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Graffiti

GRAFFITI

GRAFFITI. From the Italian graffito (scribbling), the practice of drawing symbols, images, or words on private or public surfaces without permission. Ancient Romans wrote graffiti, as have many of the world's cultures. The modern graffiti movement, associated with the hip-hop culture of break dancing and rap music, started primarily among black and Latino teenagers in Philadelphia and New York in the late 1960s. In 1971, the New York Times ran a story about "Taki 183," a messenger who had been writing his "tag," or stylized signature, all over New York, and graffiti took off. "Taggers" and "burners," who painted elaborate "pieces," short for masterpieces, usually wrote on subway cars, which had the advantage of moving their writing across the city.

Graffiti elicited strong opinions. To graffiti writers, it was a thriving subculture. To many intellectuals, it was a new and vital art form. To city officials, however, graffiti was illegal vandalism. New York established an anti-graffiti task force and an undercover graffiti police unit and spent many millions of dollars on experimental solvents and train yard security improvements. By the mid-1980s, New York had cut down on graffiti, but by then the art form had spread across the United States and to Europe. A new kind of "gang graffiti" that marks territory and sends messages to rival gangs became common in Los Angeles in the late 1980s.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Abel, Ernest L., and Barbara E. Buckley. The Handwriting on the Wall: Toward Sociology and Psychology of Graffiti. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Phillips, Susan A. Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in L.A. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Powers, Stephen. The Art of Getting Over: Graffiti at the Millennium. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Jeremy Derfner

See also Art: Self-Taught Artists .

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graffiti

graf·fi·ti / grəˈfētē/ • pl. n. (sing. -to / -tō/ ) [treated as sing. or pl.] writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place: the walls were covered with graffiti | [as adj.] a graffiti artist. • v. [tr.] write or draw graffiti on (something): he and another artist graffitied an entire train. ∎  write (words or drawings) as graffiti. DERIVATIVES: graf·fi·tist / -tist/ n.

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graffiti

graffitiAlbacete, eighty, Haiti, Katy, Kuwaiti, Leyte, matey, pratie, slaty, weighty •safety • frailty •dainty, painty •hasty, pastie, pasty, tasty •suzerainty •Beatty, entreaty, graffiti, meaty, Nefertiti, peaty, sleety, sweetie, Tahiti, titi, treaty •beastie, yeasty

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Graffiti

Graffiti

People have been scribbling on walls as long as they have been building them. "Graffiti"—the word comes from the Italian verb graffiare, "to scratch"—covers a wide range of public inscriptions, from the early paintings on the walls of caves at Lescaux to quips hastily inked up on contemporary bathroom stalls. The late-twentieth century has seen the development of a market for graffiti as an art form, although the majority of graffiti remains unsolicited and anonymous.

Historically, graffiti has been used primarily as a form of personal communication. One of the earliest uses developed in the United States among hobos who rode the rails across the country in the first decades of the twentieth century. The complicated symbolic language of these transients was scratched in chalk on fence posts and other unobtrusive spots to communicate the receptivity of the towns-people to future travelers.

One of the most famous examples of graffiti in the twentieth century came in the image of Kilroy. James J. Kilroy, a shipyard inspector during World War II, wrote the words "Kilroy was here" in chalk on bulkheads to indicate that he had inspected the riveting. U.S. troops added the scribbled drawing of Kilroy leering over a wall to accompany the inscription "Kilroy was here" and Kilroy became an internationally known phenomenon during the 1940s and 1950s. Kilroy turned up in some very odd places; his first appearance is reputed to have been on the side of the battleship New Yorker, discovered by U.S. inspectors after the atomic bomb test at the Bikini atoll, but he has also appeared on top of the torch of the Statue of Liberty and under the Arc de Triomphe.

While American soldiers were spreading Kilroy across the globe, another ultimately more influential form of graffiti was developing in the United States during the 1940s. The exterior walls of buildings in Hispanic communities in postwar Los Angeles were increasingly decorated with a kind of marking subsequently designated as "old school." Before the advent of spray paint, these black-and-white drawings were realized entirely in marker to communicate the boundaries of neighborhoods controlled by rival gangs.

Although graffiti continued during the 1960s, it was not until the 1970s that it started attracting public attention as a serious social problem. The visibility of graffiti had steadily been increasing, as graffiti artists started using spray paint to cover larger areas more colorfully than was previously possible. One of the first graffiti artists to achieve notoriety was a tagger, or name-writer, whose signature "Taki 183" began appearing on walls in four boroughs of New York in 1971. Taki was followed by a hoard of fellow taggers, and by the mid-1970s the primary target of graffiti artists hungry for name-recognition had become the trains of the New York City subway system. Throughout the decade, the city of New York fought a battle with enterprising taggers, whose projects grew rapidly from quick signatures to elaborately stylized versions of their street names, dubbed "Wild Style," that could cover an entire subway car. Even as the transit authorities struggled to remove the colorful paintings, or "throw-ups," New York graffiti was achieving international recognition as part of a nascent hip-hop culture that included rap music and break dancing. Several films immortalize this period, including Wild Style (1982) and Beat Street (1984).

Eventually, a coating was developed that inhibited the application of spray paint onto the surfaces of trains, and in the 1980s a booming art market developed an interest in graffiti marketed as an art form. Several galleries in Manhattan began specializing in graffiti art, and former graffiti artists such as Keith Haring, who got his start doing quick marker drawings in his characteristic outline style, and Jean-Michel Basquiat became instant celebrities, with works selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The public fascination with graffiti faded by the end of the decade, as graffiti became increasingly associated with the activity of urban gangs.

—Deborah Broderson

Further Reading:

Phillips, Susan. Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in LA. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Reisner, Robert. Graffiti: Two Thousand Years of Wall Writing. New York, Cowles Book Company, 1971.

Wiese, Markus. New York: Graffiti 1975-1995. Moers, Edition Aragon, 1996.

Wimsatt, William. Bomb the Suburbs: Graffiti, Freight-Hopping, Race and the Search for Hip-Hop's Moral Center. Chicago, Subway and Elevated Press, 1994.

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