Graffiti on the banks of the Tiber river in Rome, Italy.

Graffiti is a type of deliberately inscribed marking made by humans on surfaces, both private and public and is often prevalent in low-income neighborhoods. It can take the form of art, drawings or words. When done without a property owner's consent it often constitutes vandalism. Graffiti has existed at least since the days of ancient civilizations such as classical Greece and the Roman Empire. The word "graffiti" expresses the plural of "graffito", although the singular form has become relatively obscure and is largely used in art history to refer to works of art made by scratching the design on a surface. Another related term is sgraffito, a way of creating a design by scratching through one layer of pigment to reveal another one beneath. All of these English words come from the Italian language, most likely descending from "graffiato", the past participle of "graffiare" (to scratch); ancient graffitists scratched their work into walls before the advent of spray-paint, as in murals or frescoes. These words derive in their turn from the Greek γραφειν (graphein), meaning "to write". Historians continue to speculate over the vexing question as to where the term "graffiti" first referred to this form of marking.


History of graffiti

Ancient graffiti

The ordinary people of the Roman Empire used the language known as Vulgar Latin rather than the Classical Latin of literature, as in this political graffiti at Pompeii
The ordinary people of the Roman Empire used the language known as Vulgar Latin rather than the Classical Latin of literature, as in this political graffiti at Pompeii

Historically, the term graffiti originally referred to the inscriptions, figure drawings, etc., found on the walls of ancient sepulchers or ruins, as in the Catacombs of Rome or at Pompeii. Usage of the word has evolved to include any decorations (inscribed on any surface) that one can regard as vandalism; or to cover pictures or writing placed on surfaces, usually external walls and sidewalks, without the permission of an owner. Thus, inscriptions made by the authors of a monument are not classed as graffiti.

The first known example of "modern style" graffiti survives in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey) and appears to advertise prostitution, according to the tour guides of the city. It stands near the long mosaic and stone walkway and consists of a handprint, a vaguely heart-like shape, a footprint and a number. This purportedly indicates how many steps one would have to take to find a lover, with the handprint indicating payment.

Ancient Pompeiian graffiti caricature of a politician.
Ancient Pompeiian graffiti caricature of a politician.

The Romans carved graffiti into their own walls and monuments, and examples of their work also exist in Egypt. The eruption of Vesuvius preserved graffiti carved on the walls of Pompeii, and they offer us a direct insight into street life: everyday Latin, insults, magic, love declarations, political consigns. In contrast to typical modern graffiti, alphabets and quotations from famous literature (especially the first line of Virgil's Aeneid) have been found scribbled on the walls of Pompeii, either for the pleasure of the writer or to impress, albeit anonymously, the passerby with one's familiarity with letters and literature. In an ancient variant on the "for a good time..." theme, an inscription gives the address of one Novellia Primigenia of Nuceria, apparently a great beauty and subject of constant enquiry; an illustration of a phallus was accompanied by the text, mansueta tene: "Handle with care." Love was also the object of scorn:

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?
-CIL IV, 1284.

Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli also has several examples.

Errors in spelling and grammar in graffiti not only inform us of the degree of literacy of many of the graffiti scrawlers, but they also give clues as to the pronunciation of spoken Latin. Such is the case with CIL IV, 7838: Vettium Firmum / aed[ilem] quactiliar[ii] [sic] rog[ant]. Here "qu" reflects the common pronunciation of "co". Conversely, ancient graffiti also provide us with evidence of the ability to read and write among classes of people for whom literacy was not requisite and might not otherwise be assumed. For example, the 83 graffiti found at CIL IV, 4706-85 (a peristyle which had been undergoing remodeling at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius) were executed not only by the architect Crescens, but also by most of the members of the work crew for whom he served as foreman. The brothel at CIL VII, 12, 18-20 contains over 120 graffiti, the authors of which included the prostitutes as well as their clients. And finally, the gladiatorial academy at CIL IV, 4397 contained graffiti left by the gladiator Celadus Crescens (Suspirium puellarum Celadus thraex: "Celadus the Thracier makes the girls sigh.") However, not only Greeks and Romans produced graffiti: the Mayan site of Tikal in Guatemala, also contains ancient examples. Viking graffiti survive in Rome and at Newgrange Mound in Ireland, and Varangians carved their runes in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The ancient Irish inscribed stones with an alphabet called Ogham -- this standard mode of writing may not fall into the category of graffiti. There are also examples in American history, like Signature Rock (a national landmark), along the Oregon Trail.

