“Graffiti” is the plural form of the Italian word “graffito,” meaning “little scratch,” and it refers to the markings that human beings have made for millennia on walls and other stone surfaces. In our time it has evolved into much celebrated urban street art, but its roots extend back into pre-history, revealing that our desire to express ourselves and leave a mark may be a fundamental part of being human.
Arguably, the earliest known graffiti are the cave paintings found at various locations in Europe, dating back more than 40,000 years. These exquisitely painted tableaus show a sophistication of form and color that stunned experts when the caves were discovered in the 20th century. Much time has been spent trying to uncover why our ancestors descended into dark caves to paint on the rocky surfaces there, with the most popular explanation being that this was a type of religious ritual meant to aid in the hunt.
But here’s a thought: these paintings survive because they were preserved in enclosed, airless spaces deep underground. It is quite possible that our ancestors were also painting on every available rock surface outside. We will never know, as any evidence of this would have vanished over the last millennia. But it isn’t impossible to imagine, given what we know about the history of art.
The habit of etching words and pictures on walls persisted through the great early civilizations. The Egyptians did it with hieroglyphics. The only known source of the Safaitic language, an early form of Arabic, is from inscriptions on rocks and boulders in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as people in Sri Lanka and Mesoamerica, were known to etch messages on stone surfaces for poetic, personal and political reasons. Sometimes for advertising, too!
Soldiers during the Second World War etched messages on battleground buildings, including the famous American tag “Kilroy was here!”
Historically, graffiti in its modern form dates back to the turbulent days of the 1970s, when it was overwhelmingly politically oriented. In the 1990s, with the growth of hip-hop culture internationally, graffiti moved away from politics, toward a form of self-expression typified by tagging – a way to make the artist’s name and work visible to more people.
In more recent years, the often-underground work of graffiti artists has been displayed side by side with the more formal work of muralists.
It isn’t a stretch to think that, in some far-flung future, some of this work will survive to tell our descendants who we were – just like the cave paintings of old.