How Street Art Jumped the Pop Culture Gap

Most people may already know that the origins of graffiti originate in rebellion, yet this marking of public property goes back a lot further than many know. The word we know now comes from the Italian word graffiato, which means scratched, or to scar. This is because early graffiti was not spray painted or painted at all for that matter, the earliest forms of it are scratched into walls and etched into the sides of statues and structures. Ancient graffiti has been discovered carved into Egyptian temples and  in the Roman Catacombs. From this, the term can be relatively associated with the use of graphics to deface something out in the open. This specific type of vandalism evolved over and over as people found new ways to get out their messages, using any surface necessary as their canvas.

Roman Catacombs

As we arrive in the 20th Century, thanks to the bubbling social and political issues under the surface of millions of citizens, graffiti rose again. Thanks to the invention of aerosol paint and other modern conveniences such as marker pens, a whole new era began. Integrating with the anti-establishment rockers, people began speaking out with paint. In the 70’s the rise of hip-hop culture merged seamlessly with graffiti and the modern era of Street Art began to rise.


Using the humble marker pen or the spray can, which is now synonymous with graffiti, thousands began to leave their mark on the surface of their environment. To this day this vandalism remains an illegal act, which in some part encourages people to exercise their freedom of speech in whichever way they feel. Taggers though are often not caught as the shorthand name or icon used is usually one well rehearsed and quick to execute. Tags are recognisable in inner city areas; the wild and energetic letters that mark windows, walls, post boxes, lampposts and more are all the signatures of different individuals. The dense and chaotic nature of this type of design makes it the least desirable type of street art, with many people associating it with poverty, rebel youth and dangerous urban areas. This is because these areas where the movement of graffiti stemmed, and since it was illegal only ‘criminal types’ would be bold enough to do it. In the biggest cities in the US, graffiti took off like a storm, especially in places that were hard to police, such as the subways.

In the early 1970’s people were truly tired of it, this is to say the general public were not fans of the unavoidable scrawling. In 1972 the mayor of New York John Lindsay began the very first war on graffiti and set to eradicate it. This slow but substantial crackdown continued over a decade, incorporating the Broken Windows Theory, which states that the visual indications of crime (such as tags) encourage more criminals, thus the opposite would reduce crime over all. Whether or not this worked is still up for debate, the crime rates did drop which made the police happy, but as far as stopping graffiti went, it urged artists to move above ground where more buildings and rooftops became the new spots to mark.