Genteel graffiti on a fruit garden wall at Delapré Abbey
Genteel graffiti on a fruit garden wall at Delapré Abbey

Later, French soldiers carved their names on monuments during the Napoleonic campaign of Egypt in the 1790s.

Art forms like frescoes and murals involve leaving images and writing on wall surfaces. Like the prehistoric wall paintings created by cave dwellers, they do not comprise graffiti, as the artists generally produce them with the explicit permission (and usually support) of the owner or occupier of the walls.

Modern graffiti

A graffiti artist at work with spray paint at a graffiti competition in Spitalfields market London.
A graffiti artist at work with spray paint at a graffiti competition in Spitalfields market London.

In the 20th century, especially during World War II, 'Kilroy was here' became a famous graffito, along with Mr. Chad, a face with only the eyes and a nose hanging over the wall, saying "What No [scarce commodity]…?" during the time of rationing. Twentieth century warfare saw the advent of many new aviation technologies, closely followed by the advent of airplane graffiti, including the nose art made famous during World War II.

Starting with the large-scale urbanization of many areas in the post-war half of the 20th century, urban gangs would mark walls and other pieces of public property with the name of their gang (a "tag") in order to mark the gang's territory. Near the end of the 20th century, non-gang-related tagging became more common, practised for its own sake. Graffiti artists would sign their "tags" for the sake of doing so, or to increase their reputation and prestige as a "writer" or graffiti artist. The first documented cases of illegal markings created with a spray can were created by an artist named "Cornbread" from Philadelphia. The spray can became an important characteristic for the lettering styles which followed.

Taggers sometimes select tags, like screennames, to reflect some personal qualities, but often a tag is chosen for how the word sounds when spoken aloud or how the letters sit with each other when written; usually referred to as how the tag "flows". The letters in a word can make doing pieces very difficult if the shapes of the letters don't sit next to each other in a visually pleasing way. Also some tags are humourous plays on common expressions, such as: Page3, 2Shae, 2Cold, In1 and many others. Tags can also contain subtle and often cryptic messages or in some cases the writer's initials or other letters become a part of the tag. The current year is often put up next to tags as well; the bomber Tox, from London, never writes just Tox; it is always Tox03, Tox04, etc. In some cases, "writers" dedicate or create tags or graffiti in memory of a deceased friend, for example, "DIVA Peekrevs R.I.P. JTL '99". Tags are usually between 3 to 5 letters long to make the process of doing them illegally faster, but can be any length at all.

Competition exists between writers as to who can put up the most, or the most visible or artistic tags (see Graffiti art battle). Writers with the most tags, throw ups and pieces up tend to gain more respect among other graffiti artists, although they will also incur a greater risk if caught by authorities. As well as being prolific, writers are also expected to have "style", which means their work is artistic and accomplished, and the combination of the style of the work with the volume of work is what gets graffiti writers kudos from their peers.

In some cases, taggers have achieved such elaborate graffiti (especially those done in memory of a deceased person) on storefront gates that shopkeepers have hesitated to cover them up. In the Bronx after the death of rapper Big Pun, several murals dedicated to his life appeared virtually overnight; similar outpourings occurred after the deaths of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.

Other works covering otherwise unadorned fences or walls may likewise become so highly elaborate that property-owners or the government may choose to keep them rather than cleaning them off. "Free walls" or commissioned walls are now a common part of the culture.

Some graffiti has local or regional resonance, such as wall and street sign tagging in Southern California by gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips. The name Cool "Disco" Dan (including the quotation marks) occurs commonly in the Washington, D.C. area. One famous graffito in the DC Metro area appeared on the outer loop of the beltway on a railroad bridge near the Mormon temple as seen here. Its simple scrawl "Surrender Dorothy" summoned visions of the Emerald City of Oz and has remained on the bridge for nearly 30 years off and on beginning in late 1973. Pressure from the Temple saw it removed, only to reappear. This "giraffiti" became so well known among the Mormon community that their newsletters often mentioned it as a specific example demonstrating misunderstanding. (See "In View of Temple, Graffiti Again Seeks Dorothy's Surrender" and "Landmark to most, temple is sanctuary for area's Mormons" in Mormons Today.)

Theories on and the use of graffiti by avant-garde artists have a history dating back at least to the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism of 1961.

