Graffiti is as much a part of urban landscapes as skyscrapers and subways. Yet, the term “graffiti” and the etymology of related terms are shrouded in a haze of spray paint. In this deep dive, we’ll uncover the roots of the word “graffiti” and venture into related terminologies in the street art world.
Why Is It Called Graffiti?
The term “graffiti” has its origins in the Italian word “graffiato”, which means “scratched.” This is a nod to ancient practices where drawings and inscriptions were scratched onto surfaces, particularly walls. Interestingly, these ancient markings, whether in Rome, Greece, or Egypt, were spontaneous acts of public expression, much like today’s urban graffiti.
The word entered the English lexicon in the 19th century but gained massive popularity during the 20th century with the rise of street art in urban environments. Over time, what began as rudimentary scribbles evolved into a complex, expressive, and globally recognized form of art.
What Was Graffiti Originally Called?
The very concept of graffiti isn’t new; it dates back millennia. From ancient Rome to Greece and even earlier civilizations, people have left their marks on walls, caves, and structures. But was it always called ‘graffiti’?
As mentioned earlier, the term “graffiti” is derived from the Italian word “graffiato”, meaning “scratched.” In ancient Rome, graffiti (or, more precisely, the act we now call graffiti) was referred to as “scribere,” which translates to “to write” in Latin. These markings, known as “scribbles” or “inscriptions,” were etched onto walls, columns, and monuments. They encompassed everything from declarations of love and political slogans to simple greetings.
In ancient Egypt, graffiti often took the form of carvings or inscriptions on temple walls, monuments, and other public structures. These etchings, sometimes done by travelers or pilgrims, served as records of visits, prayers, or reflections. However, they weren’t termed ‘graffiti’ as we know it but inscriptions or carvings.
In essence, while the act of creating graffiti-like markings has been a part of human civilization for thousands of years, the term “graffiti,” as we understand it today, is relatively modern. The ancient world didn’t have a specific term for it analogous to our contemporary understanding. However, the impulse to leave one’s mark, to communicate publicly through inscriptions, is deeply rooted in our history.
What is the Origin of Graffiti?
While modern urban centers are often closely associated with graffiti, its origin dates back several millennia. It’s a testament to the timeless human urge to communicate, make a mark, and express oneself.
The ancient world brims with examples of what we can recognize as precursors to modern graffiti.
Ancient Egypt: The great monuments, tombs, and temples often had inscriptions, some of which were not officially sanctioned. These markings, made by visitors or workers, ranged from simple names and dates to more detailed drawings and comments.
Ancient Rome: Roman cities, particularly Pompeii, are renowned for their preserved graffiti. The walls of buildings, monuments, and public places were covered in Latin inscriptions, drawings, and messages. These spanned the gamut from political endorsements, satirical commentary, declarations of love, and even advertisements for gladiator matches.
Ancient Greece: The ancient Greeks also participated in the act, with many archaeological sites revealing inscriptions on walls, pottery, and statues. The city of Aphrodisias, for instance, is known for its graffiti depicting gladiatorial combat.
Evolution Through the Ages
Throughout history, the act of making one’s mark has persisted. From the Vikings inscribing runes in ancient structures during their travels to Medieval European markings found in castles and on church walls, graffiti in its various forms has been a constant.
The advent of the 20th century and urbanization saw graffiti evolve in both style and substance. Modern graffiti, characterized by spray paint and distinct styles, began taking shape in the 1960s and 1970s in cities like Philadelphia and New York. Artists such as Cornbread in Philadelphia and TAKI 183 in New York are often credited with pioneering the modern graffiti movement, transitioning from simple tags to more elaborate and artistic expressions.
Modern Day Graffiti
Today, graffiti is a global phenomenon, with each region adding its unique flavor and style. It serves as both a form of personal expression and a reflection of societal changes, politics, and culture. Cities across the world, from Sao Paulo to Melbourne, boast vibrant street art scenes, with graffiti at the forefront, transforming urban landscapes and making powerful social statements.
Why Is Breakdancing Called Physical Graffiti?
Breakdancing, or b-boying, and graffiti are two pillars of hip-hop culture, both originating from the same urban environments and reflecting similar rebellious and creative spirits.
The term “physical graffiti” as a descriptor for breakdancing reflects the idea that dancers are “painting” or “etching” stories, expressions, and emotions with their bodies, much as graffiti artists do with spray cans on walls. Body movements, spins, and freezes are analogous to graffiti strokes, lines, and colors. Both forms of expression capture urban life’s spirit, challenges, and narratives.
However, it’s worth noting that while “physical graffiti” is a poetic description of breakdancing, it’s not the universally accepted term for it. The linkage lies in the intertwined roots and evolution of the broader hip-hop culture.
Why Is It Called Bombing in Graffiti?
“Bombing” in graffiti parlance refers to the act of painting numerous surfaces in an area as quickly as possible. The term captures the essence of the act—fast, impactful, and widespread, much like a “bomb” that affects a large area in a short time.
Originally, bombing was about getting one’s tag (a graffiti artist’s personal signature) up as much as possible for maximum visibility and recognition. Over time, it has evolved and now includes more complex pieces, but the core principle remains quick execution and widespread presence.
The Evolution of Graffiti Terms
The world of graffiti is vast, with its own evolving lexicon. Terms such as “tags,” “throws,” “pieces,” and “crews” all have deep-rooted significance in the graffiti community. As graffiti evolved from simple tags to intricate murals, the terminology grew more complex, capturing the nuances, techniques, and ethos of this art form.
Tags: The simplest form of graffiti, a tag is an artist’s signature. It’s a quick way of marking territory and gaining recognition.
Throws: These are larger than tags, usually bubble letters, and are done quickly but have more visibility.
Pieces: Short for “masterpieces,” these are large, detailed, and colorful works of graffiti art. They require time and effort and often depict the zenith of an artist’s skill.
Graffiti – More Than Just Wall Paintings
Graffiti, as a term and as an art form, has a rich tapestry of history and evolution behind it. From ancient scratched markings to modern-day urban masterpieces, the world of graffiti is as layered and nuanced as the art it produces. By understanding its terminology, we gain a deeper appreciation for the culture, history, and skills that define this global phenomenon.
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