The word graffiti has its origins in both Greek and Italian. Graphein is Greek for “scratch”, “carve” or “write” while graffiato in Italian means “scratched”. Although there have been different forms of graffiti (before it became an official term) since earliest civilisation, it became a pervasive element in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in large cities like New York.
It began with bored adolescents, mostly from poor neighbourhoods, who needed to be “seen” and “heard”. It was a means of giving them a voice in a world that appeared to be ignoring them. So armed with magic markers and spray cans, they began writing their names on street walls, in subways, on derelict buildings. It became known as tagging.
As the practice took hold, the taggers experimented with their letters, filling them out into fattened shapes and adding stars, eyes and flowers. In Madrid, particularly at the end of Franco’s oppressive reign during which cultural diversity was repressed, the Spanish had a great desire for freedom of expression. Graffiti was a means of bringing social opinion into the open. Eventually, shops, businesses and bars wanted to turn this into something more attractive and they began hiring artists to execute massive murals.
Certain muralists became well known, so the element of attracting fame on the streets became enormously appealing to graffiti artists. Using brushes, spraycans, and airbrush techniques it became a sophisticated art form. This eventually graduated to the use of giant stencils, created out of paper or cardboard, which were then attached to the wall with tape, spray-painted and the stencil removed afterward.
Who would have thought that graffiti would morph into such sophisticated – and pleasing – street art?
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