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Visions of protest: graffiti
Visions of protest: graffiti

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1  What is graffiti?

Graffiti involves the often unauthorised spraying, painting or scratching of words and/or images on buildings, bridges, streets, trains, trams, subways, monuments or any other surfaces usually in public spaces. There are many different styles and types of graffiti.

Styles of graffiti range from relatively simple scribbles or ‘tags’ or signatures to rather complex, unique images. The creation of graffiti often involves the use of spray paint, marker pens and stencils, and sometimes acid solutions or sharp instruments, such as keys or knives, to mark surfaces. Whilst graffiti has become increasingly widespread, particularly in large cities like New York, Berlin or London, since the mid-1970s to 1980s, graffiti has a long history. The word ‘graffiti’ is based on the Italian word graffio (‘scratch’) and started being used in the English language in the mid nineteenth century to refer to informal engravings found on ancient vases, walls, flagstone paving and rocks from Ancient Greece and Rome. However, more recently ‘graffiti’ has been used to refer to both engravings and paintings (singular and plural). The term is now generally used to refer to ‘any form of unofficial, unsanctioned application of a medium onto a surface’ (Lewisohn, 2008, p. 15; see also Chilvers and Glaves-Smith, 2013; Cresswell, 2010; Langdon, 2010).

If you enter ‘graffiti’ as a search item into an internet search engine, such as Google, and explore only two or three of the links that come up, you will see that there are many different types of graffiti.

There is not only a wide range of different forms and styles of graffiti; perceptions of graffiti are also very varied. They can range from the celebration of graffiti as ‘street art’ to its condemnation as vandalism. This course will introduce you to different examples of graffiti and arguments for and against the perception of graffiti as a form of art or as vandalism. Futhermore, you will explore how graffiti has been used as a form of communication and as an articulation of protest.