Graffiti (plural of graffito: “a graffito”, but “these graffiti”) are writing or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or painted illicitly on a wall or other surface, often within public view. Graffiti range from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings, and they have existed since ancient times, with examples dating back to Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire.
In modern times, paint (particularly spray paint) and marker pens have become the most commonly used graffiti materials. In most countries, marking or painting property without the property owner’s permission is considered defacement and vandalism, which is a punishable crime.
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The term graffiti referred to the inscriptions, figure drawings, and such, found on the walls of ancient sepulchres or ruins, as in the Catacombs of Rome or at Pompeii. Use of the word has evolved to include any graphics applied to surfaces in a manner that constitutes vandalism.
The only known source of the Safaitic language, a form of proto-Arabic, is from graffiti: inscriptions scratched on to the surface of rocks and boulders in the predominantly basalt desert of southern Syria, eastern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia. Safaitic dates from the first century BC to the fourth century AD.
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Graffiti writing is often seen as having become intertwined with hip hop culture and the myriad international styles derived from New York City Subway graffiti. However, there are many other instances of notable graffiti in the twentieth century. Graffiti have long appeared on building walls, in latrines, railroad boxcars, subways, and bridges. The example with the longest known history, dating back to the 1920s and continuing into the present day, is Texino.
Some graffiti have their own poignancy. In World War II, an inscription on a wall at the fortress of Verdun was seen as an illustration of the US response twice in a generation to the wrongs of the Old World.
Austin White – Chicago, Ill – 1918
Austin White – Chicago, Ill – 1945
This is the last time I want to write my name here.
During World War II and for decades after, the phrase “Kilroy was here” with an accompanying illustration was widespread throughout the world, due to its use by American troops and ultimately filtering into American popular culture. Shortly after the death of Charlie Parker (nicknamed “Yardbird” or “Bird”), graffiti began appearing around New York with the words “Bird Lives”. The student protests and general strike of May 1968 saw Paris bedecked in revolutionary, anarchistic, and situationist slogans such as L’ennui est contre-révolutionnaire (“Boredom is counterrevolutionary”) expressed in painted graffiti, poster art, and stencil art. At the time in the US, other political phrases (such as “Free Huey” about Black Panther Huey Newton) became briefly popular as graffiti in limited areas, only to be forgotten. A popular graffito of the 1970s was the legend “Dick Nixon Before He Dicks You”, reflecting the hostility of the youth culture to that US president.
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Government Responses (Asian Countries)
In China, Mao Zedong in the 1920s used revolutionary slogans and paintings in public places to galvanise the country’s communist revolution.
In Hong Kong, Tsang Tsou Choi was known as the King of Kowloon for his calligraphy graffiti over many years, in which he claimed ownership of the area. Now some of his work is preserved officially.
In Taiwan, the government has made some concessions to graffiti artists. Since 2005 they have been allowed to freely display their work along some sections of riverside retaining walls in designated “Graffiti Zones”. From 2007, Taipei’s department of cultural affairs also began permitting graffiti on fences around major public construction sites. Department head Yong-ping Lee (李永萍) stated, “We will promote graffiti starting with the public sector, and then later in the private sector too. It’s our goal to beautify the city with graffiti”. The government later helped organize a graffiti contest in Ximending, a popular shopping district. Graffiti artists caught working outside of these designated areas still face fines up to $6,000 TWD under a department of environmental protection regulation. However, Taiwanese authorities can be relatively lenient, one veteran police officer stating anonymously, “Unless someone complains about vandalism, we won’t get involved. We don’t go after it proactively.”
In 1993 in Singapore after several expensive cars were spray-painted, the police arrested a student from the Singapore American School, Michael P. Fay, questioned him, and subsequently charged him with vandalism. Fay pleaded guilty to vandalizing a car in addition to stealing road signs. Under the 1966 Vandalism Act of Singapore, originally passed to curb the spread of communist graffiti in Singapore, the court sentenced him to four months in jail, a fine of S$3,500 (US$2,233), and a caning. The New York Times ran several editorials and op-eds that condemned the punishment and called on the American public to flood the Singaporean embassy with protests. Although the Singapore government received many calls for clemency, Fay’s caning took place in Singapore on 5 May 1994. Fay had originally received a sentence of six strokes of the cane, but the presiding president of Singapore, Ong Teng Cheong, agreed to reduce his caning sentence to four lashes.
In South Korea, Park Jung-soo was fined 2 million South Korean won by the Seoul Central District Court for spray-painting a rat on posters of the G-20 Summit a few days before the event in November 2011. Park alleged that the initial in “G-20” sounds like the Korean word for “rat”, but Korean government prosecutors alleged that Mr. Park was making a derogatory statement about the president of ROK, Lee Myung-bak, the host of the summit. This case led to public outcry and debate on the lack of government tolerance and in support of freedom of expression. The court ruled that the painting, “an ominous creature like a rat” amounts to “an organized criminal activity” and upheld the fine while denying the prosecution’s request for imprisonment for Park.
Text credit: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graffiti#Documentaries_and_films
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