Graffiti Lexicon

© 1997 Axel Thiel all rights reserved.

Index:prehistory / History / 20th Century / Etymology / Technological Changes / Relational-Questions / Typology of Coming Into Being / Typology of Graffiti / Proposals for Graffiti-Prevention / Future Research / Definition / Graffiti-Environment: an international approach / The Anarchic Aspect in Graffiti / Graffiti & WWW / Int. Work-Group on Graffiti-Research (Kassel Graffiti-Archive) / End

Graffiti relates to COMMUNICATION. Prehistorical communication has been body-language, smells, sounds, etc. With rise of mankind--also INTENSIFICATION in communication--it has been RAINBOW that first gave precursor of what later turned into "idea" men could start painting himself. Second "root" of pictorial documentation was watching and "reading" of tracks. Our forerunners must have been expert trackers or they would not have survived.

Entering first CAVES--from open plains coming--confronted primordial men with such a strange and frightening surrounding that this impression triggered psychological "expressive pressure" so wall-painting was started--among dancing and other ways of expression--which we today may see in caves. From here, together with securing help of FIRE, communication was intensified, especially between mothers and children.

We now know that there has been one(!!) "root" language of mankind (FESTER). We also know there have been different styles in cave-paintings that took tens of thousands of years to develop, and there must have been "experts" that did them. We also find most REALISTIC paintings and ABSTRACTIONS that show us some highly differentiated system of thinking that has been PROJECTED here onto walls (KOeNIG). Cavemen have been not stupid "beasts" but have been experts in their times as their remains tell us, as far as they have been preserved.

In some old styles of writing track-impression may still be seen and some of them have begun using "pictures" -pictographs- for communication via writing. This also has been DOCUMENTABLE start of DATA STORAGE beyond some single human existence. Tradition of communication having been before solely ORAL HISTORY that still had been working until Middle Ages (troubadours). We find graffiti on many monuments of history and they have been divided into diverse categories since ca. 200 years by ARCHAEOLOGISTS (tituli memoriales, proskynemata, dipinti, etc.) but for this time only a small fraction of highly specialized professionals knew about graffiti and were accustomed to this expression. Also, until 1900 research had been almost solely restricted to these sectors of science. But, we find thousands of articles and books dealing with graffiti here, but they are being split and "hidden" in publications "normal" people never come to see. But definitely, by the opinion voiced by some "researchers," there would be no graffiti--material is DEFINITELY NOT CORRECT.

Around 1910 famous F.S. KRAUSS (Vienna) started his collection (ANTHROPOPHYTEIA) of folk-lore and here, especially "lower documents" that have been called LATRINALIA (toilet inscriptions) and "dirty jokes" and so on. Because this revolutionary undertaking had been heavily attacked, KRAUSS had to stop, and then WWI followed and where his archive might be is unknown. His project got interrupted.

Word graffiti from ITALIAN "scraffiare" and we find also: graffito, sgraffiti, sfgraffito and latter being some special wall-plastering (scratching) method nowadays almost forgotten. Since we do have other Italian words such as SPAGHETTI and CONFETTI, I vote also for SINGULARE TANTUM graffiti to be used solely. But since spelling is insecure we also find: graffitti, graffitiy, sgraffity and so on. We should not forget that Greek word CHARAKTER means exactly identical matter like graffiti. IMPRESSION into some surface and from Greece we have OSTRAKON that has gone into English word "to ostracize" meaning so exclude someone. This being some hint that we are amidst central communicative matters (also unconscious ones).

By new technological developments extension of what used to be graffiti took place. First messages having been scratched into walls and/or trees, today we find very diverse forms of them. Ranging from (still) scratching (also glass) via spray and stencils to "fumetti" done with lighters on roofs, and there has been some explosive development since ca. 1968.

Graffiti are RELATIONAL communicative means and this way are some different category, their function may be understood if we use, for analysis reasons, communications-theory (knowledge) for understanding of graffiti. So we may say that "normal" definitions like: "GRAFFITI ARE......" are totally wrong and NEW FORMULATION should be: "GRAFFITI HAVE FUNCTION OF......" Any definition would be some "fencing in" and their development would show any researcher that this would not work. Most well-known TYPOLOGICAL example here is MENETEKEL. The "classic" (Bible) "WRITING ON THE WALL" that has been some WARNING and had to be DECODED (foreign language) and TRANSLATED first to be of any use. So graffiti kind of "do work for...." They are specific messages and most well known information is HEART pierced by ARROW for LOVE (projection, being "hit" by some "projectile").

