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									                                    Issue in art – Graffiti
Graffiti has been around since nearly the dawn of time and it has been the subject of controversy for
almost as long. The first century essayist Plutarch said “There is nothing useful or pleasant about
graffiti”; a sentiment which would be agreed upon by many people today.

Despite Plutarch’s opinion, ancient graffiti can be of great interest to archaeologists. For example, in
1998 graffiti was discovered in Egypt which is believed to be the oldest example of alphabetical
writing. The figures scrawled by Semitic soldiers in 19th century BC were, at the time, acts of
vandalism on the much older Egyptian monument but have now been used to prove that
alphabetical writing was around 200 years earlier than previously thought. Some of the most well
known and best preserved ancient graffiti is that found in Pompeii. This offers a fascinating insight
into the everyday lives of the residents. According to Rebecca Benefiel in the American Journal of
Archaeology 114.1, 59-101 not only does it tell us about the language was like and the lifestyle of the
people but it also tells us about how the space was used and the human activity that went on within

(examples of graffiti found in Pompeii)

Will modern graffiti be considered so kindly hundreds or thousands of years in the future? As Chris
Wright said in the Boston Globe on 20/3/2011 “So maybe Winston Churchill had it wrong. Perhaps
history isn’t written by the victors; maybe it is written by the vandals.” It can be argued that much
modern graffiti takes considerably less skill than, for example, cave art and is not done for any
significant reason. It is true that today’s history is much better recorded than in the past, however
graffiti may still provide an important record of the individual’s experience of society

Nobody would consider Egyptian hieroglyphics graffiti, but then again they were done to record
significant events or for important religious reasons. How do we decide which graffiti nowadays has
been done for important reasons, and how do we decide what those reasons are? Does graffiti
become art if it is aesthetically pleasing, and beautifies a space which was previously plain? If it
brings an important issue to people’s minds when they see it, does the graffiti itself become
Whilst graffiti has been a feature of human society since the earliest times, it has only more recently
started to be considered as an art form in its own right by mainstream society rather than just a
public nuisance.

Kelzo, one of the best known graffiti artists in the UK grew up in Manchester. He has done over 500
pieces in the old Hulme area alone. His work brings a welcome splash of colour to the homogenised
environment of the inner city.

(examples of Kelzo’s work)

Banksy is an English artist who has gained in popularity for his satirical stencilled street art. He has
had a book published with his works in, has held major art exhibitions and his images can be found
portrayed on T shirts, prints, postcards and of course, the street. One of the reasons graffiti artist
Banksy is so popular is that he creates images which are amusing, or that make people think. He is
admired by both the public and critics alike.

(examples of Banksy’s work)

The controversy about this type of art remains the central question as to whether work such as
Banksy’s is important because it raises moral or social questions, or is it just slightly more clever
defacing of public spaces. Where to draw the line between mindless scrawls and art?

A variation on graffiti which could be considered more of a public service than a public nuisance is
the work of street artists like Moose who create images by cleaning dirt from walls and tunnels.
Moose, whose tools are a shoe brush, water and elbow grease, sometimes uses the technique to
create adverts such as the one below for the charity Crisis.
(Left - Moose’s campaign “poster” for Crisis – the homeless charity

and Right – making a statement by cleaning up)

In the end, although people may grumble when they see graffiti, it has always been a part of human
society, and is likely to continue to be. Even though the vast majority of it may be mindless scrawl,
it’s the odd piece that makes you think, or brightens up an ugly space, that makes me glad it exists.
And who knows, maybe 3000 years in the future archaeologists will be as fascinated by the clues
they can glean from today’s graffiti, as current historians are by that from places like ancient


Banksy - Wall and Piece – 2005

JUS News online – interview with Kelzo

The Boston Globe 20/3/2011 – Titus wuz here

Wikipedia – Banksy biography

Blogging Pompeii – 20/1/2010 – Dialogues of grafitti in the house of Maius Castricus in Pompeii

The Japan Times - Dec 1 1999 Ancient grafitti may display oldest alphabet

Grafitti from Pompeii - website

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