Most of those who practice graffiti art wish to distance themselves from gang graffiti. Differences in both form and intent exist: graffiti art aims at self-expression and creativity, and may involve highly stylized letterforms drawn with markers, or cryptic and colorful spray paint murals on walls, buildings, and even freight trains. Graffiti artists strive to improve their art, which constantly changes and progresses. Gang graffiti, on the other hand, functions to mark territorial boundaries, and therefore does not transcend a gang's neighborhood; in the eyes of lovers of graffiti-art, it does not presuppose artistic intent.

The designs, while chosen to appear distinctive and recognizable, are more likely to be influenced by the speed with which a tagger can execute them (thus minimizing the chance of that tagger being caught). Those who distinguish between tagging and graffiti generally accept tagging as gang-motivated or meant as vandalism (illegal) or viewed as too vulgar or controversial to have public value, while they can view graffiti as creative expression, whether charged with political meaning or not.

Many contemporary analysts and even art critics have begun to see artistic value in some graffiti and to recognize it as a form of public art. According to many art researchers, particularly in the Netherlands and in Los Angeles, that type of public art is, in fact an effective tool of social emancipation or in the achievement of a political goal.

The murals of Belfast and of Los Angeles [1] offer another example of official recognition. In times of conflict, such murals have offered a means of communication and self-expression for members of these socially, ethnically and/or racially divided communities, and have proven themselves as effective tools in establishing dialog and thus of addressing cleavages in the long run.

A "tagged" construction scaffolding.
A "tagged" construction scaffolding.

Computer generated "tags" of usernames are now increasingly popular on forums, one notable site being Gaia Online.


A number of words and phrases have come to describe different styles and aspects of graffiti. Like all slang and colloquialisms the phrases vary in different cities and countries. Below is a selection of terminology from the USA:

  • tag - a stylized signature; the terms tagger and writer refer to a person who "tags". A tag can be distinguished from a piece by its relative simplicity. Tags are usually comprised of a single color that contrasts sharply with its background. Tag can also be used as a verb which means "to sign". Writers often tag their pieces following the tradition of signing masterpieces. Another type of tag is a "dust tag", done in dust by writers wishing to practice. Not commonly popular.
  • piece (from "masterpiece") - a large image, often with 3-D effects, arrows giving flow and direction, many colors and color-transitions and various other effects. A piece needs more time than a throw-up. If placed in a difficult location and well executed it will earn the writer more respect. Piece can also be used as a verb that means: "to write". (See also:Super kool 223)
  • throw-up - defined by the short amount of time it takes to create, a throw-up is not a piece. It generally consists of an outline (like black) and one layer of fill-color (like silver). Easy-to-paint bubble-shapes often form the letters. Throw-ups are often utilized by writers who wish to achieve a large number of tags while competing with rival artists. The short amount of time it takes to complete a throw-up reduces the risk of getting "busted".
  • sticky - a sticker (usually taken from a post office) and has the writer's tag on it.
  • bombing (as in the phrases to bomb or to hit) describes painting many surfaces. Throw-ups or tags are often utilized, since they don't require much time to execute.
  • crew or cru has become the standard collective noun for a group of writers or graffiti-artists. Some crews are members of gangs, or are associated with gangs for art materials or protection during the process of creation, but many crews are unaffiliated with gangs.
  • writers become up when their work becomes widespread and well-known. To "get up" in a city involves tagging, bombing and making good pieces (see the graffiti-themed video game Marc Ecko's Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure)
  • to slash somebody's tag (to put a line through, or tag over it) counts as a deep insult. This is also known as "capping", "marking", "buffing", and "dissing", which originates from disrespecting.
Graffiti on the Berlin Wall
Graffiti on the Berlin Wall
  • the phrase back to back refers to a graffiti that covers a wall from end to end, as seen on some parts of the West-Berlin side of the Berlin Wall. Similarly, trains sometimes receive end to end painting; which means a carriage has been painted along its entire length (but not to the top of the carriage). This is often abbreviated to "e2e". End to ends used to be called window-downs but this is an older expression that is falling from popularity.
  • top-to-bottom pieces on trains cover the whole height of the car. A top-to-bottom, end-to-end production is called a whole-car. A production with several writers might cover a whole-train, which means the entire side of the train has been covered.
  • burner - typically a large, elaborate piece, more elaborate than a normal piece. It refers to the piece "burning" out of the wall or train-side. Burners often originate legally, because of the time and effort put into them, but the great early writers of New York also did burners illegally on trains.
  • insides are tags or bombs done inside trains, trams, or buses. In 1970s New York, there was as much graffiti inside the subway trains as outside, and the same is true of some cities today (like Rome, Italy and Melbourne, Australia). While prolific, insides are often less artistic and seldom documented.
  • going over - (go over) if a writer goes over or tags upon another writer's piece, it is the same as declaring war against the opponent writer. Most writers respect others' work, and the basic rules for replacing other creations are in this order: tag - throwup - piece. You should only paint over another's work if it has been slashed (or "dissed") already or if you will be creating something better than the original piece. As what constitutes "better" is highly subjective, this often leads to disagreements. If someone breaks these guidelines the person is considered a "toy", or generally an annoyance.
  • toy - an inexperienced or unskilled writer. Graffiti pros use this as a derogatory term for new writers in the scene.
  • king - inside or outside kings are writers with a certain amount of respect among other writers. To own the inside means you have most tags inside trains, and to own the outside means having most pieces on the train surface. One should note that their are kings of style among a variety of other categories and the term is regionally subjective. Self-declared kings will often incorporate crowns into their pieces; a commonly used element of style.
  • buffing - (to buff) to remove a graffiti painting with chemicals and other instruments.
TAF rooftop, Phoenix Arizona
TAF rooftop, Phoenix Arizona
To gain notoriety, and make pieces difficult to remove, graffiti artists will sometimes paint hard-to-reach spots such as rooftops. Such heavens pieces (also commonly known as giraffiti), by the nature of the spot often pose dangerous challenges to execute.
  • nic - (to nic) to steal another artists ideas or lettering schemes. Seasoned artists will often complain about 'toys' that nic their work.
  • bite - (to bite) an oldschool NYC term for nic .
  • Etch can refer to the use of acid solutions intended for creating frosted glass to write on windows.
  • paintEATER refers to surfaces coated with a certain chemical that causes spray to be consumed thus implying the words painteater

