Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist, Shamsia Hassani

What is Graffiti? An Overview of Graffiti as an Art Form

A passer-by in an urban city landscape would have observed the colourful, illegal and often provocative graffiti spray-painted in many areas. While many consider this street art to be nothing but a nuisance, graffiti is now gaining recognition from the world of art as a legitimate art form.

Most people think of graffiti as tags or stylized writing of one’s name. Yes, tags are probably the most popular form, but graffiti is much more than that. It could be a black and white stencil piece sprayed as a protest against police brutality. Or it could be a colourful and vibrant mural with a message of diversity. In every case, graffiti makes a statement. Once considered as pure vandalism, it is becoming more widely accepted as art. This blog explores the history of graffiti from ancient times to the modern day.

What is graffiti?

Graffiti is drawings or writings made on a surface, mostly walls.
Graffiti is drawings or writings made on a surface, mostly walls. Credit@ Novagraaf

What exactly is graffiti? They are drawings or writings made on a surface, mostly walls, and they are made so usually without permission. And they are always within public view. The designs range from simple written words to decorative wall paintings. While the vibrant colours and designs delude us into thinking that graffiti has its roots in modern times, it is not. It has existed since ancient times, as examples from ancient Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire indicate.

Graffiti is one of the most controversial subjects. Most countries view the act of marking or painting on a property without permission as vandalism or defacement. It is a punishable crime in many countries, for the reason that street gangs use graffiti to mark territory or to indicate gang-related activities.

The history of graffiti

Originally, the term graffiti referred to figure drawings, inscriptions and such, made on the walls of ancient ruins or sepulchres. Examples include the Catacombs of Rome or at Pompeii. Over the years, the term has evolved to include any graphics made on surfaces in a way that constitutes vandalism.

Ancient Pompeii graffiti: A caricature of a politician.
Ancient Pompeii graffiti: A caricature of a politician. credit@ Wikimedia

Graffiti has also served as clues or indicators of languages that have existed in the past. For example, the only known source of the Safaitic language (an ancient form of Arabic) is from graffiti. The surface of boulders and rocks in the basalt desert of southern Syria, northern Saudi Arabia and eastern Jordan had inscriptions scratched on them. The language of Safaitic dates back to the first century BC to the fourth century AD.

Modern-style graffiti

The first ‘modern style’ graffiti is considered to be the one that survives in Ephesus, the ancient Greek city (in modern-day Turkey). The graffiti is located near a stone walkway and mosaic. It depicts a handprint that vaguely looks like a heart, along with a footprint, a carved image of a woman’s face and a number. According to local guides, it was an advertisement for prostitution.

Other examples of ancient graffiti are those carved by the Romans on walls and monuments, which now survive in Egypt. Back then, graffiti held different connotations from what it means in today’s society. There were phrases that were declarations of love, simple words of thought, and political rhetoric, compared to the present day messages of political and social ideals. These ancient graffiti were preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii. They included magic spells, Latin curses, insults, love declarations, political slogans, alphabets, and famous literary quotes. They provided an insight into the street life of ancient Rome.

Graffiti on the Mirror Wall, Sigiriya, Sri Lanka. credit@ Wikimedia
Graffiti on the Mirror Wall, Sigiriya, Sri Lanka. credit@ Wikimedia

In Sri Lanka, ancient tourists who visited the 5th-century citadel at Sigirya scrawled more than 1800 individual graffiti at the place, between the 6th and 18th centuries. Scribbled on the surface of the Mirror Wall, they were pieces of poetry, prose and commentary. Most of these visitors seem to hail from elite society. They were officials, royals, professionals and the clergy.

Archers, soldiers and some metalworkers visited too. The scribbles ranged from love to lament, satire, curses and wit. A lot of them denote a great level of literacy, with a deep appreciation of poetry and art. Many of them referred to the murals of semi-nude women found there.

Level of literacy displayed in graffiti

Older forms of graffiti have helped us understand the languages and lifestyles of cultures long gone. Errors in grammar and spelling in them offer an insight into the level of literacy during Roman times. They also provide hints into the pronunciation of spoken Latin. Graffiti was found on the walls of brothels, taverns and the gladiatorial academy. And it wasn’t just the Romans and Greeks who used graffiti. The Mayan site of Tikal, Guatemala, displays examples of ancient Mayan graffiti. Viking graffiti has survived at Newgrange Mound in Ireland and in Rome.

