks and Romans were not the only ones though to scratch their walls in the memorable fashion. Viking and Varangians left imprint also in various places such as: Newgrange Mound in Ireland, and in runes on a banister in the Hagia Sophia at Constantinople. Graffiti, known as Tacherons, were frequently scratched on Romanesque Scandinavian church walls.

Ancient Graffiti

On another continent of America graffiti was also spread quite widely. The Maya site of Tikal in Guatemala contains examples of ancient Maya graffiti. The same goes for north America with their numerous site around Utah, Colorado and so on.

Modern Day Graffiti

The oldest known example of modern graffiti are the "monikers" found on traincars created by hobos and railworkers since the late 1800s. The Bozo Texino monikers were documented by filmmaker Bill Daniel in his 2005 film: “Who is Bozo Texino?”.

During World War II almost every soldier tried to leave his mark on the occupied space. Millions of scratched graffiti pieces like “Tom was here” are found everywhere in Europe. In fact, in Reichstag after the conquest of Soviet Army every piece of the wall was written in words and names and many of these pieces were preserved after the reconstruction to always be a reminder for german politicians of the horrible nazi regime.

recichstag soviet graffiti soldgiers

Cornbread & The Unlikely Beginnings of Modern Graffiti Art

In 1965, Darryl “Cornbread” McCray, now widely considered the world’s first modern graffiti artist, was a 12-year-old troublemaker housed at Philadelphia’s Youth Development Center (YDC).

As you may have guessed, McCray loved cornbread. He loved it so much, in fact, that the YDC’s cooks nicknamed him “Cornbread” when he would not stop pestering them to make him the cornmeal quick bread he’d grown up eating with his grandmother.

Cornbread - Philadelphia Legendary Graffiti Artist

It all started as a manifestation of love to his junior high crush Cynthia. He went out and tagged over and over again “Cornbread Loves Cynthia” all over the girl’s neighbourhood and along the bus route she took to school. The plan worked, and Cornbread’s enigmatic tag soon inspired others, the city’s walls growing dense with various names and numbers, each writer trying to snag their share of the glory.

Around the same time that Cornbread a parallel 1960’s graffiti movement was developing in New York City. One of those kids was Taki 183, a self-described bored teenager from Washington Heights, a Greek neighbourhood just north of Harlem, who created his now-iconic tag in 1969 by combining “Taki,” a diminutive form of his Greek name, Demetrius, and “183,” his street number.

TAKI 183 - New York Graffiti Artist Legend

Like Cornbread before him, Taki soon became obsessed. “I liked the feeling of getting my name up, and I liked the idea of getting away with it,” he told Street Art NYC. “Once I started, I couldn’t stop”.

Taki’s job as a bike messenger took him up and down the city and into the high-end neighbourhoods of New York’s Upper East Side, so that soon, as Taki put it in an interview years later: “You could walk 40 blocks and see my name on every pole”.

new york graffiti trains traincars metro underground

In the mid-1970’s, tags spread all New York City and subway cars became the main canvas for graffiti writers to ferry new work across the city to build reputation. Writer C.A.T. 87 describes the city’s trains and buses as “international routes”.

Coming up each morning covered in elaborate new pieces, graffiti reached a point of no return and became a political battle ground. Those politicians efforts became a major threat to the 1970’s graffiti writers.

new york subway graffiti

As a result, Snyder writes, 1970’s graffiti soon “progressed from scribbled signatures done with magic markers to elaborate masterpieces done with multiple aerosol colors in the dark of night”.

Writers began experimenting with new lettering styles and flourishes, embellishing their tags with stars, flowers, crowns, and eyeballs, simple tags evolving into what Raw Vision’s John Maizels called “hieroglyphical calligraphic abstraction”.

new york subway graffiti 1970 1980

By the 1980s, the city of New York viewed graffiti's inherent vandalism as a major concern, and a massive amount of resources were poured into the graffiti "problem".

In 1984, the MTA launched its Clean Car Program, which involved a five-year plan to completely eliminate graffiti on subway cars, operating on the principle that a graffiti-covered subway car could not be put into service until all the graffiti on it had been cleaned off. This program was implemented one subway line at a time, gradually pushing writers outward, and by 1986 many of the city's lines were completely clear of graffiti.

new york graffiti 1980s

That lead to the creation of Stencils. Prepared in advance carton boards with the image cut out in them. Many street artists used stencils as opposed to freehand graffiti for the pure reason of speeding up the process. It allowed to spray the image or text in a matter of seconds, reducing the chance of being caught.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, many graffiti writers began to shift away from text-based works to include imagery.

graffiti new york subway 1970 1980 underground


Spread Of Graffiti Across The World

During the 1990s, hip-hop moved to the mainstream and took graffiti art with it. Popular videos also featured graffiti-covered urban backdrops. Hip-hop journalism emerged; the editors wanted graffiti, the visual language of hip-hop, to grace the covers of their magazines.