Another technique sometimes referred to as scratchitti involves making purposely hard-to-remove graffiti by scratching or etching a tag into an object, generally using a key or another sharp object such as a knife, stone, ceramic drill bit, or diamond tipped Dremel bit. The Mohs scale of mineral hardness determines which stones or other objects will scratch what surfaces.

Legal situation

Graffiti is subject to different societal pressures from popularly-recognized art forms, since graffiti appears on walls, freeways, buildings, trains or any accessible surfaces that are not owned by the person who applies the graffiti. This means that graffiti forms incorporate elements rarely seen elsewhere. Spray paint and broad permanent markers are commonly used, and the organizational structure of the art is sometimes influenced by the need to apply the art quickly before it is noticed by authorities.

Character created by graffiti artist
Character created by graffiti artist

In an effort to reduce vandalism, many cities have designated walls or areas exclusively for use by graffiti artists. Some have suggested that this discourages petty vandalism yet encourages artists to take their time and produce great art, without worry of being caught or arrested for vandalism or trespassing. Others disagree with this approach, arguing that the presence of legal graffiti walls does not demonstrably reduce illegal graffiti elsewhere.

While some perceive graffiti as a method of reclaiming public space, many others regard it as an unwanted nuisance, or as expensive vandalism requiring repair of the vandalized property. One can view graffiti as a 'quality of life' issue, and many people suggest that the presence of graffiti contributes to a general sense of squalor and a heightened fear of crime. Advocates of the "broken window theory" believe that this sense of decay encourages further vandalism and promotes an environment leading to offences that are more serious. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani's subscription to the broken window theory promoted an aggressive anti-graffiti campaign in New York. However, throughout the world, authorities often, though not always, treat graffiti as a minor nuisance crime, though with widely varying penalties.

Chicago's mayor, Richard M. Daley created the 'Graffiti Blasters' to eliminate graffiti and gang-related vandalism. The bureau promises absolutely free cleanup within 24 hours of a phone call. The bureau uses paints (common to the city's 'color scheme') and baking-soda based solvents to erase all varieties of graffiti. [2]

In 1984, the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN) was created to combat the city's growing concerns about gang-related graffiti. PAGN led to the creation of the Mural Arts Program, which replaced often hit spots with elaborate, commissioned murals that were protected by a city ordinance, increasing fines and penalties for anyone caught defacing a mural.

Community cleaning squads have responded to graffiti. In France, the Protestant youth group Éclaireurs de France took their graffiti-scrubbing into the Meyrieres Cave near the French village of Bruniquel in Tarn-et-Garonne, where they carefully erased the ancient paintings from the walls, earning them the 1992 Ig Nobel Prize in archaeology.[3]

Computer generated graffiti No Guts, No Fame, its noticeable "anti-police" theme shows both its subject's and its creator's frustration with the perceived illegal threat of graffiti, and the belief that the likely penalty is worth the price.
Computer generated graffiti No Guts, No Fame, its noticeable "anti-police" theme shows both its subject's and its creator's frustration with the perceived illegal threat of graffiti, and the belief that the likely penalty is worth the price.

