You can find it in the ruins of Pompeii. Plorate puellae. Mea coles dicit vale. Nunc ego lignum in hominum. Vale mira feminis pro sexus! On the scattered temples over the various empires, many have left their marks during wars of conquest and trips of leisure whether wearing finery or spandex. On the temple of Abu Simbel, there are marks and traces. Salvidore Pace 1876. Who the hell was he? The Temple of Dendur, now plopped in a glass wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art donated by the father of the modern opioid epidemic Author Sackler, you can see complex markings, hasty scratches, and a scatter of musket shot. On the Coliseum of Rome to the Great Wall of China, where I may or may not have marked in urine, you can find these many and sundry signs of otherwise forgotten soldiers and adventurers, braggarts and thieves, the little fingernail marks and complicated inscriptions. Even in the wilds where rocks and trees bear marks. The Hudson River school artists used to make these on cliffs and spots of importance. Names and dates deface the Katerskill falls.
Graffiti is as old as the idea of the self. The idea that one exists and one must preserve one’s name or ephemeral idea. And preserve one’s thoughts and expressions by shitting these all over something nice someone else has made. Not the marks on a cave or a bone tool, as our anthropologist friends may claim of what they mean by ‘graffiti,’ but the intentional act of marking up someone else’s cave wall or bone tool. This scrawl may be on the wall of someone’s fancy, a church or mansion, but it may be in a simple alley or door lintel. The graffiti means a lot to the maker … but to those later who come upon it, the inscription, drawing, or sign is devoid of any such soul. Any meaning other than a collection of letters or symbols and a pervasive annoyance to the homeowner or temple owner who must now clean it off or chisel it away. It’s a nuisance that must be prevented and erased. In some areas, the property owner must cover it or face a fine. What cads. Now, for most of history, these marks were carved in. Taking into account, carvings were preserved over time and we see only those that were not removed, obviously. Graffiti is vandalism to the homeowner no matter whether paint, scratch, or mark.
Vandalism, so-named, I was told by my parent, after the tribe or people of the Vandals who came, saw, and broke shit or defaced it with names and penises. Graffiti has been with us for eons. I don’t think the cave paintings are considered such, as they are the original works, but if I paint “Kilroy Was Here” over these primitive markings, I have both vandalized and created graffiti.
In time, the chisels were replaced with paint (that is, the paint did not survive the test of time). In modern times, people scratched into wood or scribbled with ink and with the invention of the modern world and so many chemicals, we humans found a way to blow paint quickly and with as many harmful compositions as possible. So was invented spray paint. Ahem… Aerosol paint. The can that aerosol paint comes out of was invented by the Norweigan Erik Rotheim as a way to better wax his skis. In the 1950s, this spray can was then used to spread cancer, like all other inventions of the time. It took but a decade for this very suburban invention to be co-opted by urban youth. Suddenly, someone named Cornbread used this technology to advertise his sexual availability to the opposite gender, and from there so came a movement that spread to other Cornbreads and other cities to advertise a number of impulses, ideas, and visions.
I remember being a kid and walking to the A&P. Behind the Grand Union was a ton of inscriptions, the most perplexing and only one I remember read thus: “Lori I can’t wait my dick is getting hard.” This was quite comical since Lori was the neighbor girl who babysat us and I at that time assumed that the penis in question was exposed to the elements and thus petrifying rather than achieving any rampant status of tumentia in dearth of the release of copulation. These grand statements were augmented with some band logos (I think KISS) and other observations on modern life.
In New York City, as it is well known, graffiti-adorned all surfaces but today most famous the subways. All trains back then had a thin film of paint and bodily fluids. Both are art since Picasso so said if he were deprived of paint he would cover canvases in his own shit. Classy man he was.
In time, the battle of the forces of home/temple owners against the Vandals pushed graffiti off of the surfaces of public spaces and into galleries and museums. The people who were good at making interesting designs were weeded out from those who promoted phalluses or some kind of brand name design either associated with a particular individual, such as Sane-Smith or various gangs, such as Latin Kingz, M13, or Zippy the Pinhead. Returning to the neighborhood of my youth, not only was the A&P now a Grand Union, but the large statements by the dumpsters of so many tortured and bored suburban youth were replaced with desperate and pathetic lines and names. Clearly, the talent had moved on.
