Graffiti (Global)

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Graffiti 🌍
World map.png
Location: Global
Definition: Street art, unsolicited markings on property not owned by oneself, usually in a public space
Keywords: Global Art Property Public space Urban
Clusters: Solidarity Normative ambivalence Non-conformity Resistance
Author: Milena Ciric
Affiliation: Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK
Website: Profile page at LinkedIn

By Milena Ciric, Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

The word ‘graffiti’ is the plural of ‘graffito’, which in the history of art refers to a drawing or writing scratched on a wall or other surface. It is derived from the Italian word graffito, which literally means a scratch. However, in its more widespread modern usage, graffiti refers to ‘words or images marked (illegally) in a public place, esp. using aerosol paint’ (Oxford English Dictionary 2016)[1]. Graffiti first began to be practised in this modern sense in the 1960s and has continually been evolving and developing since.

In many countries worldwide graffiti is regarded in law as vandalism. Graffiti’s status of illegality is at the heart of the debate as to whether it constitutes a valid art form. In 2004 the Keep Britain Tidy campaign issued a statement signed by 122 MPs, including the then-prime minister, Tony Blair, which read: ‘Graffiti is not art, it's crime. On behalf of my constituents, I will do all I can to rid our community of this problem’ (Guardian 2004)[2]. This contested nature of the social and artistic value of graffiti can lead to conflicting approaches in how the authorities ‘manage’ it when it is spontaneously created.

In its contemporary practice graffiti has several forms and usages. One of the most common forms of graffiti is the ‘tag’, which can be defined as ‘a stylised signature of a graffiti writer’s pseudonym’ (Gottlieb 2008: 35)[3]. In this form it exists simply as a means for the artist to indicate his presence. Tagging is primarily associated with gangs and crime; it is a form of communicating and marking territory. Often associated with graffiti on trains, the ‘tag’ developed into a more mature art form and was found on bridges and buildings, often displayed with unique styles and colouring. By the 1980s graffiti had become intertwined with the ‘hip hop’ culture of the African American and Latino youths of the South Bronx in New York (Gottlieb 2008: 6-7)[4]. In time, the designs became bigger and brighter and developed into large scaled murals, intended to enhance the community. These murals were much more complex and required hours of work, undertaken usually at night in order to avoid detection from the authorities.

The association of street art with gangs and crime led to graffiti being used primarily as an instrument of communication and rebellion. Many graffiti artists used their art as a method to express their emotions and to indicate political views, which could not otherwise be voiced. The subculture of graffiti artists, by definition, rebelled against authority and the power of the mass media. One of the most influential and prominent examples of this is the Bristol born street artist Banksy, whose works have dealt with an array of political and social themes, including anti-war, anti-capitalism, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, anti-authoritarianism, anarchism, nihilism and existentialism. His works have addressed such components of the human condition as greed, poverty, hypocrisy, boredom, despair, absurdity and alienation. In the West Bank, he memorably painted a hole revealing blue sky on the Palestinian side of the barrier erected by Israel (Byrne 2007)[5]. In December 2015, as the European Union faced a ‘migrant crisis’ caused by conflicts in Syria amongst others, Banksy created a work depicting the late Steve Jobs, the Apple Company founder, on a wall of a refugee camp in Calais known as ‘the Jungle’. He painted Jobs with a black bin bag over one shoulder and an Apple computer in one hand. Unusually on this occasion Banksy also made a public statement regarding attitudes to refugees, in which he said: ‘We’re often led to believe migration is a drain on the country’s resources but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7bn (£4.6bn) a year in taxes – and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs’ (Guardian 2015)[6].