The Romanesque Scandinavian church walls were often scrawled with graffiti known as Tacherons. Renaissance artists like Michelangelo, Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio, Raphael, and Filippino Lippi descended into Nero’s Domus Aurea ruins and painted or carved their names there.  Examples of graffiti from American history include those at Independence Rock, a national landmark along the Oregon Trail.

Later, during the 1790s, French soldiers carved their names on many monuments during the Napoleonic campaign of Egypt. Lord Byron’s carvings on one of the columns of the Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion, Attica, survives today in Greece.

Contemporary graffiti

The style of contemporary graffiti has been greatly influenced by hip-hop culture and the various international styles derived from New York City Subway and Philadelphia graffiti. Excluding this, there are a lot of other traditions of noteworthy graffiti in the twentieth century. They have long appeared on the walls of buildings, latrines, subways, bridges and railroad boxcars.

The oldest considered example of modern graffiti is the monikers on train cars, made by rail workers and hobos since the late 1800s. The filmmaker Bill Daniel documented the Bozo Texino monikers in his film, Who is Bozo Texino? (2005).

The graffiti 'Kilroy was here' emerged during World War II.
The graffiti ‘Kilroy was here’ emerged during World War II. Credit@ Wired

Some graffiti is poignant. During World War II, the wall at the fortress of Verdun was inscribed with words that showed the US response to the wrongs of the Old World. Another phrase that came to be during the war and for decades after, was ‘Kilroy was here,’ accompanied with an illustration. The phrase soon spread throughout the world owing to its use by American troops. It ultimately became integrated into American popular culture.

Soon after Charlie Parker’s death, who was nicknamed ‘Bird’ or ‘Yardbird,’ New York was flooded with the words ‘Bird Lives’ written in graffiti. In May 1968, student protests and general strikes led to Paris being covered in anarchist, revolutionary and situationist slogans, written in stencil art, graffiti and poster art. In the US at the time, political phrases, like ‘Free Huey’ about Black Panther Huey Newton, made the rounds in limited areas. Another popular graffiti slogan during the early 1970s was ‘Dick Nixon Before He Dicks You,’ which reflected the youth’s hostility towards the US president.

The advent of aerosol paint

A significant subgenre of graffiti is rock and roll. One of the famous graffiti of the twentieth century was ‘Clapton is God,’ an inscription made in the London Tube in connection with the guitarist Eric Clapton. In the autumn of 1967, an admirer spray-painted the phrase on a wall in an Islington station on the Underground.

Clapton Is God' graffiti. Arvon Road, Islington, London, 1965. | Eric  clapton, Graffiti artist, Graffiti
‘Clapton is God’ was one of the most popular graffiti of the twentieth century. Credit@ Pinterest

Graffiti became connected to the anti-establishment punk rock movement starting in the 1970s. Bands such as Crass and Black Flag, along with their followers, widely stencilled their names and logos. Other places like squats, punk night clubs and hangouts are famous for their graffiti. In the late 1980s, the most ubiquitous graffiti in lower Manhattan was the upside-down Martini glass, the tag for the punk band Missing Foundation.

The emergence of hip hop culture

In 1983, Tony Silver directed Style Wars, an American documentary film that focused on the rich growing culture of hip hop culture growing in New York. Depicting the late 70s and 80s, the movie specifically concentrated on graffiti art and breakdancing. Famous graffiti artists such as Dondi, Skeme, MinOne and ZEPHYR were depicted in the movie. Through the incorporation of famous break-dancing groups such as Rock Steady Crew into the movie, the role of graffiti was reinforced within New York’s growing hip-hop culture. While many officers of the New York Police Department found the movie to be controversial, it is still considered as the most prolific representation of what was trending within the young hip-hop culture of the early 1980s.

Stencil graffiti

Banksy’s stencil, Girl with Balloon on a South Bank wall near the National Theatre in 2004.  Banksy’s stencil, Girl with Balloon on a South Bank wall near the National Theatre in 2004.

