The term “graffiti” is derived from Greek word graphein meaning to write was originally used to characterize the words and names scribbled on the walls of ancient Roman architecture (Kincheloe and Hayes, 98). This singular term graffito however, is derived from the Italian graffiare which means “little scratching. ” Vern Bullough and Bonnie Bullough asserts, it “may be applied to at least three types of inscriptions: public, private, and personal” (251).
Public graffiti include names, initials, cryptic symbols, and the like, which were usually drawn on walls or fences, trees and so on, as markers for gang terrorists, or as symbol of personal pride and courage or simply as reminder of someone’s presence. Private graffiti on the other hand, are inscriptions in more secluded locations such as restroom walls and toilet stalls and were usually of “intentionally anonymous authorship” while personal graffiti are tattoos and scar that are intended “to beautify to disfigure, to indicate status, or to adorn the human body” (Bullough and Bullough, 251).
There seems to have not enough information as to when graffiti started or who were the first individual or people to have started it. Bullough and Bullough cited that recent archeological efforts on the coast of France revealed cavers submerged beneath “the encroaching seas for tens of thousands of years, with their walls “filled with arcane products of Paleolithic graffitists” (252).
But as Pereira pointed out, the study of graffiti throughout history “shows that, from the Neolithic period onwards, nomads left traces of their survival and successful passage by scratching signs on rocks” (16), which means that graffiti or writing on walls or rocks have been the customs and traditions not only of the ancient peoples but of the human beings in general. Historically, graffiti were used under various circumstances.
Pereira noted that during the time of Roman persecution of Christians, Christian believers took refuge in the catacombs where they carved symbols into the rock which served as “cryptic messages for the rest of the community” (Pereira, 16). This was also the case during the sixteenth century wars of religion to which the carved images on the wall along with a message expressing their feelings and opinion of the scenario they are witnessing.
Graffiti were also used during the age of enlightenment and the French revolution as means of radical political expression and propaganda. The height of the use of graffiti reached its climax in the 1920s and the 1930s with the publication by the French photographer Brassai of a photo-essay on graffiti (Pereira, 21). The 1940s also saw the importance of graffiti with Nazis who employed it as weapon, “smearing the walls with their hate-filled propaganda against Jews and other enemies of the Third Reich.
Obviously, what could be drawn in the past is a concept that graffiti is a system of communication and expression “depicted by writings, drawings and scribbling on surfaces” (Price, 28). Today however, graffiti is seen as part of the urban culture or the so-called street culture which is a unique way of self expression through writing on walls. Despite the negative image in view of obscene language used, graffiti is a global phenomenon and its art is now seen as icon of popular culture and its techniques, and styles are generating increased interests worldwide (Gottlieb, 7).