The use of graffiti for political ends can be observed worldwide. One of the most interesting recent examples of graffiti as a tool of spontaneous political expression took place in Egypt. The Egyptian Ministry of Culture rigidly controlled all public expression in Egypt and until 2011 protest art was hard to find (The Atlantic 2011)[7]. However, in January 2011 protesters used walls across the Egyptian capital as the canvas for an open letter to the regime, demanding the ousting of President Mubarak. Cairo's protest street art highlighted the fury of the demonstrators and demonstrated their resilience and determination to topple President Mubarak’s regime. The demonstrators were successful in forcing the resignation of the despotic president and for a brief period thereafter succeeded in bringing new freedoms, which included the right to make art (The Atlantic 2011)[8]. In June 2012, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood became Egypt’s first democratically elected president. A few months later, the authorities had the revolutionary graffiti erased. However, graffiti artists mocked the government’s whitewashing by spraying slogans such as ‘erase one more time’, and ‘congratulations on the new paint’, over the covered murals, and most protest graffiti re-appeared within hours (Huffington Post 2014)[9].

In recent times, graffiti has started to be embraced by the establishment in some countries. It has moved away from its illegal display on public or private property to be more generally accepted as an art form in its own right. Graffiti is no longer necessarily orchestrated for rebellious or criminal reasons, but rather to challenge people to accept aesthetic pleasure from a unique form whose development has not been constrained by traditional and institutional demands. As an art form it has become sufficiently accepted in popular culture to be adopted by multinational companies such as Nike, who have incorporated the aesthetic aspects of graffiti into their products and advertising.

In March 2009, the Brazilian Government passed a law decriminalising graffiti. Street art was legalised provided that the works were undertaken with the consent of the owners of the property on which it was placed (Untapped Cities 2012)[10]. The policy was adopted as a result of the development of Brazilian street art, which is considered to be one of the most advanced and active of global street art movements.

In Brazil, artists differentiate between tagging, which is known as pichachao, and grafite, which is a specific type of street art particular to Brazil. The term pichacho, also known as ‘wall writings’, comes from the Portuguese word piche, meaning tar, which was stolen from construction sites and used by early taggers to create their art. Pichachao emerged as an art form in the 1940s, and was used to make a political statement. It disappeared in the 1970s, only to reappear in the 1980s, adopted at this time by gangs as a means of marking territory. Today, the differences between pichachao and grafite are very distinct. Pichachao is negatively connoted, whereas grafite has been viewed positively since the 1990s and is welcomed and encouraged by both communities and Government (Untapped Cities 2012)[11].

The contrast between the perception of street art in the United Kingdom and in Brazil could not be starker. It appears that where laws exist banning such a practice, street art will always be negatively connoted. However, where the law actively supports the form, not only does it have the possibility to both personalise and beautify a city, it also has the possibility of engaging with disaffected youth, channelling their emotions positively and thus changing the negative desire to break the law.


  1. Oxford English Dictionary. 2016. Entry on ‘graffito’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  2. Guardian. 2014. ‘Graffiti blamed on ‘cult of cool’’, 2 August.
  3. Gottleib, L. 2008. Graffiti Art Styles: A Classification System and Theoretical Analysis (London: McFarland)
  4. Gottleib, L. 2008. Graffiti Art Styles: A Classification System and Theoretical Analysis (London: McFarland)
  5. Byrne, C. 2007 ‘The Big Question: Just who is Banksy and what is all the fuss about his work?’, Independent, 1 November,
  6. Ellis-Petersen, H. 2015. ‘Banksy uses Steve Jobs artwork to highlight refugee crisis’, Guardian 11 December,
  7. Farrow Parshley, L. 2011.‘For Egypt's Graffiti Artists, Revolution Brings Inspiration and Uncertainty’, The Atlantic, 3 October,
  8. Farrow Parshley, L. 2011.‘For Egypt's Graffiti Artists, Revolution Brings Inspiration and Uncertainty’, The Atlantic, 3 October,
  9. Huffington Post. 2014. ‘This Graffiti Art Shows How Egypt's Revolution Came Full Circle’, 2 November,
  10. Oxford English Dictionary. Untapped Cities. 2012, ‘The Legislation of Street Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’
  11. Oxford English Dictionary. Untapped Cities. 2012, ‘The Legislation of Street Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’