Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Graffiti 101: The History

(piece by: Revok)
I'm a big fan of origins. I like the origin stories of characters in hero comic books. I like the origins of popular samples in Hip Hop music. I definitely like the origins of art movements. Everyone knows that "early" graffiti (such as wild styles, burners, etc) was popular in the boroughs of New York City during the 1970's and 80's, but how far back does it's history go?
(piece by: Seen)
The script or "tag" form as-well as the colorful grapheme and character based form of graffiti is said to have been started by this man in Philidelphia...

Writing on walls in the 1960's may sound pretty old to your average Justin Beiber fan, but I wasn't born yesterday. I'm pretty sure it goes back much further than that. There have been more than a few art history classes that I've attended, and as far as we know, one of the first uses of art by humans was in the form of paintings on cave walls. We all know that they looked something like this...That's right, graffiti goes all the way back to the dawn of human kind. In fact, the first stencil ever used on a wall, that we know of, was an early artist blowing barks and pigments on their hand as they placed it on a wall.
Check it out, it even looks like they were throwing up a "west side."

Street artist Banksy shows us what a more modern stencil piece looks like. Note the flat black shapes that make-up the city worker buffing out the cave paintings. (to me this piece is warning the cities that if they buff out street art and graffiti, they buff out our past and our innate need to communicate on walls.)

So every other art form owes it's existence to the act of painting on walls. Some people have argued that putting paint to wall is even born within us. If that's true, then why do most people associate the term graffiti with crime?

Man's law and God's law are often very different. So deciding what is truly right or wrong while talking about "the law of the land" can be a very complex process. Personally I refrain from altering anyone's property in any way without asking them first. If a person feels that painting on someone else's wall without permission is within their moral compass I like to remind them that they also have to be willing to pay the consequences of any action they take in life. In California, "bombing" the streets can quickly get you 2 out of 3 strikes on your record which would send you on your way to receiving 25 years to life in prison. I would rather see us and the state invest in schools, libraries, and jobs so please don't feed into that crooked system.

On the flip side, I don't think it's right that large corporations can rent billboard space in our neighborhoods without our permission. Currently my neighborhood has many instances of alcohol abuse destroying our collective sense of family and self respect. The alcohol industry never asks us if they can put their ads on our walls, yet they are everywhere. I wouldn't mind these images being replaced or covered up with more positive and useful images. If a billboard selling "spirits" was ever placed outside of someone's house or near a middle school in Beverly Hills you better believe there would be a ruckus.

I'm getting off topic. Maybe I'll return to the morality of graffiti at a later date. Speaking of God, as a Christian I know that my spiritual heritage includes graffiti. Under the city of Rome early followers of Christ refered to themselves as "fishers of men" or "pisciculi" which means little fish. These students of Christ were hated by the Roman powers and often hid and met in the catacombs. Since much of their practices had to be done in secret (or get arrested and killed) they had to communicate who they were to each other. Below is an image of how they would do that through images on catacomb walls.
Creating art on walls or on the ground was a very important system for these people. They had to communicate who they were to others in the know as a means for survival. In the Biblical book of Daniel chapter 5 there is a story where God relays a message to king Belshazzar by writing on the king's wall. This is where the term "The writing on the wall" comes from.
(Belshazzar's Feast by: Rembrandt)
I could go into the Egyptian and Mayan glyphs on the walls of temples, altars, sun dials, and tombs. I could also write endlessly about fresco paintings or Japanese calligraphy, and their influence on graffiti, but that would take quite some time to get through. Generally, what I'm saying is that an art-form currently known as graffiti is as old as human history. There are deep historical reasons for a person to write or draw on a wall. I encourage all of us to not immediately link graffiti to crime. There are many forms. There are many reasons.

Please walk forward every day in a growing knowledge of the lives around you.

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