The Paintings on the Subway Wall
What some conservative city dwellers call vandalism and property damage, others refer to as the ancient art of graffiti. Often misunderstood as an art form. Graffiti traces its history as far back as the ancient Greek and Roman cultures and some scholars even include the cave paintings of prehistoric cultures as part of this tradition.
It has ever been an urge of man to make his mark wherever he has gone and graffiti has served him well in this expression throughout the ages. Graffiti has been known to aid history. The only extant text written in the proto-Arabic language Safaitic is carved onto basalt rocks and boulders in the areas now contained within northern Saudi Arabia and southern Syria. These graffiti inscriptions on the stones are about two thousand years old.
The volcanic destruction of the Roman city of Pompeii preserved a wealth of ancient graffiti that was scrawled all over the town. Scratched and carved into the ash-covered walls were curses, political commentary, love notes and even directions to a local brothel. While styles of art may change with the centuries, human nature can be very similar despite the age. Included in the Pompeii graffiti were also found risque depictions of human anatomy no different than you would find on a modern public restroom wall.
Both travelers and conquering armies often left their graffiti mark on the lands they passed through. There is Viking graffiti that still exists in Rome as well as Ireland and the distant and at the time mythical Vinland as well. Napoleon's soldiers often carved their names into the ancient monuments of Egypt during the campaigns there in the late eighteenth century.
While many art critics try to separate graffiti from the art forms of mural and fresco, they do fit the definition of graffiti. The main difference in the modern definition is that these works of art were generally done with the owner' permission and support.
In general, the modern definition tries to limit graffiti to images and writing scratched or painted onto a building wall, or any other type of property, without the owner's approval. In this form, no matter how good or bad the artwork is, the graffiti is usually considered an illegal act. There are two primary reasons that modern graffiti has such a mixed welcome in today's urban environment. However elaborate some designs are, graffiti is frequently used by inner city gangs to mark their home territory. Also, graffiti is painted and sprayed on many pieces of private and public property without regard for a city's desire to maintain their equipment and facilities to match civic pride and uniformity. Public transportation buses and railroad boxcars are prime canvases for the spray paint wielding graffiti artist.
The evolution of modern urban graffiti has been traced to the late 1960's. Previously, graffiti in America had mostly taken the form of writing slogans and names. With the media popularization of the Manhattan graffiti artist TAKI 183, graffiti became a popular form of expression. Regrettably this soon devolved into an unofficial competition among many graffiti artists to see who could place the greatest number of their "signature" tags.
Late night break-ins and trespassing on subway rail car yards in order to have the time to create larger pieces of artwork soon drew the displeasure of law enforcement and was a primary cause for graffiti to become looked upon as criminal in nature. Throughout the 1970's urban graffiti was predominantly centered in New York. The battle between graffiti artists and the New York Metro Transit Authority reached a fever pitch as the MTA tried to cover over graffiti artwork as fast as it appeared. Many artists finally gave up as this aggressive removal campaign rendered the quantity competition useless.
By this time, however, urban graffiti culture had become widespread enough that it was beginning to gain some cultural acceptance as a true art form. In 1979 the art dealer Claudio Bruni featured the graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy in a Roman art gallery. In 1981 the music video "Rapture" by the rock band "Blondie" gave a glimpse of New York urban graffiti to a worldwide audience.
While the era of street-artist vandalism of public transit vehicles has diminished, enthusiasm for urban graffiti has enjoyed a global popularity. As the twenty-first century began, graffiti became a mainstream phenomena. As well as featuring prominently in music videos and movies there are now video games dedicated to the art of graffiti and many more that display graffiti imagery in their scenery. Graffiti is very much an art form accessible to the masses and is sometimes one of the few ways the individual has of publicly displaying his need to create human art.