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Graffiti Art History

The meaning of the term ‘graffiti’ is: drawings or words that are scribbled or scratched on a wall. It has been derived from the Greek word ‘graphein’, which means ‘to write’, while the term ‘graffiti’ itself is the plural form of ‘graffito’, an Italian word. This art began making its way on public walls in the latter part of the 1960s. However, graffiti as a form of unsolicited messages has existed forever, with the ancient cave paintings, dating back 40,000 years to the Upper Paleolithic era. Right from those times, drawing has always been a means of human being’s deep need and desire to communicate.

Various Styles

Technically speaking, graffiti is a kind of art that is made on a building or wall. When graffiti drawings first started appearing, which was in New York City, the tools used to create them were usually spray paints or wide-tipped markers, which were used basically to draw ‘tags’, or the writer’s name, and not any art as such. This was done to make themselves known all over the city. The bigger and the more colorful they could make their tag, the more attention they got. This gave rise to graffiti ‘wars’ springing up, with each artist trying to outdo the other in making their tag bolder and bigger. However, once these artists figured that anybody could spray on huge letters, style began making its appearance.

To people who are unfamiliar with the art, all graffiti seems the same. However, there are several distinctive styles. Most of them are about using particular fonts to create letters or characters.

  • Tagging: It is used mainly for displaying penmanship, and is considered as lacking in artistic form.
  • Blockbuster: Large sized block letters are used.
  • Wildstyle: Interweaving graffiti letters with designs.
  • Throw-Ups: This type of drawing that is done very quickly using few colors.
  • Bubble Letters: Large letters written in a rounded style.

Each of these styles can be used to create various types of graffiti:

  • Hip-Hop: Reflecting African-American culture, this is considered to be the most traditional types.
  • Challenge: The intention of this type is just to express that somebody ‘was here.’
  • Poster: Drawings made on posters that have people’s pictures on them.
  • Aircraft: Drawing tags on airplanes, usually on the dirt on it.
  • Tree: As is apparent from its name, the paintings are done or carved on trees.
  • Invisible: It is a purely symbolic type, like the logos made on computer microchips, which although are there, can’t be seen by anybody.


Although the art of drawing graffiti letters began in the 60s, the period between 1971-1974 is generally regarded as the era when most of the pioneering work in graffiti was done, since this was the time when this form of art began spreading and getting publicity. For some of the youth of that time, it was a means through which they could vent their angst at a world, which they found oppressive, and as a way of rebelling against a society, which they thought was unjust and corrupt.

However, for others, these graffiti characters were simply a pleasurable means of expressing their creativity, just as a unique art form. Like conventional artists, they used walls as a canvas, onto which they poured their souls, their dreams, their hopes, and their fears with a spray can of bright colors. It was during 1975 to 1977, that the art of drawing graffiti reached its peak, with standards of drawing graffiti letters being established. As the 70s slipped into the 80s, being a graffiti artist became more challenging, as the authorities began clamping down harder on them, since it was considered vandalism, as most of the graffiti was made by gangsters, who were young and usually poor. This was known as the ‘die-hard’ era, as graffiti culture withdrew under cover.

Today’s graffiti culture is referred to as the ‘clean train era’, as many artists are taking their art from the subway walls and the insides of train cars, into studios and galleries, with the establishment increasingly viewing it as a genuine art form. And hence, these days, some cities have provided particular areas to graffiti artists, where they are allowed to display their art. The trouble with this is that a previous work has to be painted over in order to use the space. Therefore, good artists usually do not use such spaces. One of the most important features of drawing graffiti is that each piece of art has the artist’s name. Spray paint is the medium used, and there are particular techniques that have been established for drawing graffiti letters.

Different media is used to create each of these types of graffiti. Although this writing style is being legitimized, and some of it may be getting into more established forms of displaying art, such as studios and art galleries, purists are of the opinion that it is only the ones that show up on train cars and public walls are the true form.