From Ancient Graffiti to Modern Street Art: Our Need for Self Expression Through Time

Maeshowe chambered cairn.

Maeshowe chambered cairn.

Update! This post was originally published on December 12, 2012. The post below explores humanity’s fascinating obsession with leaving our mark. Graffiti has been with us since before recorded history. It provides an incredible wealth of information about who we are as historical beings and where we’ve been. These ancient markings also cause us to reflect on the sweep of human endeavor and wonder what will remain of the 21st century that may intrigue, appall or inspire, much as ancient graffiti does today.

One of the amazing things graffiti can teach us is how a particular culture traveled from their homeland. Mental Floss recently published an article revealing the translations of numerous fragments of Viking graffiti found in a 5,000-year-old Neolithic Scottish burial chamber or chambered cairn called Maeshowe. It seems these Scandinavian travelers took refuge in this chamber several times throughout their travels in the 12th century CE. They left behind glimpses into what the weary Viking mind was thinking after a long sea voyage. Obviously, the muse struck while resting inside a damp stone chamber given the inscriptions that have been deciphered. As evidenced by man named “Thorir,” some of these hardy seafarers simply wanted people to know they’d been there, so they inscribed their names on a wall. Others were proud of their runic graffiti and decided to leave a little advertisement. For example, one inscription reads, “These rules were carved by the man most skilled in runes on the western ocean with the axe that killed Gaukr Trandkill’s son in the south of Iceland.”[1] Of course, there are those who simply want to praise their women- “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women.”[2] While love flourished in memory for some, other inscriptions prove that sexual prowess and erotica were popular topics for memorialization. And then there are the tags that talk about hidden treasure nearby, none of which has ever been found.

Let’s just say that the idea of bragging rights and male chest pounding go way, way, and again, way back.

It’s clear we have a lot in common with our ancient ancestors. Graffiti is one of the more graphic and imaginative ways we recognize these similarities. Check out the article below to learn more and don’t miss our other posts about ancient graffiti!

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In Pompei, graffiti on the walls often depict popular gladiators, such as these two thraeces, M. Attilius and L. Raecius Felix.

In Pompei, graffiti on the walls often depict popular gladiators, such as these two thraeces, M. Attilius and L. Raecius Felix.

Graffiti is often the scourge of local law enforcement, but when found in an ancient town or city we view it as a valuable tool for learning about the culture, language and pastimes of the inhabitants.  Preserved ancient graffiti gives us a peak at daily life hundreds of years ago and demonstrates the basic need for human expression.  Like it or not, modern graffiti is probably here to stay for those same reasons.

The preserved Graffiti of Pompeii shows us how Latin was used in everyday language, and gives us colorful Roman insults and magical incantations.[3]

Graffiti in Pompeii

Graffiti in Pompeii

In a Roman Market in Athens, we see Christians of the 6th and 7th century BCE expressing their new religion with symbols, a game board gives us evidence of men gathering in public squares for friendly competition and topoi inscriptions tell us which merchants sold their goods from that spot.    Figural drawings from the same market show how common sexual graffiti was in Roman culture.[4] Nabataean graffiti from ancient Sinai and Aramaic graffiti in Egypt come in the form of prayers for those who have passed away.[5]

“EARLY NEW YORK SUBWAY GRAFFITI 1973-1975: Photographs from Harlem, South Bronx, Times Square & Coney Island” by Keith Baugh

“EARLY NEW YORK SUBWAY GRAFFITI 1973-1975:
Photographs from Harlem, South Bronx, Times Square & Coney Island” by Keith Baugh

Graffiti was, and is, a way for the average person to express sentiments as simple as “I was here” to critiques of government. Modern graffiti is not very different.  American World War II soldiers spread “Kilroy was here” around the globe, while British soldiers doodled their version, “Chad”, and Australians had “Foo”.  In the 1960s, graffiti took off in most major cities as a form of political expression and New York subways cars of the ‘70s were literally covered in names, words and drawings.  Walls became canvases for asserting your dominance and claiming turf.  The ’80 gave rise to American hip-hop, with teenagers around the world becoming obsessed with NYC street culture.  Art Galleries began to take notice of graffiti, with galleries like Fun Gallery in New York legitimizing graffiti as an art rather than vandalism.[6]

The infamous “Kilroy was here” graffiti on a piece of the Berlin Wall located in the Newseum in Washington, D.C., USA.

The infamous “Kilroy was here” graffiti on a piece of the Berlin Wall located in the Newseum in Washington, D.C., USA.

In the early 2000s graffiti became mainstream, adopting the name “street art.”  Shepard Fairey earned household-name status with his Obama posters while Banksy became a celebrity while managing to stay anonymous.  Museums like MoMA and LACMA have contemporary graffiti in their collections.[7] Despite success in the art world, there are still thousands of people arrested and tried for graffiti every year, usually having been caught spray painting a wall with the same type of words and images that help us learn about ancient cultures.  Though techniques have gone from scraping into stone to printing and posting elaborate images, graffiti remains as a strong reminder of our collective need to leave a mark and gives us a way to better understand a culture and its people.

The infamous “Kilroy was here” graffiti on a piece of the Berlin Wall located in the Newseum in Washington, D.C., USA.

Banksy's Cans Festival.

Banksy’s Cans Festival.

[1] 11 Samples of Authentic Viking Graffiti. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2015, from http://mentalfloss.com/article/61841/11-samples-authentic-viking-graffiti

[2] Ibid.

[3] Whitehead, J. (2004). Graffiti: The Use of the Familiar. Art Education, 57(6), 26-26. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27696041

[4] Hoff, M. (2006). Some Inscribed Graffiti in the Roman Market in Athens. Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik, 155, 176-182. Retrieved from Jstor.

[5] Naveh, J. (1979). Graffiti and Dedications. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 235, 27-30. Retrieved from Jstor.

[6] About New York City Graffiti @149st. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2015, from http://www.at149st.com/hpart1.html

[7] Graffiti in Its Own Words. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2015, from http://nymag.com/guides/summer/17406/index1.html

2 responses to “From Ancient Graffiti to Modern Street Art: Our Need for Self Expression Through Time

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