Before the creation of words, mankind conveyed their thoughts to peers by scrawling images of their exploits onto surfaces, commonly stone walls. Around 3000 BC, Egypt created the first full writing system called Hieroglyphs (Hooker, 1990). It was structured as sentences in the form of iconic characters symbolizing perceived objects. The significance of these scriptures was that the symbols were interpretive by mankind universally and it was the stepping stone for the alphabetic system existing today. However, mankind did not stop scrawling images on surfaces even after transgressing from ancient times. Instead, it gave rise to a stylistic culture originating from the subways of New York City - a culture known as the graffiti culture (Brewer, Hip Hop Graffiti Writers' Evaluation of Strategies to Control Illegal Graffiti, 1992). Stowers add that graffiti is derived from the Italian word 'grafficar' which translates "to scratch" (Stowers, 1997). City dwellers are surrounded by these decorative inscriptions that were popularized by the Hip-Hop culture in the 1980s (Koon, 2001). Dating back as early as the stone ages and making its way from ancient Egypt to modern-day metropolis New York, graffiti has always been a part of human culture and civilization.
The writing of graffiti is an inherently collective activity. To understand the graffiti culture, culture first has to be defined in order to understand what constitutes as one. Anthropologist Ward Goodenough (1957) defines the concept by stating that
"A society's culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members, and to do so in any role that they accept for any of themselves. Culture, being what people have to learn as distinct from their biological heritage, must consist of the end product of learning: knowledge, in a most general, if relative, sense of the term. By this definition, we should note that culture is not a material phenomenon; it does not consist of things, people, behaviour, or emotions. It is rather an organization of these things. It is the forms of things that people have in mind, their models for perceiving, relating, and otherwise interpreting them. (p.36)"
Albeit being an origin of the Hip Hop culture, graffiti evolved into an entity on its own and it is an emblem of social, political and economic change that has merged as part of the modern youth culture today.
According to American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, graffiti is 'a drawing or inscription made on a wall or other surface, usually so as to be seen by the public' (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000, p. 986). Beginning in the late 1960s, the Mecca for graffiti lied in the subways of New York City. Researchers found that it was only towards the end of the 1970s that graffiti began to manifest on walls above ground and from there dispersed globally across United States and the rest of the world (Brewer, Christensen, & Miller, 1992). Interestingly, graffiti has always been dominated by the youth subcultures in society. For example, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department listed more than 800 known graffiti crews consisted of young people participating in graffiti culture (Ferrel, 1995). These young artists were known as writers. Writers convey social identities, images, and messages through different styles of graffiti. Researchers concluded that there are three common types of graffiti: tags, 'throwups', and pieces (Brewer, Christensen, & Miller, 1992). Tag is the most basic type of graffiti where the writer simply 'signs' their name. A more intricate version of tagging is a 'throwup' where bubble-letters or 'wild style' is used to add effect. The other type of graffiti is a piece, it comes from the word 'masterpiece', and it normally is an illustration of a scene or characters with a slogan with a message. As it is normally done on a large mural, a piece involves the collaboration of multiple writers (Werwath, 2006). All in all, the graffiti in the city today is what cave paintings were back in ancient times; its purpose is to convey a message, to leave a mark, to communicate.
Despite the recurring reference to graffiti as a form of art, it is important to note that graffiti is also commonly considered as an act of vandalism. In most countries, art created on private property or public spaces are considered defacement by law. However, these laws are subjective as there are loopholes that make graffiti legal in certain cases. For example, there was a case involving a graffiti wall in Wellington, New Zealand, dedicated to the late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. The memorial has been there since 1981 with tributes from fans that remained over time since his death and it was painted over by the Wellington City Council workers in 2009 (Burns, 2009). The incident sparked uproar as the city council was guilty of moral rights infringement.
In spite of that, most forms of graffiti remain illegal. In Canada, Toronto launched 'Tornoto's graffiti bylaw' in 2005 stating that "no person shall place or cause or permit graffiti to be placed on property or on a wall, fence, or other public place not included in the definition of property (Alcoba, 2011)." Citizens who fail to clean up graffiti will be subjugated to reimburse the city the costs it took to remove it. In fact, Canada has the world's largest graffiti removal company called 'Goodbye Graffiti' which started in Vancouver in 1997 (GoodbyeGraffiti, 1997). Even in the city of Victoria, there is an Anti Graffiti Program that became a bylaw of the city of Victoria in 2002 (GraffitiByLaw, 2002). Howbeit, at the same time, McGill University challenged the intellectual property rights of graffiti. It argues that "even when companies or publications do realize they might be infringing on a copyright, they usually do not bother finding its owner" (Zamprelli, 2009). Nonetheless, it is clear that Canada does not intend to allow legal protections for graffiti. More importantly, the controversy surrounding the legality of graffiti is still left unresolved as the line between art and vandalism has not been defined.