Musical artists, networks, and sports teams hired young graffiti outlaws to design for their products. Artists, such as Roger Gastman, Banksy, and Caleb Neelon moved from subway walls to the walls of galleries and private collectors in the USA.

banksy bristol river graffiti

Whereas aerosol spray-paints were once the primary method of graffiti art, mainstream and fine art acceptance provided more resources and opportunities for graffiti artists. And the buildings that once served as canvases? They still serve as a popular canvas but are now considered murals to beautify urban centers.

Considering the political rundown on them many graffiti artist were seeking to keep their identity anonymous and many of them become offended if photographs of their art are published in a commercial context without their permission.

Mural for Beyond Walls, Lynn, MA 2017

The best example of that would be Banksy. The world's most known and popular street artists who keeps his identity a secret even to this day to avoid arrest. With spread of internet we could see only a hand-full of pictures on the internet. His fame spread across the globe with his political, anti-war stencil art that started appearing in Bristol, England. Later on moved all over the world from Los Angeles to Palestine.

Banksy and his art are a supreme example of the classic controversy in society regarding graffiti: vandalism or art? Most people and especially art endorsers across the globe are actively protecting and demonstrating against removal of his art pieces, where officials of are as usual seem to be strict about it and practicing every opportunity to remove it.

Who is Banksy? The suspects linked to the art world's biggest mystery | The  Independent | The Independent


Graffiti As A Weapon

With that said it becomes obvious that graffiti was always about that conflict between authorities and people of working class. In many ways this was the only communication channel to spread the word anonymously between people and make sure that it makes it's way to the top.

Approach and ways of expression would vary though. Some of them were a mere expression of political views. One of many examples would be an anarchy-punk band Crass. They launched a viral political campaign with stenciling graffiti putting mottos of anti-war, feminism and anti-consumerism across the whole London Tube around end of 1970s and early 1980s.

anarchist graffiti

Some of graffiti tried to go over the line like on the protests in 1968 in Paris where anarchist groups started spraying anarchists logos on police cars backing them up with lines like "Boredom is counterrevolutionary" or "Read less, live more".Graffiti by any means became a good representation of 'millenarian' and rebellious spirit.

Graffiti may also be used as an offensive expression. It might be sometimes difficult to identify due to it's more subtle tagging approach that is not easily recognised as "racist". The trick is that the meaning of it hides behind the "local code" (social, historical, political, temporal, and spatial).

Anarchist graffiti in Bilbao, Spain. - Imgur

An example would be that there is a certain group or a gang in an area that is engaging heavily in racist activities. This “code” could be an abbreviation of the gang's name. This way, a graffiti containing this abbreviation becomes a racist expression. It is also often times could be an indicator of more serious criminal activity in the area. By adapting this graffiti to the social constraints these drawings are less likely to be removed, but always stay as a reminder to those who know what it means.

I think graffiti writing is a way of defining what our generation is like. Excuse the French, we're not a bunch of p---- artists. Traditionally artists have been considered soft and mellow people, a little bit kooky. Maybe we're a little bit more like pirates that way. We defend our territory, whatever space we steal to paint on, we defend it fiercely.

Sandra "Lady Pink" Fabara

So when graffiti art moved from the streets and undergrounds to art galleries and colleges in the 1990s, in many ways it was constrained, but those constrains also gave an even more verbal and political power to the movements behind it as it stoped being another scribble on the wall, but rather a sophisticated art piece with a deep thought behind that it is ought to be respected or at least researched.

Graffiti became a far more politicised art form in the subvertising, culture jamming, or tactical media movements. So when 1990s hit in most countries graffiti remained illegal except when using non-permanent paint. Ever since many of the street artists started switching to non-permanent paints and non-traditional forms of painting.

banksy destroy capitalism graffiti

Of course, it's also important to say that with raising number of street artists not all of them were always falling under the same category and often times disagreed between each other on political and social views. For example, the anti-capitalist art group the Space Hijackers did a piece in 2004 about the contradiction between the capitalistic elements of Banksy and his use of political imagery.

The same as territorial graffiti marks urban neighbourhoods with tags and logos to differentiate certain groups and gangs from others. Every gang-related graffiti has to incorporate unique calligraphies and cryptic symbols. Gang members used graffiti allocate member relationships throughout the gang and in most cases to mark territorial and with that also an ideological grounds to the outsiders.

A UK artist turned a racist graffiti into a positive message - Take a look  | Trending & Viral News

This controversy between different graffiti artists and their views sometimes would take an interesting turn of events. Great example would be a Berlin human rights activist Irmela Mensah-Schramm who received global media attention and numerous awards for her 35-year campaign of effacing neo-Nazi and other right-wing extremist graffiti throughout Germany, often by altering hate speech in humorous ways.


As popularity of graffiti and it's informational efficiency arose, big corporate brands started to look towards graffiti as an advertising space. It became a leading bridge between the sophisticated art world and the streets where graffiti came from. It was originally meant to be reducing crime by employment, appearing with owners' permission on everything from walls to railroad boxcars. Of course that raised a number of questions and controversies.

