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The Writing on the Wall

Rhona Lewis

With permission, graffiti is public art. Today, city officials and building owners often commission graffiti artists to paint large murals on the walls of buildings — sometimes to cover up illegal graffiti

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

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Photo: Shutterstock

"Josh was here.” You’ve probably lost count of the number of times you’ve seen a message like this scribbled on the back of a bus seat or carved into a tree trunk. Just like you’ve lost count of the number of pictures spray-painted on city walls.

Both the writing and the pictures are examples of graffiti, something many people condemn. So how does some graffiti make it into an art exhibition?

What Is Graffiti? 

One graffito, two graffiti. The word comes from the Italian word graffito, which means a scratch. From simple written words to elaborate wall paintings, graffiti existed in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire.

The first modern graffiti writer was Philadelphia’s Darryl McCray, a.k.a. Cornbread. In 1967, when McCray was a high school student in Philadelphia, he started tagging city walls. Just like clothing tags are the signatures of brand companies, graffiti tags are the signatures of the person behind the writing or picture. Tagging caught on and soon gangs all over America were tagging streets to stake out their territories. They tagged subways and subway cars, and began painting pictures, too.

Of course, they had to work fast, because marking public or private property is illegal. City authorities were pretty unhappy with all their work. By the 1980s, tagging and graffiti had moved across the ocean and were found all over the world. Then, in a big surprise, galleries began to showcase graffiti as artwork.

Unravel the Mystery 

Unlike a brand name, graffiti tags are often aliases of the writers. Had you been living in New York during the 1960s and ’70s, you’d have noticed the tag TAKI 183. This tag belonged to a Greek teen named Demetrius who lived on 183rd Street in Washington Heights.


Tagging the subways was easy for Taki 183… he worked as a foot messenger and was constantly traveling on the trains.

So — Is It Vandalism or Art? 

That’s a question many people are asking themselves. Before you read on… what do you think? Basically it comes down to permission: Without permission, anyone who paints public or private property is committing an act of vandalism and is a criminal. With permission, graffiti is public art. Today, city officials and building owners often commission graffiti artists to paint large murals on the walls of buildings. Sometimes, it’s to cover up illegal graffiti, sometimes it’s to add beauty to an area.

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