In Seattle, there was a research survey that showed the major values attached to graffiti. According to the researchers, people identified graffiti with four major values: fame, artistic expression, power and rebellion (Brewer, Christensen, & Miller, 1992). These four major values are clearly appealing to the youth culture as writers may take pleasure in the adrenaline rush from going against the authorities. These negative impressions were brought upon by what graffiti has originally been adjunct to. In Hip Hop culture, gangs used graffiti as a territorial marker and that was seen as a form of resistance and delinquency. With all these negative influences, it is no wonder graffiti culture has carried a tarnished reputation in its earlier years. Concomitantly, some writers refuse to call their art work graffiti as the word has been tainted with negative connotations.
During the Cold War, the famous Berlin Wall was constructed to divide Germany and Berlin. The wall offered an ideal painting surface for people to express their opinions and it ended becoming the biggest graffiti project unintentionally. Intended to separate people, graffiti turned the political meaning of the wall into a large concrete canvas as 'an area of transit', at least symbolically. Similarly, modern day graffiti has had a social impact in society through the mode of artistic expression even if it does not look that way on the surface. Originality and creativity are highly valued by writers and their works are treated as a work of art. According to Neef (2007),
"Graffiti has been interpreted in terms of reclamation of identity, challenging bourgeois identity as well as the anonymity of the city. Youngsters defend their personality by tagging, bombing or throwing up their signatures on available writing surfaces, with a crowning mark on a wall or a traffic sign at neck-breaking height. . The signs thus sprayed, according to Baudrillard, qualify as a scream, an interjection, an anti-discourse [. . .] Invincible due to their own poverty, they resist every interpretation and every connotation [. . .] In this way [. . .] they escape the principle of signification and, as empty signifiers, erupt into the sphere of the full signs of the city, dissolving it on contact. (p.427)"
It leaves room for people to reconsider the role of graffiti as an outlet for social, artistic, and self expression. Even Ferrell (1993) concludes that graffiti 'stands as a sort of decentralized and decentred insubordination, a mysterious resistance to conformity and control, a stylish counterpunch to the belly of authority' (p.197). At the same time it further obfuscates where to place the acceptance of graffiti culture.
Since 1989, a handful of writers ventured out to seek the production of legal graffiti (Kramer, 2010). These writers from New York City went through the tedious process of obtaining permission from property owners to produce legal graffiti murals on exterior walls of buildings. Most works of legal graffiti are 'pieces', as mentioned earlier, combined with a visual scenery, which are referred to as a 'production' (Kramer, 2010, p. 243). Even then, writers were not looking for any profit by doing so; it was purely for the sake of putting their work out there. In fact, writers had to fork out their own money for the required materials. Companies recognize the growing trend of graffiti and from that began commodifying goods catering to writers. The first spray paint aerosol can was manufactured in 1994 by the name of 'Spanish Montana' (Kramer, 2010, p. 244). It became an instant hit amongst graffiti writers and other companies such as 'Monster', 'Sabotaz', and 'Belton', followed suit by developing their own brand of spray paint aerosol cans.
Aforementioned, it seems that graffiti culture is politically intolerable. Even so, there is a different side of the world that has wholesomely embraced the graffiti culture, and that is the world of media. The tables are changed when money is included into the equation. It is only through the platforms of cultural industry that graffiti culture is able to gain legalization. In 1989, On the Go became the most recognized magazine dedicated to the graffiti culture (Snyder, 2006). It featured many renowned writers of the time along with photos of notable writer's works. However, the magazine discontinued due to financial problems in 1999. More significantly, it is the technological development of cameras that made it possible for an ephemeral object like graffiti to continue to exist. There was a picture of a subway tag by the notorious writer 'Taki 183' published in the New York Times that ensured Taki to pave his name in fame hitherto, and it has inspired other writers to emulate his efforts (McAuliffe & Iveson, 2011). The appreciation of works such as Taki's led to the recognition of graffiti in the art world. It is a crucial point for the graffiti culture because it raised the awareness and understanding of graffiti as an art form and removing the stigmatization graffiti had as a vandalising activity.
As the art world transformed, new movements and trends arise to what Ganz (2004), author of Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents, calls 'Post-Graffiti', where writers are working with commerce and they are being paid a lucrative salary from record companies, fashion houses and graphic design companies. This opened a window of opportunity for writers to avoid having any troubles with the law and enabling them to live a life with a comfortable and legal job doing what they are passionate about.
With the establishment of graffiti in the mainstream culture, graffiti can be seen in advertising campaigns and corporate logos such as Coca-Cola and Sony. For instance, Sony hired graffiti artists in major urban areas around America to spray-paint buildings promoting the Play Station Portal (Singel, 2005). As for Coca- Cola, the company commissioned a famous British graffiti artist by the name of Temper to create graffiti for a limited edition Sprite can in 2001 (Brierly, 2009). In the same year, he was given a solo exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and making him the first graffiti artist to have a solo show in a major public gallery space. Currently, there are many graffiti groups that have become businesses involving legal advertising campaigns for companies. The most renowned group is the TATS Cru whose clients are large corporations like Coca Cola and Sony (Marcano, 1995). Tats Cru intends to leave an impression on people across the world by bringing graffiti art to a larger audience.
