The word "graffiti" is from Greek "graphein" - "to write". Ancient graffitists scratched their work into walls before the advent of spray-paint, as in frescoes. Starting with the large-scale urbanization of many areas in the post-war half of the 20th century, urban gangs would mark walls and other pieces of public property with the name of their gang (a "tag") in order to mark the gang's territory.
Graffiti artists would sign their "tags" for the sake of doing so, or to increase their reputation and prestige as a "writer". Taggers often select a tag for how the word sounds when spoken aloud or how the letters sit with each other when written, how the tag "flows". Tags can also contain subtle and often cryptic messages or in some cases the writer's initials or other letters become a part of the tag. Tags are usually between 3 to 5 letters long to make the process of doing them illegally faster, but can be any length at all.
The "style wars" in the 1970s between graffiti artists trying to get famous and creating bigger and better pieces resulted in the emergence of an entire subculture surrounding graffiti. New York City subway graffiti became world famous, and its style and sensibilities were transplanted to other parts of the country and the world, mixing with local traditions and styles in new ways.
Competition exists between writers to create the most visible or artistic tags: writers tend to gain more respect among other graffiti artists, although they will also incur a greater risk if caught by authorities. In some cases, taggers have achieved such elaborate graffiti (especially those done in memory of a deceased person) on storefront gates that shopkeepers have hesitated to cover them up. Other works covering otherwise unadorned fences or walls may likewise become so highly elaborate that property-owners or the government may choose to keep them rather than cleaning them off, later becoming a common part of the culture.
Most of those who practice graffiti art wish to distance themselves from gang graffiti. Differences in both form and intent exist: graffiti art aims at self-expression and creativity, and may involve highly stylized letterforms drawn with markers, or cryptic and colorful spray paint murals on walls, buildings, and even freight trains. Graffiti artists strive to improve their art, which constantly changes and progresses. Gang graffiti, on the other hand, functions to mark territorial boundaries, and therefore does not transcend a gang's neighborhood; in the eyes of lovers of graffiti-art, it does not presuppose artistic intent.
Many contemporary analysts and even art critics have begun to see artistic value in some graffiti and to recognize it as a form of public art. As graffiti regenerated into the kind of contemporary art-form a number of words and phrases have come to describe different styles and aspects of graffiti (like all slang the phrases vary in different cities and countries). For example bombing means covering with graffiti as many surfaces as possible to compete with other taggers.
Graffiti is subject to different societal pressures since graffiti appears on walls, freeways, buildings, trains or any accessible surfaces that are not owned by the person who applies the graffiti. While some perceive graffiti as a method of reclaiming public space, many others regard it as expensive vandalism requiring repair of the vandalized property. However, throughout the world, authorities often, though not always, treat graffiti as a minor nuisance crime, though with widely varying penalties.
Graffiti writers tried to find a way to express themselves creatively in a society that told them that they didn't have the talent or drive. They came from ghettos that many said were devoid of culture. Graffiti and hip hop in general proved the world wrong. The graf writers (and emcees, and DJs, and bboys) proved that they could create something beautiful that required skill and dedication, something that contributed to the city even if people didn't always understand what it was all about.
Graffiti is considered one of the four elements of hip hop (along with emceeing, DJing, and B-Boying). These were the four major forms of creative expression that came from the Bronx, NY and spread to the rest of the world. Graffiti represented the visual, emceeing and DJ produced the music, and B-Boying was the dance.
There are many different styles and ways of saying what a certain type of graffiti is, many people create names for their own styles and some are involved in things that are completely original and can't be defined. However, there are three main and distinct levels and types of graffiti that are produced by graffitists. First, there is the tag - the stylized writing of a name. Following the tag is the "throw up" which is a quickly done type of graffiti that is more time consuming and much bigger than most tags. Throw ups usually are made of bubble letters and are no more than two colors and after the throw up, there's the more complex and more skillful piece (short for masterpiece) or "Burner."
Officially, subway graffiti died although graffiti can still be found on subways. New York and other cities began to build secure, fenced, barbed wire topped train yards and they developed stricter laws and more severe penalties relating to graffiti. At that point a vital part of graffiti culture was lost.
There are many reasons as to why people do graffiti. For some it is to get back at a world that has long oppressed them and to rebel against the society they consider so corrupt and unjust. For others it is purely for the pleasure of creation, for the art form. And for others, it is almost a game. Surely instead of spending so much money on graffiti clean up and on prevention task forces, it would make sense for the money to be channeled into opportunities for youths to be educated about artistic process and learn about the arts through legal wall projects, funded by the city. But there will always be people who look down on graffiti in any and every form it comes in.
After a while there were so many people writing so much that writers needed a new way to gain fame. The first way was to make your tag unique. Many script and calligraphic styles were developed. Writers enhanced their tags with flourishes, stars and other designs. The next development was scale. Writers started larger tags while drawing more attention than a standard tag, did not have much visual weight. Writers began to increase the thickness of the letters and would also outline them with an additional color.
During 80's United Graffiti Artists was found. UGA selected top subway artists from all around the city and presented their work in the formal context of an art gallery. All the standards had been set and a new school was about to reap the benefits of the artistic foundations established by prior generations and a city in the midst of a fiscal crisis which led to the heaviest bombing in history. A new wave of creativity bloomed in late 1977 with crews. Style wars were once again peaking. It was also the last wave of bombing before the Transit Authority made the elimination of writing a priority. In 1980 the real buff started up again pieces ran for shorter periods. Writers slowly started to quit and consider other creative options. The established art world was once again becoming receptive to writing.
These and subsequent galleries would prove to be an important factors in expanding writing overseas.
During the early to mid 1980s the writing culture deteriorated dramatically due to several factors. Some related directly to the graffiti culture itself and others to the greater society in general. Due to the drug trade powerful firearms were readily available. Laws restricting the sale of paint to minors and requiring merchants to place spray paint in locked cages made shoplifting more difficult. Legislation was in the works to make penalties for graffiti more severe. Many favored painting areas became almost inaccessible. This frustrated many writers causing them to quit. Many others were not so easily discouraged, yet they were still affected. They perceived the new circumstances as a challenge.
Nevertheless as Hip Hop exploded in popularity in the early '80s, music videos featuring various aspects of New York street culture proved very appealing. Overnight every American teenager wanted to be a New York City B Boy. MCs, breakers and writers were springing up all over the place. All these popularity as well spread over Europe. Along with the new school, many old school writers have come out of retirement to do works on walls. Crews that became famous before are all doing extensive productions till nowadays.
Today Internet plays a great in the widespread of graffiti culture - young people and acknowledged masters of this culture share ideas across great boundaries. Bombing Cyberspace can not ever be expected to replace getting your hands dirty, but it has definitely become a facet of the writing culture.