As the art of vandalizing property with paint became more respected and understood, a good many of the public works became private and no longer was manufactured by an unknown creator bombing an anonymous underpass. Time moved on and like all mature forms of expression have separated into high and low camps. The sprawling wonders or artistry are today achieved by a well-known individual with a few fellowships under his or his belt. If you are into letters that form an arrow to make the word SPIKEZ in bubble font with white interior and a black outline and yellow burst at the end, you are out of luck for those to now appear in the middle of the night. That realm of … uncommissioned vandalism is now the purview of dabbling scribblers posting no trespassing signs to outsiders and high school kids huffing and blasting a few shots from a Home Depot spray can before curfew.
Fast forward low these many years from those lionized and storied coated NYC subway trains and today those suburban kids of my youth have had kids who attended and more-or-less graduated art schools and under the influence of a few coffee table books and perhaps a friend or two who doesn’t look like them, they have elevated the once deemed act of fucking up someone else’s property into an art form of the highest level. Graffiti is today in many places welcomed in appropriate places like the now demolished 5 Pointz (PKA/AKA Five Points, Five Pointz, 5Ptz) or the walls of certain hotels and collections of galleries, or the Wynwood area of Miami.
Wynwood, like most areas of Miami, is called a neighborhood but started out as a number of dusty and mosquito-infested parcels sold and resold by speculators. Sometime after the invention of total and global war, more people moved in, and with the invention of air conditioning and superhighways more people moved out, and additional people from elsewhere moved in. Then, in the 1970s, drugs moved in. Then crime and more drugs and then AIDS. Suddenly, no one but a few were living there but as the real estate market known as Miami grew, and additional foreign money looked to launder itself in new ways, areas such as Wynwood became more in demand, especially by those who make, ship, package, or sell or resell art, such as the artist and were pushed out of those investment opportunities for dirty dirty cash like the Coconut Grove after the Winn-Dixie burned down and rose from the ashes as the CocoWalk, an inexplicable pile of cement created to house boutiques, Starbucks, and a few vacant fronts.
The graffiti is quite complex and similar as other proto-developmental efforts such as that of Bushwick, Brooklyn or the Mission in San Francisco where murals cover bare and ugly walls of otherwise hastily tossed up structures formerly intended to house poor people either for employment or subpar housing. The murals are the second wave of an area being transformed into the playground and ultimately into the forever homes and cool lofts of the wealthy. These edgy acts of pseudo-vandalism are welcome and applications are on the website of the Arts Council. These hoodlums have grants both public and private to rely upon. Unlike the “My Penis is Hard Lori” variety, these are complex and beautiful murals that adorn what would otherwise be yet another ugly and dusty part of urbanization. In Wynwood, the City of Miami. Screaming skulls, Adult Swim characters, elves with and without boobies, that alien from that movie you saw when you were 15, drug references you only get if you have taken that drug, homages to grunge bands and other works of European or… for the really advanced, pop Japanese anything. Also… references to American pop art, hat tips of memes, gentle reminders that politics may exist, someone who tried to do a Bansky and didn’t quite capture the impact but we see he tried. In Wynwood are the aspirations of thousands of fine arts degrees and millions of dollars of education collectively, not to mention the paint. Over these works of graffiti are other works of graffiti of a lesser sort, as one would expect. As one gang moves in, they paint over the signs of the other gangs in defiance and some level of tempestuous aggression expressed in Chlorofluorocarbons and/or hydrofluorocarbons, depending on state and local regulations.
In this way, the graffiti is such as an anthropologist may reference it. Some mark left by an individual. However, the true nature of what we expect of graffiti, unsanctioned expressions of common thoughts, it is not. While quite beautiful in its own way and accomplished as much as I chide and kid, these markings are more in common with those marks and names found on the Sphinx, the Parthenon, and various temples by so many armies representing so many empires. These marks deface the formerly working poor, formerly middle class, formerly jungle that was once this stretch of land. They do so to make the otherwise ugly experience come alive, but unlike Sane-Smith and that poor bastard with an erection for Lori, they are harnessed by more powerful forces for perhaps, in the end, when enough nightclubs become wine bars and vacant buildings are galleries named after the mom and pop store that was there in the 1970s, in movement is in the service of empires rather than to torment it. Again, from Pompeii O muros, vos have tenuit usque adeo longum graffiti, quod miror, quod non iam corruit in ruinam. And, let us remember, it was not the graffiti that collapsed those walls of that fabled city but forces… much larger in size, scope, and origin.