Many graffiti come up fast, spontaneous and many of them carry unconscious aspects that relate them (via their function here) to ART THERAPY. You may see this aspect of automatic drawing when you watch bored persons at conferences, while doing calls in telephone-booths, etc. If you dare to ask then they "kind of get awake again" and asked: WHAT DID YOU DO? they look bewildered and cannot answer. There has been some change of LEVELS of consciousness. They have been in some DREAMLIKE state. Here we see similarities in general to DREAMS and we find many dreamlike-aspects in graffiti. They may be taken as products of "day-dreaming" in some ways. But some of them, especially modern ones (American style), need planning (black books) and expert knowledge and here spontaneous aspects are only coming in when they are being done (pieces), and via speed (some loss of conscious control) unconscious aspects may come in.Today's "writers" need a lot of preparation: getting spray, caps, looking for walls, checking controls and security matters that would be danger to them. Another aspect here is what you might be using for your messages: chalk, nail, spray, normal paint and where message appears.

Starting with some line done on surface of some wall by some kid walking by using some stick (learning about surface, structure and material just so....) signs, symbols many people do (even without what they do...) at all places you might think of and where people may get into and at. From hobo's signs to personal "tags" (calligraphy) to most complex murals and like productions by whole groups of "writers" whole train, etc. From children doing their naive pictures on surface of sidewalks (also using structures to be found: squares, etc.) to expert's products in galleries.

We have unique documents (and nothing else was left) from "Konzentrationslagern" and prisons of Germany's SS to Russian GULAG-camps, from Tower of London to churches from middle-ages, caves, bunkers, underground systems of all kinds, castles and so on. On trains and busses, in cars (dust:PIG!) in snow (eagle), on lawn (done by lawn-mower) and huge sentences covering whole streets done by persons in love.

As we have been showing and DOCUMENTING ("EINFUeHRUNG/INTRODUCTION", vols. 1-23, Kassel 1983ff) graffiti imply FUTURE=NEXT generations. So we have to look at SOCIAL questions. From many fields of sciences we know enough to be able to say that bad housing, lack of opportunities and challenges, personal problems, etc. are causes for and of graffiti, which have become INTEGRAL part of COMING OF AGE in modern societies. In case you "fight" them you will be fighting adolescents and thus generate "criminals" this way. Abolition of graffiti would equal abolition of democracy and bring about after-effects you would not dream of. So any USEFUL and EFFECTIVE PREVENTION is to invest in SOCIAL SECTOR as follows: provide "free walls" and ample opportunities for "writers" (that have high motivation!!) and provide material (spray etc.) providing ample opportunities for them to INTEGRATE into society and not become made "outsiders" that could make them enemies of place where they have to live.

Interfere at local, regional, national and international level to increase and intensify knowledge on causes and effects (and after-effects) of wrong graffiti-policy that has been continually ESCALATING matters and costs. Instead of investing in "cleaning" (that often is some "invitation for dancing"...) money is needed for social activities, but I must warn not to offer any "fake ones" that are to be found out to be "REPRESSIVE TOLERANCE."

Do not forget ORAL history and WWW where information is being traded. In case you should need data just ask: and we will provide information. Also look carefully at ART CRIMES in WWW where we will provide precise summing-ups to important TOPICS concerning graffiti, including LEXICAL KEY-WORD: GRAFFITI.

We definitely need some JOURNAL to discuss matters and come to some coordinated strategies as to hows and whys and what next. It needs TERMINOLOGY that we could agree on, some division of resources and tasks and some COORDINATION of activities of persons willing to join this FUTURE-PROJECT.

Topics of discussion: storage and retrieval matters, continuation of BIBLIOGRAPHY, collecting data and re-distributions to all, analysis of repressive methods and their after-effects (escalation!), cost/effect-calculation (arguments for and against ways of coping..), political implications, networking, meetings and centers of discussion, list of people/institutions cooperating (must be publishable) so anyone may contact addresses to needs and invitation to liberally help with data, material..and if possible some money. But latter ($$) is not that important. What it needs is knowledge and emotional setup, knowing what you do and why.