Banksy’s stencil, Girl with Balloon on a South Bank wall near the National Theatre in 2004. credit@ The Guardian

It was during the same period that stencil graffiti emerged. Some of the first examples of stencil graffiti were made by Blek le Rat, in 1981 in Paris and by Jef Aerosol in Tours in 1982. By 1985, other cities had adopted stencils, including New York, Sydney and Melbourne. The use of stencils in these cities were documented by Charles Gatewood, an American photographer, and Rennie Ellis, an Australian photographer.

Commercialization and entrance into mainstream pop culture

‘Peace, Love and Linux’ graffiti of IBM's advertising campaign.
‘Peace, Love and Linux’ graffiti of IBM’s advertising campaign. Credit@ Ads of the World

When graffiti became popular and legitimate, it also meant it got commercialised, to a certain degree. In 2001, an advertising campaign was launched by IBM in Chicago and San Francisco. It involved people spray painting on sidewalks the symbol for peace, a heart and a penguin (Linux mascot), to denote ‘Peace, Love and Linux.’ However, IBM did have to pay Chicago and San Francisco collectively 120,000 USD for punitive damages and clean-up costs.

Four years later, Sony launched a similar ad campaign which was executed by its advertising agency in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami. It was done to market its handheld PSP gaming system. The legal problems faced by IBM did not go unnoticed by Sony. The company paid building owners for the right to paint on their buildings. The paintings were those of a group of urban kids playing with the PSP as if it were a rocking horse, a paddle or a skateboard.


Many of the current analysts and art critics have begun to view some graffiti as having artistic value. Many art researchers are of the opinion that graffiti is a type of public art that is an effective tool for achieving a political goal or social emancipation. During times of conflict and unrest, murals have served as a means of self-expression and communication for members of socially, racially and ethnically divided communities.

Personal expression

Afghanistan's first female graffiti and street artist, Shamsia Hassani, with her work, is known for her bold portrayal of women's voices in a male-dominated society.
Afghanistan’s first female graffiti and street artist, Shamsia Hassani, with her work, is known for her bold portrayal of women’s voices in a male-dominated society. Credit:

Many graffiti artists who use it as a form of self-expression choose to remain anonymous, to protect their identities. This is for various reasons. Graffiti is still one of the four hip-hop elements that still isn’t considered performance art. Since it is a graphic form of art, it may be said that many graffiti artists could be grouped under the category of the introverted archetypal artist.

Banksy is one of the world’s most popular and also notorious street artists, who, to this day, remains anonymous. He is famous for his anti-war, political stencil art, chiefly in Bristol, England. But he has painted his work all over the world, from Los Angeles to Palestine. In the Middle East, Banksy painted on the controversial West Bank barrier of Israel. The paintings consist of satirical images of life on the other side. Banksy’s art is a topic of controversy-whether it’s vandalism or art. Art supporters have endorsed his work and art councils, such as Islington and Bristol, have officially protected them. Officials of other areas have deemed his work as vandalism and removed it.

Another artist who remains anonymous is Pixnit. Pixnit’s works focus on beauty and the design aspects of graffiti. Her works are often flower designs above stores and shops in her urban locality of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Some shop owners endorse her work.

Radical and political

Graffiti is often seen as part of a subculture that rebels against authority. It is one of the tools, among others, to express political opinions and protests. One example is the punk band Crass, who conducted a stencilling campaign of anti-war, anti-consumerist, feminist and anarchist messages throughout the London Underground system.

Urban neighbourhoods are often marked with territorial graffiti such as tags and logos, to differentiate certain gangs from others. These images serve as a stern reminder to outsiders as to which turf is whose. The graffiti is mostly initials and cryptic symbols fashioned with unique calligraphy.

As advertising

A graffiti ad for Coca-Cola.
A graffiti ad for Coca-Cola. credit@ Insider

Graffiti has served as a means of advertising, both legally and legally. The bronze-based TATS CRU carries out legal advertising campaigns for companies like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, MTV, and Toyota. Smirnoff hired graffiti artists to use reverse graffiti to increase awareness of their product. Reverse graffiti is where high-pressure hoses are used to clean dirty surfaces, leaving a clean image in the midst of the surrounding dirt.


While graffiti may be accepted as a legitimate form of art and self-expression, whether it is art or vandalism is still being debated. According to many, graffiti created with permission is art, but if it is on someone else’s property, it is a crime. When put that way, the artist’s freedom of expression ends where private property begins. For many, graffiti stands for freedom and makes cities more colourful and vibrant.

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