Graffiti made the news in 1993, over an incident in Singapore involving several expensive cars found spray-painted. The police arrested a student from Singapore American School, Michael P. Fay, questioned him and subsequently charged him with vandalism. Fay pleaded guilty for vandalizing the car in addition to stealing road signs. Under the 1966 Singapore Vandalism Act, originally passed to curb the spread of communist graffiti in Singapore, the court sentenced him to four months in jail, a fine of 3,500 Singaporean dollars (US $2,233 or 1,450 British pounds), and a caning. The New York Times ran several editorials and op-eds that condemned the punishment and called the American public to flood the Singaporean embassy with protests. Although the Singapore government received many calls for clemency, Fay's caning took place in Singapore on May 5, 1994. (Fay originally received a sentence of six lashes of the cane, but the then President of Singapore Ong Teng Cheong finally agreed to reduce his caning-sentence to four lashes.)

In 1995 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York set up the Anti-Graffiti Task Force, a multi-agency initiative to combat the perceived problem of graffiti vandals in New York City. This began a crackdown in "quality of life crimes" throughout the city, and one of the largest anti-graffiti campaigns in US history. That same year Title 10-117 of the New York Administrative Code banned the sale of aerosol spray-paint cans to children under 18. The law also requires that merchants who sell spray-paint must lock it in a case or display cans behind a counter, out of reach of potential shoplifters. Violations of the city's anti-graffiti law carry fines of $350 per count. Both the full text of the law and an opposing viewpoint written by famous NYC graffiti artist Zephyr appear online.

The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 became Britain's latest anti-graffiti legislation.

In August 2004, the Keep Britain Tidy campaign issued a press release calling for zero tolerance of graffiti and supporting proposals such as issuing "on the spot" fines to graffiti offenders and banning the sale of aerosol paint to teenagers. The press release also condemned the use of graffiti images in advertising and in music videos, arguing that real-world experience of graffiti stood far removed from its often-portrayed 'cool' or 'edgy' image. To back the campaign, 123 British MPs (including Prime Minister Tony Blair) signed a charter which stated: Graffiti is not art, it's crime. On behalf of my constituents, I will do all I can to rid our community of this problem.

The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico has had an aggressive anti-graffiti program since the mid-1990s. The city regarded its heavily-tagged arroyos, bridges and sound barrier walls as an eyesore. Reports emerged of taggers suffering injury and death attempting to tag their gang's area or while spray painting graffiti on the bridges. Each park and arroyo now has a sign posted that gives the telephone number to the Albuquerque Tagger's Hotline, and a website exists where citizens can report taggers or graffiti online. Most stores in the metro area will not even sell spray paint without seeing an ID, and some have gone so far as to lock the spray paint away. Punishments include fines, community service and jail.

On January 1st, 2006, it became illegal for a person under the age of 21 to possess spray-paint or permanent markers in New York City for the purpose of creating graffiti.

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:

Famous artists

New York City's TAKI 183
New York City's TAKI 183
Aerosol artists Street Art and Post-Graffiti artists

Avant garde artists

Political graffiti artists

Fictional graffiti artists

References and additional resources

In film

  • Style Wars is an early documentary on hip hop culture, made by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant, made in New York City in the early 1980 for PBS.
  • Bomb the System (Theatrical release May 27 2005 in America / 3 September 2005 in Japan): a narrative feature about a crew of graffiti writers in modern day New York City. Shot entirely on the streets of New York starring Mark Webber as BLEST, a young artist struggling for fame and featuring BONZ Malone, SEMZ, TATS crew, LEE Quinones, Tracy 168, GANO, and artwork from KR, SERF/MINT, PER, T-KID, STEM YNN, KYRO VGL and many many others. Bomb the System was scored by independent hip hop producer El P aka El Producto, his first such attempt at composing for film and directed by 23 year old NYU film school grad Adam Bhala Lough. The film screened at 23 festivals on 3 continents and was nominated for an IFP Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature in 2003. Palm Pictures released the film and subsequent DVD in 2005 to mixed reviews by t
  • NEXT, a Primer on Urban Painting - 2005 documentary. (, imdb)
  • GRAFFITITV - online graffiti TV featuring graffiti clips from around the world updated every day . (


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