All suggestions etc. will be published in No. 25 of EINFUeHRUNG/INTRODUCTION, mailing address: KASSEL GRAFFITI-ARCHIVE (int'l. work-group on graffiti-research) c/o Axel Thiel, Bluecherstr. 24,D-34123 Kassel Germany
tel. and fax: GERMANY-0561/55642

Graffiti are collective phrases of (partially anonymous) inscriptions, tags, personal messages, initials, phrases and all forms of communication, popular, of generally known matters, information and knowledge of "insiders" (languages)-here in mixed cultural societies-and political context. Most well known are HEART and ARROW for "love" and the circled A for anarchy, pictures of genitals, skull, archetypical signs for animals and men. Further signs and symbols that have played roles in time/cultural context (fish-symbols at origin of Christianity when they were denounced as "terrorists") and where they have been definitely SUB-CULTURES. By means of technological change they also have been changing from simple scratched messages (sgraffiare:scratching) to use of other matters (e.g., spray, etc.) so first are on decline and latter rise. Include here are STENCILS (pochoirs) and those "American style" that made some messages to spread all around the planet. Their findplaces are ubiquitous, but those done by small children are hard to reach by grown-ups because of body length. Those done by children with some stick along wall (surface-testing) mostly are not being recognized as graffiti. Many adults do not remember their doing of graffiti (postpuberal amnesia: BORNEMAN).

You find graffiti at certain important places massed (monuments, tourist-places, etc.). Further: toilets, corners of streets, places, subways. Some graffiti are to be attributed to special groups, as there are from students in university-prisons ("Karzergraffiti," Germany) that had been closed and forbidden during WWI. Further: Konzentrationslager, prisons, psychiatric asylums, industry and others. Further, we may include here stonemasons-signs and groundpictures done by adults to beg for some money. Latter also could lead to "murals" (see here) and hobo's marks, and there is still some special sign by chimney-sweeps in Germany: symbolized ladder and some date telling you when he is gong to come. And priests (Catholic) signs above entrance 19-C-M-B-96.

Graffiti are to be found since beginning of mankind (cave-paintings: hands, feet) where latter are symbols of VERTICAL (upright) position that is a unique sign of walking on two feet. Hands being symbols of man's uniqueness like fingerprints are today. Since there had been no cheap writing material available (Egypt: papyrus being expensive) we also may look at OSTRAKA (calcinous stone-plates being written onto). Archeology has been the first scientific field to look at graffiti starting ca. 200 years ago that unearthed them and collected, processed and published on them. But these data have been confined to a very specific type of researcher and seldom was noticed by other persons. This despite the fact that you have been/are able to see them at any time anywhere.

Since ca. 18th century a small change came about with Mr. restif de la Bretonne (book: Mes inscriptions) because he used them in purpose for his use and also name KYSELACK (Kieselack) became known being inscribed in Alps. When looking at this sector of art we may find that via caricatures since that time (18th century) graffiti are to be found here too, as some TYPICAL SIGNS showing authenticity of these pictures done by well-known artists. From Germany somewhat later BUSCH (Wilhelm) is known, from England CATTERMOLE, BROWNE etc. Looking at LITERATURE we find in Classical Chinese graffiti to be integral part of communication, where heroes (also: women) wrote their messages onto walls. (See: Wall of democracy being latecomer of this tradition.)

Specialists(?) looking into graffiti-matters today often stated noticing a lack of basic information, this statement only is due to their laziness as basic material is to be found in abundance and such statement is to be considered as "self-fulfilling prophecy" not needing them to work really hard. This "blindness" may be attributed to IDEOLOGICAL GLASSES as graffiti "stink" (toilets) and are regarded as some "low element" and this way these specialists are trying to "protect themselves." Naturally these did nothing to help any graffiti-research, but here we may notice "cordon sanitaire" that is keeping certain people away, reactional typus to be found latter again (RAMMELLZEE).

We do have very famous graffiti, e.g., from (German) poet GOETHE who wrote small poem onto some hill (Gickelhahn, Harz-mointains, Germany) onto wooden wall of hut, Daniel BOONE (cilled a bar) and on famous art-place at Dresden ZWINGER where Russian mine-expert (CHANUTIN) wrote in Russian: MIN NJET. PROVERAIJ CHANUTIN, message it would not explode.

There are a lot of books that notice graffiti (all keen minds have been noticing them since the beginning) and you find many comments to them in classical Roman and Greek literature, it only needs reading here. Some analysis of ideological blindness would be some separate research-project. So it needed to ca. 1901 when with ANTHROPOPHYTEIE Friedrich Solomon KRAUSS started first TRANS-DISCIPLINARY project (among them: FREUD) collecting all documents on the "low subjects" in countries. So from here, apart from archeology, graffiti-research may be counted. Even have some biography (rare document) of some Vienna toilet- keeper Mr. Wetti HIMMLISCH where you find further details, among them there have been 3 classes of toilets. Also ZILLE (Germany) noticed graffiti-covered walls, all that did social studies. Trains during (beginning only) WWI have been full of anti-slogans (enemy-picture as stereotype) and some may be found in WWII. From cave-research we also get some details and graffiti. During Russian revolution and ideological fights (wall-inscription fights) in Germany before 3rd Reich (Nazis against communists, etc.) graffiti became obvious political matters (indoctrination) and after start of 3rd Reich they have been used to terrorize Jews in Germany (Juden raus!). You find huge amounts of documents in old films, newspapers (archives) and so on. We even had some graffiti (he also will be dead some day) hinting at Mr. Hitler in his headquarters "Reichskanzlei" at Berlin that causes some uproar. It was to be made sure HE would know nothing about it. Here we see that one of his "securities" must have done all probability.

