Anti-war graffiti in Perugia Italy. (c) Phorm.


"Graffiti" refers to markings or drawings on a surface not intended to support such markings. Walls, doors, railway carriages and pavements are common surfaces. carries a rather lengthy Glossary.


The Italian verb meaning "to scratch" is the root of the word graffiti. Sgraffito is another medium with a similar etymology - it refers to the scratching away of a surface to reveal the one beneath. (In ceramics, scratching away a layer of glaze to create pattern.)

Types of Graffiti


Identification for a gang, whether it's related to territory or to gang members. Sometimes the graffiti will involve communication between rival gangs, whether it is a threat, a "dis," or a warning. Other times it might announce some sort of victory or achievement.
It is important to differentiate a "gang" and a "crew." The former term implies that the members are involved in other illegal activities, with graffiti not being their main area of interest.

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"Slobs" is the insult from the gang Crips to the gang Blood.


The "I love _ _ _" variety, where the goal is not to create a piece, or identify oneself through a tag. It is more about simply making a mark. This is not usually the work of a graffitist / writer.


From "masterpiece" - a really good work of graffiti, usually characterised by the size, the number of colours and the crispness of the image.
A piece in Berlin.


A "tag" is a quickly sprayed word or signature. Tags are quite simple in execution and appearance.


A very simple piece. Usually 2 colours at the most. The name or slogan often in bubble letters, sometimes filled in.

A throwup on the side of a railway carriage. (c) Sag


Graffiti created on a sticker, and then stuck somewhere. This means the graffitist need not worry about being caught while painting.

Stickers in Edinburgh


Some "graffiti artists" do not consider themselves "artists" - Banksy is a main example. Does the status of the author affect the status of the work? I.e. is it not art, if one doesn't call him or herself an artist? "Writer" is a commonly used adjective.


Refers to a group of people who work together to create graffiti. This is not only to make larger pieces, but to also watch out for the authorities while the pieces are being executed.

Art vs. Vandalism

There is an ongoing debate about the status of graffiti. Is it an art, a form of expression, and part of an urban cultural identity? Or is it simply the defacement of public (or private) spaces?

The problem with this question is the assumption that graffiti is one or the other. If vandalism is defined as "action involving deliberate destruction of or damage to public or private property" then, if one sees graffiti as destructive, chances are it is always vandalism.
This does not deny graffiti the status of art form.

Keith Haring: Subway to Museum

In the '80s Keith Haring's New York graffiti quickly transported itself from the subway system to the museum / gallery system. Does graffiti become art simply through a mere transfer of location? (Article: Keith Haring Show)

What about when Banksy places a graffiti-ed piece of artwork in a museum without permission? (Watch video)


The content of graffiti changes radically with the graffitist. A lot of graffiti relates to identity with the graffitist often developing a unique way of signing his or her name. Other times the purpose is simply to deface the surface. A lot of graffiti will include pop-cultural references, quotes (philosophical and smart-ass) or even just be words.

The counter-cultural status of graffiti means that often it takes a political stance, voicing an opinion against a dominant ideology. At this point graffiti starts to enter the realm of culture jamming.

Does content change the value and validity of graffiti? If a wall is sprayed, does it make a difference whether it is a tag, or an anti-war statement? When graffiti does provide social or political commentary can it be argued that it actually serves the public, regardless of whether or not it is vandalism?

Hate graffiti's content is usually racial, sexist, misogynist - offensive - in nature. It is rarely ever much more than tag-like in appearance, as the motivation is not to create a masterpiece, but to communicate a hateful message. Therefore the people behind this type of graffiti rarely invest a lot of time and material.

What about graffiti with a positive intent? Last year in Oakville the words "You are beautiful" began to appear in a Gothic typeface in the College Park area. Should this receive the same reaction that graffiti with a negative message does?

Graffiti may also serve as a culture jamming method. Where groups like BUGA UP and Billboard Liberation Front do graffitis to counter corporate messages. Both organizations do graffitis onto existing billboards or advertisements to change their meaning. For example, the following billboard was modified by BUGA UP's graffiti to address the issues of smoking. The approach counters the original meaning of the billboard, promoting people to enjoy their freedom by smoking.