In popular culture, graffiti are visible in music videos, movies and television shows. British artist, Banksy, is a fine example of a successful contemporary graffiti writer today. He designed the album covers for Blur, an iconic British band of this era and he has also staged legitimate art exhibitions. He has gained a respectable repertoire that his work has 'gained such value as a commodity' that they are 'protected under the aegis of urban heritage' (McAuliffe & Iveson, 2011, p. 139). Another notable influence in graffiti culture today is an entrepreneur by the name of Marc Ecko, the chairman and founder of Marc Ecko Enterprise, who is a strong advocate of the graffiti culture. The company consists of G-Unit and Zoo York retail lines that emulate the lifestyle of graffiti culture. He was able to promote his company by developing a graffiti adventure game titled Marc EckÅ's Getting up: Contents under Pressure, which has a story line based on the oppression of free speech in relation to graffiti (High, 2008).
As graffiti culture is gaining momentum in the modern world, there have been many festivals celebrating the graffiti culture such as the annual Sprite Graffiti Festival that takes place in different countries every year. In 2009, the festival was held in Bulgaria where the Education Minister, Yordanka Fandakova, opened the event and even took part in the painting; the motto for that year was "7 years of Graffiti - Voices from the Street" (Novinite, 2009). Even so, there are still many protestors who are against the idea of graffiti advertising encouraging consumers, who were generally the youths, to participate in the activities of graffiti culture as they still strongly believe graffiti to be an illegal act.
Accordingly, with technological advances namely the internet, the first graffiti site, Art Crimes, was created, moving from magazine to the screen, pictures of graffiti are being displayed globally through the World Wide Web, allowing a broader demographic of enthusiasts to share their work and opinions with other fellow writers. According to Snyder (2006), these websites are revolutionary as they are 'forging closer ties among a vast population of underground illegal artists', who continue the process of turning illegal fame into legitimate careers (p.100). Other technological developments have also led to some countries recognizing potential in this niche market of graffiti culture. In 2008, Germany started a graffiti project by constructing a 98-foot mural called 'nextwall' with stickers that has 'Quick Response Codes' plastered on it (Zjawinski, 2008). When a picture is taken with a mobile phone, it will provide an overview of the graffiti including a video of the making of the graffiti and allow the viewer to use the graffiti as the mobile phone's wallpaper display; it also has an "I was here" feature that allows the viewer to virtually leave their footprint at the wall. By allowing pedestrians insight to the graffiti, viewers will learn to appreciate graffiti as a form of art and treat it like an artefact instead of devaluing the work put into graffiti. Another groundbreaking technology in the graffiti culture is LED Throwies which is 'an inexpensive way to add colour to any ferromagnetic surface' and easily taken down making it a harmless way of creating a graffiti (Branch, 2006). As proven by the said events in Germany, technology has certainly changed the standing of graffiti culture today.
Ultimately, there is still a fine line between graffiti and vandalism. Early in its years, the reaction towards graffiti was instantly shunned upon and it was seen as destruction to the city. As time went by, the social and political changes in society has allowed the graffiti to be legitimized as an art form. Graffiti has always been an outlet for working class youths to express the oppression and disturbances caused by the city they are living in. It served as a window into the young artist's mind like how paintings were created according to the perception of the artists. Enlightenment was found during the Renaissance era as artistic expressions were transferred through the eyes of the artist to the minds of the beholders. Similarly, youths had much to say but were compelled to do so in the streets to leave an impression on their community.
The new generation of graffiti artists, or writers, have transcended the boundaries of society by bringing innovative concepts and creativity into the world of graffiti culture. It even gave birth to other forms of graffiti namely urban knitting where a new group of guerrilla graffiti has surfaced in the form of knitting (Deputydog, 2008). The proliferation of graffiti in the commercial world is still flourishing, allowing the social acceptance of graffiti as an art form. By understanding the work and effort put into making these works of art, people will leave no disregard to the fact that vandalism spends little time and knowledge in doing so. The cultural industries have played a pivotal role in the graffiti culture. The techniques and skills used in creating graffiti works should be credited. Furthermore, technology made it even easier for graffiti to disseminate with developments in inventions that counter the issues of defacing public spaces. The biggest issue in the graffiti culture is its relentless battle with legal law issues as rhetorical and repetitive as it may seem. It is only when the government bends its laws in allowing graffiti to be carried out as an art activity that people would feel more at ease when it is presented. Exhibitions spreading across the world are on top of this issue and gradually overcoming the biggest concern of legalization. Our world is still moulding itself into a new world and it will continue to do so. What we consider to be the modern world will inevitably move into a new era that will interpret the world differently that would leave the rest of us to adapt to the changes as human kind has been since the beginning of time. It is fascinating to see the transformation in our surroundings and the social implications that have shifted the way people live their lives. As for the graffiti culture, it is hard to tell where it will end up but it seems to be heading towards the right direction. It started out as what was thought to be an unquestionably negative influence on youths and society, it slowly sorted out to be a beneficial and inspiring impact today. Especially in the world of art, it is infinitely complicated to determine what is socially considered a work of art as everything and every occurrence changes the way we view the world. The graffiti culture truly is a revolutionary component of youth history in our lifetime. It takes us back to the purest form of artistic expression where there were scribbles on cave walls. Graffiti should not fall into oblivion; this fine art should be preserved.