During so-called "students revolution" beginning at Paris 1968 we have some "explosion" of graffiti and this impact still is going on. From now on they have been used with some ideas as what to effect and we have enough documents that in times of changes we find some (minimal) explosions of wall-writings if you look at documents and search for them. Latest ones: Third Reich (Germany), Portugal (Salazar), Spain (Franco), South Africa (before Mandela), Mexico (revolution), and at many places graffiti expanded and fused/developed into MURALS (see here).

So since ca. 1968 and, later, especially from "American graffiti" on there is a huge amount of documents worldwide, in press mostly ANONYMOUSLY done, some "accusation" also being applied to "writers" as they name themselves that do graffiti with spray today. This "argument" (anon.) is some ideological trick. As graffiti rose certain specialists had to start becoming known, with them especially REPRESSIVE institutions, but as well PREVENTIVE ones and/or those for CLEANING.

Meanwhile alone cleaning-business if a worldwide boom-matter and making over 100 million per year and country and from here we may say that there is some strong (but hidden) interest in graffiti that cannot be openly said. City of New York having spent ca. 100 million in "preventive" programs that almost availed to nothing. It would have been more intelligent to use this money in SOCIAL projects that are partially cause (social problems) that generate them at first. Whole pro- and anti-technology has been invented: special coatings, pebbles as surfaces (sandlike) and so on; it helped nothing. Special squads came into being, US army looking at toilets in order to be able to detect racial conflicts and at last graffiti-research emerged around 1970, beginning in Germany (Kassel graffiti-archive).

We also know that in psychological warfare, counter-insurgency graffiti plays a role. From here we also know they are of much more importance that is generally known and should be noticed. Further details see certain web-sites. It sticks to the eye-and partially may be explained by taboo-character-that certain graffiti are NOT TO BE NOTICED as graffiti, they seem to be invisible (chimney-sweep ones etc.) because they are so "normal" that we do not notice them. Also when coal is being delivered names have been written onto windows of cellars for deposit, there are signs on metal and streets done by specialists with spray cans, they ARE graffiti as well but seem to be "invisible." Among them (see: Bible-heavenly signs) we also may look at SKY-WRITING AND LIGHT-WRITING (Picasso) with candles in dark. These are for experimental use. Also for more than 100 years we had in industry (and some during revolutions) stencils.

Graffiti in ADVERTISEMENT have made a billion-dollar market and there is no product that has not yet come into contact with them. So, also from here, there are strong interests that they might live on. Billboards and graffiti influenced each other, airbrush-art as well and all fields of visual matters have been changed by them. There is some continual data exchange taking place here. Thus graffiti made qualitative jump to become world-art (Haring, etc.). Via spread of their images we have REDUNDANCY AND PERMUTATION that helps not to forget them. From here we have some huge amount of films (wild style) and books, articles, postcards and so on: BIG BUSINESS already. Fanzines alone document huge amounts of pictures that-otherwise-would be lost for mankind. These zines are of utmost importance and are a legal place where discussion and exchange of information is taking place (aside from WWW and e-mail and so on). Hardly one modern film without graffiti to be seen somewhere and some did use them on purpose (Porgy and Bess).

GRAFFITI-ENVIRONMENT: an interactional approach
Times being hard (strong emotions) and feeling good (being in love) always have been calling forth graffiti. Material possibilities, in "modern" countries being in abundance, is posing question onto intellectual as well as emotional matters.

Amidst so much stuff people "intellectually and emotionally" are starving, and this invites further inquiry. We are being met--dwindling of free accessible spaces and places--by less possibilities, and there is a spread of lack of CHALLENGING situations and goals, except "making as much money as one can as fast as possible." No FUTURE=next generation is able to grow up on such uninviting premises. Thus-amidst material wealth-we find WEALTH-POVERTY: mental starvation. This, coordinated with HOSTILE ENVIRONMENTS, no places to roam about freely and more (also being some question of, etc.) is turning LIVING QUARTERS of parts of populace into WASTELANDS.

