About graffiti

For thousands of years, humankind has felt the need to express thoughts and ideas on cave walls, constructions and infrastructure throughout the world. It may have begun as a way of marking territory between rival tribes or gangs. Examples of early graffiti have been found at archaeological sites in ancient empires of the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians.

And later, the European colonialists expressed their desire to suppress foreign cultures in the New World through graffiti. Tiwanaku on the shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia is one of the most important archaeological sites in South America. Once home to an advanced pre-Inca civilisation, the stone ruins bear the graffiti slashes of the Spanish conquistadors who ransacked the abandoned city in the mid 1500s.

In recent centuries, graffiti has been used to provoke thought and incite change.

Contemporary graffiti arrived in Australia from the United States in the 1980s, along with hip-hop, break-dancing and rap music. The bright, bold pieces of aerosol art were a far cry from the political slogans and lavatory filth plastered across our urban landscapes.

These days, graffiti is a highly competitive craft, where artists or crews compete for the best sites and are revered for their prolific or riskier pieces.

Ten years ago, we never dreamed that a graffiti artist could actually find recognition and commercial success through their art.

‘Despite similarities (to contemporary art), graffiti is conducted according to different ground rules. There are no teachers, curators and critics who train, pick and push talent along a defined career pathway; there is not the slightest possibility of receiving public acclaim or an income for one’s efforts; and while graffitists can suffer much for their art, their main fear is neither poor reviews nor neglect, but abrupt arrest followed by criminal conviction. Several kings have spent time in prison for graffiti offences.’1

But that has all begun to change. In the past, teenage graffitists unthinkingly sprayed over the artwork of others. Now there seems to be real innovation in graffiti as an art form, and slightly older aerosol artists are trying to push the boundaries of graffiti. Canberra has been a fairly free stomping ground for many such artists with many legal sites and commissioned pieces in public spaces.


  1. Heathcote, C. (2000). Discovering graffiti, Art Monthly Australia, September 2000. Accessed by the author 24 August 2013: http://www.melbournegraffiti.com/melbourne-graffiti_extras_history_discovering-graffiti.php

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