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BugaUp: Enjoy Your Cancer -


Graffiti can be found anywhere. Walls, railway stations, train carriages, on pavements, the sides of buildings, fences, bathroom stalls etc. Often the location does not have any direct correlation to the subject of the graffiti. Still, it can affect things like whether or not the graffiti is promptly removed, or ends up remaining untouched.

Sometimes the location is of utmost importance. In August 2005 Banksy graffitied the Israeli wall on the West Bank. In this case it is the location that creates the meaning of the imagery. (Article: Art prankster sprays Israeli wall)

In 1989 when the Berlin wall fell graffitists immediately targetted the remains. A famous image by a Russian depicts the East German communist leader Erich Honecker and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing. What is interesting is the recent rush to preserve the graffitied remains of the wall for it's historical and cultural significance, as well as for it's tourism potential.

The Kiss: Berlin Wall


China Marker

Similar to a grease pencil. A china marker, unlike a permanent marker, is grease based (not solvent based) so it writes on almost anything.

Permanent marker

An early tool. They had their limitations when it came to writing on a variety of surfaces, and became less commonly used when spray paint was developed.

Refillable Spray-pens

A newer invention that allows for greater intricacy in graffiti.

Scriber / Sandpaper

To engrave or rub away a surface in order to create the tag. Often seen on trees or park benches. A more destructive form.

Shoe Dye Kits

The brush / sponge variety is often used.

Spray Paint

Earlier, spray paint was stolen. Crackdowns meant that paint began to be legally purchased. Now, there are companies that cater to this market alone. Monster Colors is one example.
Paint in this form allows for greater, faster coverage of an area. Paints are rated by how well they cover (opacity) and their viscosity (drippage).


Extremely important when creating work that is more graphic. They help maintain crisp edges (no drips) which is an important part of quality graffiti. Cardboard boxes are a staple source for making stencils. Stencils maintain legibility, which is important when recognition of the image creates the concept / message (see below).



Property Value

Unless commisioned, graffiti is illegal. A high amount of graffiti in a neighbourhood decreases
the property value in that area, more than violent crimes would. (Article: Urban property crime erodes the value of your home) This is because of visibility.

Banning Spray Paint Sales to Minors

In London Ontario, there is now a new bylaw which prevents minors from purchasing spray paint. This problematically assumes that graffiti is primarily the work of minors. (Article: Anti-graffiti crackdown bans spray paint sales to minors)

Toronto Police

The Graffiti Eradication Programme:
Should graffiti eradication be selective, in that, should Hate graffiti be the primary target over graffiti as a result of political activism. What does the eradication of activist graffiti say about the right to protest and accepted methods of protest? Is this a limitation on expression?

"Broken Windows" Theory

A theory from the 1980s by criminologists George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson argued that disorder in a neighbourhood led to increased levels of crime. Disorder can be classified as litter, graffiti, broken or damaged property, illegally abandoned vehicles etc. The argument is that more disorder leads to more withdrawal from the people who live in the area. The willingness to "do something about it" decreases as disorder increases. This means that it is easier for petty crime to happen.
This theory led to a zero-tolerance policing attitude in the '90s and a zero-tolerance stance on graffiti.
The theory assumes a direct link between vandalism, street violence and crime. This becomes problematic when one tries to connect major crime to a broken window, a tag, or garbage on the street; social behaviour (and deviance) is not so simply explained.



UK graffitist

Keith Haring

NY artist

Taki 183

During the late 60s and early 70s a Greek-American boy who worked as a foot messenger would "tag" his name on the different streets and subways he went to. Because of his job, he was able to cover a large area in New York. His tag was "TAKI 183." Taki referred to his name
Panayiotakis and 183 referred to his house number. Not long after, a lot of people began to copy this tagging of their names. This was the start of graffiti as we know it today. During this time it was very competitive and "getting noticed" was one of the main goals.


Graffiti Art, Graffiti Tags and Burners
Duncan Cumming's Graffiti Photos - Wonderful photographs of graffiti all over Europe.
Scribbleboy - Children's story about legendary graffitist


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Graffiti on a truck, with a pop-culture reference