A Short Overview of Graffiti and Vandalism

The term “graffiti” used to refer to any type of inscription or carving. But over the years it has narrowed down to general vandalism. Using this term we find that it (graffiti) has existed for millennia!

The earliest known case of graffiti is in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (now Turkey). It is a simple drawing of a hand (oddly shaped like a heart) and a foot with numbers within it. Anthropologists and historians tend to agree that it is an ad for prostitution. The hand stating the “good time” and cost, while the foot shows how far away it is located.

Alexamenos graffito

Another example of ancient graffiti comes from Rome around the end of the 2nd century. It is carved into a plaster wall with both a caricature and text.

The actual inscription in the plaster wall
The actual inscription in the plaster wall

Pictured is a man raising one hand up to a donkey being crucified. The text itself reads: Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον. A rough translation that has been generally accepted is: “Alexamenos worships [his] God”. Therefore it is assumed by most that this is one of the earliest known references to Christ’s crucifixion.

A tracing of the inscription
A tracing of the inscription

In a room nearby, another sentence was found to be written: Alexamenos fidelis. This is taken to mean “Alexamenos is faithful” and is seen as a retort to the previous vandalism.

Mayan Graffiti

While the Greeks and Romans are the most prevalent in terms of ancient graffiti, there have been other cases of such ancient vandalism in other regions of the world. One such location is the graffiti found at the Mayan site of Tikal.

The graffiti found here ranges from the quite crude to the extremely detailed, but all of them are done pictographically (because the Mayans did not have character driven language).

An example of graffiti at Tikal depicting a sacrifice

Although the Greeks and Romans most typically used graffiti to poke fun of others or write dirty jokes, Mayans did nothing of the sort. The Mayan vandalism deals with day-to-day experiences and mythos. Above you can see a man’s heart being taken in a sacrifice ceremony.

Part of a rare depiction of a festival-type procession
Part of a rare depiction of a festival-type procession

Famous (classical) Graffiti Artists

While the majority of old and ancient graffiti seems to be created by unknown people of the general public, occasionally graffiti has been made by more well known individuals. A good example is the Domus Aurea; a villa built shortly after the Great Fire of Rome.

While the villa was buried under the earth after Nero’s death a young man fell through a hole in the hillside at the end of the 15th century. The Domus Aurea had been discovered once again, but this time for study.

A fresco within the villa
A fresco within the villa

It was the era of the renaissance and everyone found the decorations and paintings within to be fascinating and invigorating. Many artists traveled large distances just to visit the underground beauty. Among them: Pinturicchio, Michaelangelo and Raphael. Each of them (among others) have signed their names within the tunnels showing that they had been there to study! Later in history both Marquis de Sade and Casanova added their names as well.

Modern Graffiti

Graffiti seems to have changed a lot in the past hundred years, but how did it come to where it is today? The answer lies in war.

Throughout history’s wars, soldiers have scrawled their names/slogans on foreign walls. From French soldiers in Egypt (1790s) to the “Kilroy was Here” slogan of World War II, it seems to have been a large part of our history. And this is where it all comes together. At the beginning of humanity, people drew on cave walls. With the influences of slogans and country names on foreign soil, it is believed that it inspired and brought forth the graffiti of today. Modern graffiti tends to lean towards gang names claiming land (reminiscent of armies) or “street art” (reminding us of cave drawings and Mayan graffiti).

An example of both gang names and street art
An example of both gang names and "street art"

Looking into the past we can see that, whether we like it or don’t like it, graffiti is here to stay.

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