The MIDNITE HOUR's
A Brief History of Graffiti

         When we first started out (September 2005) to create a Graffiti Page for the MIDNITE HOUR we thought we would do a little checking to see what the World Wide Web had on the subject.   We were astounded ....and perhaps at the same time, a little disappointed (but we should refrain from pogo-sticking out ahead of our headlights, and start at the beginning of the beginning....).   

         Most of us have a sense that the word "graffiti" refers to unauthorized drawings on walls and other surfaces in public areas, and some of us were vaguely aware of, or believed that graffiti was the plural of graffito, and that such graffiti was a product of runaway urban forces in the last half of the 20th Century.   And some of us real ancients can even remember that originally, graffiti was primarily found on the walls of public restrooms, and usually had prurient content.   But let's have a look at what the etymologists have to say about all that:


Graffiti: The word first appeared in print in 1851, describing ancient wall inscriptions found in the ruins of Pompeii.   It is from Italian; "graffiti", plural of "graffito" and means literally - "a scribbling."   

This is, in turn, derivative formation from 'graffio' - "a scratch or scribble," and from 'graffiare' ; "to scribble."   The sense of the word was extended in 1877 to include 'recently made crude drawings and scribbling'.   

Dictionaries are now recognizing that 'graffiti' is often used in the singular, as in "the graffiti is...", although they are still casting a jaundiced eye on such usage.   

The simplest and most generally accepted meaning today for Graffiti is:

"An unauthorized, often illegal drawing or writing,
either in a public place or that can be viewed from a public place - such as on a wall or bus - generally using spray paint."


         But if ancient Pompeii's wall-scribblers could see today's proliferation of art crimes, they would be trembling in awe, bowing down to God Spraycan.   Graffiti, no longer in the realm of mere 'wall scribbling', has exploded into sometimes multi-storey, multi-walled technicolor mural art.   Yes, we said, 'art' - as you will soon see in this, and successive months' issues of the MIDNITE HOUR.   In fact, many contemporary artists, such as George Hunt, Justin Bua, and Keith Haring openly state that their works were greatly influenced by modern graffiti - (and not the other way around !).

         Our perception of the graffiti artist (correctly termed 'graffiti writer') is the lone-wolf who steals out into the night dressed in camo and wearing butyl-soled rock-climbing shoes, with cans of spraypaint strapped to his torso - someone who, from all outward appearances, could easily be mistaken for a suicide bomber on a skateboard.   By the light of a full moon he works his artistic butt off, trying to finish his graphic social protest (and thereby perpetuate his 'tag') before he is seen by pry-eyed up-tight neighbors, or a passing squad car, or the first light of dawn, whichever comes first.   These perceptions have even been reinforced by Hollywood, where in one recent film a graffiti writer was lowered off a bridge by his feet to create a spectacular and very irritating (to the police) work-of-art while suspended upside-down.   Talk about your ultimate urban cult hero....   But wait....

         In our further Internet explorations, we found that what was once the near-occult 'underground' is now big business.   There are not one or two websites, but several that cater to this burgeoning class of artistic Zorros.   You can buy online - and we are not making any of this up - spraypaint (well, duh, but wait again....).   --Just make sure you get Montana brand, because that is the king of the mountain in this field.   Feel like customizing?   You can get a large variety of special spray tips and personalized spraycan caps.   -No, really....

         You can get prints and posters of graffiti pretty much to any size you want.

         Don't forget the 'zines.   (These are 'magazines' to ordinary folk).   You can get collectors' issues of such magazines as Black Crown or Clout, and you might pick up a special edition dedicated to "a graffiti king and legend".   Or you can read interviews with 'famous' 'graffitors' (I just made that word up - so you heard it here first).   Or you can see the schedules of all the big upcoming graffiti street-shows, which feature break-dancing, skateboarding and DJs.

         Still not satisfied?   Well then, go ahead and order your graffiti T-shirt, or your graffiti trucker's cap or baseball cap so you can wear it sideways or backwards.   Or how about some graffiti videos, like the cult classic Style Wars?   -Graffiti jewelry, anyone?

         Oh, by the way, you may be interested in how you order all the artistic paraphernalia you will be needing for your next midnight magnum opus.   It's easy, these websites have "shopping carts" just like Amazon.Com, and you use your credit card - and don't worry about credit card fraud, because they use PayPal.   Well, so much for the myth of the solitary midnight marauder striking again with his trusty spraycan slung low on his belt....   Now, not only has graffiti itself become a 'fine art', but the business of providing to the graffitors (and the T-shirt wannabes) has been honed to a fine art as well.   All of this has become a little like going to Khao Sarn Road and buying a dreadlock wig and then getting yourself a marijuana-leaf tattoo and saying you're a Rasta, mahn.   It's just not quite the same thing, is it?

         Nevertheless, even with the shattering of the 'mystique' of the graffiti artist, the works produced are not diminished in any way - colorful, twisted, irreverent, vulgar, disturbing, thought-provoking, often humorous, often strikingly beautiful in their own weird way, and almost always original.   I think it is safe to say that graffiti, now just on 2000 years old, is here to stay.   One of the more popular websites we researched for this piece was: Art Crimes @ graffiti.org <link>.   You might want to go for a browse - you will be as amazed as we were.

             Copyright 2005, BANGKOK EYES / bangkokeyes.com