The primary concern by those who oppose graffiti is that the tolerance of professional graffiti in one space leads to more illegal graffiti in other spaces. In some areas such as sports, over advertising in sports venues and even player uniforms in soccer has sometimes been viewed negatively.

coca cola graffiti advertisement

Another concern came from artist and the subcultures and demographic groups that associated themselves with this movement. Nancy MacDonland in her book The graffiti subculture: youth, masculinity, and identity in London and New York argues that commercial graffiti artistry "moves writers out of the boundaries of the subculture", because artists "no longer paint for their peers and themselves, they have a new audience".

In New York City, commercial graffiti has grown rapidly and became a big business. Hiring popular graffiti artists was a great opportunity for local brands to improve their credibility and business-customer relationship. As many artists didn't come from a well established financial backgrounds, they were keen to use their talents for gold and aspire to achieve entrepreneurial success.

graffiti advertisement paris commercial

If there is one thing that commercial graffiti achieved with it's endeavour is that it started building a connection between the graffiti art and the legal world where graffiti would start being seen as a non-criminal activity.

At our day and age a lot of major cities across the globe have graffiti and street art tours, often run by local graffiti artists who want to bring their talent to the public on a more socially accepted level.

graffiti advertisement

Originally started with walking or biking tours around the streets to show off the abundance and diversity of the underground art world of the city, those tours have grown to incorporate graffiti workshops with stencils and spray cans.

With rapid growth of the internet, graffiti started existing in a digital sphere as well which created a new opportunities for the tourist business - people who drawn to the work online could now visit the actual physical location. This created a flow of tourist so needed for urban development and brought graffiti to a new level that opened the ways for museums and galleries to include more graffiti works in their collections.

xi-design and cromatics made art-vertising for adidas in berlin. #graffiti  #advertising #adidas #mural #bethedifference #berlin #am… | Street art,  Graffiti, Werbung

Graffiti started and still takes place mostly in the urban, abandoned, financially unstable and marginalised areas where the residents vary in their social levels. As conditions of these neighbourhoods are mostly poor it drives tourism and commercial development out of it's reach. Since graffiti embraces this aspect quite a bit it plays a role of an agent to the urban development. Essentially, graffiti has the potential to bring attention of municipalities to these areas to take action in their development.

Commercialisation of the street art have become a step up for many artists of the art and design communities all over the world. In the US graffiti artists such as Mike Giant, Pursue, Rime, Noah, and countless others have made careers in skateboard, apparel, and shoe design for companies such as DC Shoes, Adidas, Rebel8, Osiris, or Circa. And there are countless others such as DZINE, Daze, Blade, and The Mac who have leveled up their game to the galleries and some stopped using the spray cans altogether.

graffiti advertising EA strikes a goal with a mural campaign by Kinetic and Mural Republic for  FIFA 21 & PS5 – Marketing Communication News


Graffiti Across The Globe

South America

If there would be one most sprayed country across all South America it would definitely be Brazil. Rich and colourful unique touch of it's artists has earned an international reputation as the place to go for artistic inspiration. It flourishes there in every little corner and every little street. The energy of São Paulo today is a pure resemblance of the 1970s New York.

The metro of São Paulo, sprawled across the vast underground space has "become the new shrine to graffiti". Most of this inspiration towards spray-paints comes from financial instability of the country and it's marginalisation. In many ways Brazil's chronic poverty became one of the strongest pulling powers towards vibrant graffiti culture.

The Colorful Street Art of São Paulo, Brazil

A great misbalance in the money distribution and frequent change of laws and taxes contribute to a very fluid society, split up by those social tensions that underpin and feed the folkloric vandalism aka. South American graffiti art.

Best Brazilian Street Artists | Widewalls

Middle East

As every modern society enhancement, graffiti develops it's ways slowly in Middle East. Most taggers working in United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Iran. Graffiti plays a very important role in the Middle East especially considering the events of the Arab Spring (2011). There it becomes one of the only weapons for regular people to project their political and social opinions on those in power, especially considering the religious constraints and always raising military conflicts in the area.

arabic graffiti middle east tank

The Israeli West Bank barrier has become a major spot for graffiti, reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. Most common tag you could find there is the words "Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman" which is a commonly seen around Israel.

Banksy has also had an important effect and catalysed the street art scene in the MENA area, especially in Palestine where you could find some of his works on the West Bank barrier and Bethlehem.

Southeast Asia

Western culture has played a great deal of influence on the Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, where graffiti have long been very common in it's capital city, Kuala Lumpur. Since 2010, yearly the street festival occurs that is meant to encourage all generations to go out and praise their street culture.

asia graffiti



Activists in Russia have used sprayed caricatures of local authorities with their mouths as potholes, to show their anger about the poor state of the roads. As a protest to the heightened security in St Petersberg due to the 2011 International Economic Forum, a graffiti group “Voina” sprayed a huge penis on the Liteiny Bridge. The idea is that the penis erects as the bridge rises to allow traffic to pass through.

The annual Innovation awards gave them a grand prize in the category of visual arts. This graffiti which goes by the name "A Penis In KGB Captivity" won them 400k rubles. Of course they had to spend time in jail for this art of courage. No other then Banksy himself bailed them out. The painting itself was eventually washed off by firefighters.

penis graffiti russia