In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Graffiti

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historic Background
  • Local Scenes
  • Studies
  • Online Sources

Art History Graffiti
Nicholas Ganz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0159


Graffiti can be seen as one of the most original art forms of mankind, with origins, according to some scholars, dating back as far as 40,000 years. Probably the best known examples of early graffiti can be found in the caves of Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain. The word “graffiti” was first used by archaeologists and antiquaries around the year 1850 to describe scratched inscriptions found at ancient archaeological sites. Indeed, the word graffiti derives from the Italian word graffito (translated as “something scratched”). These early examples of graffiti help to shed light on ancient societies, while contemporary graffiti is considered to be a reflection of urban life. This article focuses on the modern forms of graffiti, with its several subgenres, as well as exploring the way we understand the term “graffiti” as it is used today. Many practitioners have an artistic approach toward graffiti, though some may approach it in a manner that could be construed as vandalism. The modern practice of graffiti in public spaces emerged around 1965–1966 in Philadelphia and New York, although other forms of unsolicited art in public spaces existed in Europe and Arabic countries around the same time. Toward the end of the 1980s, the publications Spraycan Art and Subway Art helped to popularize graffiti all over the world. The rise of the internet also played a major role in bringing this art form into every corner of the world. Today, graffiti can be found almost everywhere, having quickly become a global movement that shares common philosophies, techniques, and roots. There is now a substantial body of popular publications devoted to the subject of graffiti or street art, as it is sometimes classified, though most scholars differentiate the two categories. Many of these publications, as the topic suggests, are illustrated books, focusing on particular artists, different styles of graffiti, and historic backgrounds. Other sources go beyond the visual aspects, including extended texts with commentary, interviews, and quotes from the artists themselves. Each book functions as a sort of time-capsule, because graffiti is ever-evolving, not to mention ephemeral, as many of the works shown in these books do not exist anymore. Scientific research on the social, cultural, psychological, or criminal aspects of graffiti are mainly carried out as dissertations or scientific treatises. Some of these commentaries are presented in this article. Graffiti, as an art, contains various forms of expression and is constantly evolving to accommodate new styles, techniques, and approaches. So too must the scholarship in this field, as illustrated by the sampling of sources included here.

General Overviews

This section functions as an introduction to the worldwide publications about the graffiti and street art movement. The individual titles provide basic overviews on countries, styles, and forms. In one of the first major surveys, Ganz 2004 presents this global art in a far-ranging publication. Hundertmark 2016 follows with his ongoing series (previous volumes having been published in 2004, 2006, and 2010), and Schacter 2013 focuses on the worldwide movement in the form of a graffiti atlas. Walde 2015 highlights the progress of graffiti as it moved into the realm of large and mostly commissioned murals. Ganz 2006, as well as Syrup and Cyris 2015, bring together collections about women in this mainly male-dominated art space. Danysz and Dana 2011 looks back on the forty-year history of modern graffiti and its first foray into the galleries. Powers 1999 takes a historical approach to explain and analyze the movement’s background, while McCormick and Seno 2015 not only outlines the various techniques of modern graffiti, but also explores the ethics and potential motivations behind this art form. Blackshaw and Farrelly 2009 presents many contemporary graffiti artists with short texts and images.

  • Blackshaw, Ric, and Liz Farrelly. The Street Art Book: 60 Artists in Their Own Words. New York: Collins Design, 2009.

    Blackshaw and Farrelly offer behind-the-scenes information about graffiti artists and their work, techniques, and styles.

  • Danysz, Magda, and Mary-Noëlle Dana. From Style Writing to Art. Rome: Drago, 2011.

    Written by Magda Danysz, a gallery owner in Paris who has exhibited the work of street artists, this book offers an overview on the forty-year history of graffiti art and the evolution from early writing to modern forms.

  • Ganz, Nicholas. Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents. Edited by Tristan Manco. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

    A basic overview on the graffiti culture and its diverse styles from all over the world with short texts describing each artist’s work and introductions to local developments. Translated into eleven languages.

  • Ganz, Nicholas. Graffiti Woman. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

    The first book showing exclusively graffiti and street art works by female artists from all over the world with short introductions to each artist. Includes background information on the difficulties and challenges that women often face in this male-dominated scene.

  • Hundertmark, Christian. The Art of Rebellion 4: Masterpieces of Urban Art. Großostheim, Germany: Publikat, 2016.

    The fourth part of a series that presents modern street artists from all over the globe with images chosen by the artists themselves and a short description to explain the background behind each of them.

  • Lewisohn, Cedar. Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2008.

    Foreword by Henry Chalfant, author of several books about graffiti. It gives an extensive overview on the historic development of street art from cave paintings to the art in today’s streets. It offers firsthand interviews from the artists themselves.

  • McCormick, Carlo, and Ethel Seno. Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art. Köln, Germany: Taschen, 2015.

    Foreword by Sara and Marc Schiller from the famous Wooster Collective. The book explains the history and technical developments of the urban art movement with thematic texts about politics, the global expansion of the art form, and the idea of reclaiming the streets.

  • Powers, Stephen. The Art of Getting Over: Graffiti at the Millennium. New York: St. Martins Press, 1999.

    With the great insider’s knowledge gained by Stephen Powers (also known as ESPO) through his own involvement in the graffiti movement, the book provides a deep insight on the origins of the art, its practitioners and tools, and its developments through the end of the 90’s.

  • Schacter, Rafael. The World Atlas of Graffiti and Street Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.

    Presents the various graffiti styles and many different artists from all over the world in one book. To explain the importance of the artist’s connection to places, the volume shows commissioned works and illegal paintings.

  • Syrup and Cyris. All City Queens. London: CFC Books, 2015.

    Written by graffiti writer Syrup, who has deep connections to her fellow graffiti writers from all over the world. This book gives a great view on the leading graffiti writing women.

  • Walde, Claudia. Mural XXL—What Graffiti and Street Art Did Next. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015.

    Better known under her graffiti name MadC, Walde presents the transition of graffiti to large murals in public spaces, mostly commissioned and with permission.

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