Since youth needs challenges here graffiti come in where you might get "fame" that is identical motive for any artist, researcher, star and whatnot. Without some "name" you may effect almost nothing, especially if this name relates to CUNNING. And here writing (on walls) is one way to invent/create new matters (styles) that might be of use to some single person (writer) and society as whole that share them in their neighborhood. Material wealth also is bringing about BOREDOM that has murderous qualities. Social problems (surplus lives) intensifying psychological problems when raising children that may be "overfed" with gadgets but starving for care. It is-in the end-some question of (practical) LOVE being applied via CARE to any living being, animals and plants included. Here, modern societies are going down and no wonder we get some specimens of next generation=future that-amidst wealth-are EMPTY on the INSIDE: psychologically and socially ABORTED.

This being deprived of important aspects of life (interaction) means to be continually in need of most extreme actions to give you at least some slight feeling of "being alive." So DANGER CRAVING is one way to cope (or try to) with that deprived existence. Among them here we have additional causes for graffiti and all dangers related to them. That people already have lost their lives is a shame and hints at total inability of influential persons to (really) understand what kind of (qualitative changes) are taking place in societies: here is one cause for wholly socially idiotic treatment of graffiti and writers on field of REPRESSION and PREVENTION. High time for changes...

Anarchy does not mean without order, but it does mean without rule--except one that you would like voluntarily. Colloquially used it means that any person may do, at any time and any place, messages (graffiti) to any subject in mind. So here we have--for nothing (except tension at moment of doing and need of empty streets...)--BASIC DEMOCRATIC way of communication. And this is nothing "ruling" person would like to spread and no wonder they did and do all they may to STOP THEM.

Known also is that this attempt to stop is ESCALATING matters so, in the end, you are-when repressing them-in reality ASKING FOR THEM, because any "not permitted" might invite transgression. Today's treatment of graffiti-related matters is definitely extremely SUB-OPTIMAL. As if blind led by blind would want to paint..wrong method I would say.

That graffiti have been developing into "electronic" messages is belonging to their adaptional quality and in some way you may look at WWW and YOUR personal computer screen as some PROJECTIONAL place where now and today anyone might put some message on, but with one difference, you may SELECT if you are going to read or not.

Via WWW we might reach some TRANS-NATIONAL developmental stage where ruling is totally changing as you may communicate with any living person (as well as electronically stored persons...) as you decide and you get access to their addresses in some direct way. Also, you may tell them your opinion in some faster way than was possible with mail, call and/or fax.

As "normal" (outdated) institutions still are musing their possibilities, new developmental stages have been opened and many of them (being directed by "graybeards") just miss any opportunity to join in, they do not even have the faintest idea about what might be ahead via WWW. So those looking for some future and a continuation of mankind (that is not secured any more because of atomic energy matters...) might use these new means at their disposal and try to establish those NETWORKS that might be of vital importance for next steps of mankind.

Started 1976, known publications. Since that time attempts to get into contact with all persons working in field of graffiti trying to establish some cooperation and coordination so things do not have to be re-invented 20 times. Since people working in that field being psychologically specific (loners? hardheads?), difficult task.

Since beginning cooperation with VIENNA-GRAFFITI-ARCHIVE (coordination: Mag. Norbert SIEGL), in 1983 we could offer 3rd Edition of GRAFFITI-BIBLIOGRAPHIE that held LESS data than No. 2 as FAKE items had to be sorted out (around 150). Now another one (4.) is planned holding around 10,000 items, among them PICTURE-FUNDUS to list photos in newspapers, etc., without text, just as MARKERS to draw attention (eyecatchers as we named them).

About 20 specialists from many countries offered their articles to be published in EINFUeHRUNG/INTRODUCTION and we hope for further cooperation, among them joining ART CRIMES (respect!).

Since 2 years strong help done by Bart BOSMANS (Brussels) who also typed GUIDE TO GRAFFITI-RESEARCH just being printed (1996) to provide some OVERVIEW to any newcomer wanting to get specialized details as to: research problems (general), bibliography (2.), annoted basic books etc. (3), students works, theses, dissertation etc. (4.), fanzines (5.), archives (6.), and researchers and ongoing projects(7.) ISBN 90-802903-1-9


  1. SOCIATRIC THEORY OF STATE: Being META-theoretical explanatory matrix to fuse very confusing and contradicting data on social problems "below" and trying to fuse all information to come to a more precise understanding of TRANSLATORY processes that endanger human existence.
  2. VOCABULARY OF GRAFFITI-RESEARCH: Precision and continuation.
  4. EDITION and COMPILATION of future "einfuehrung/introduction" (No. 24 will be INTERNET-SPECIAL and further end....).
  9. GRAFFITI-INFORMATION-NETWORK (written form, also via WWW).
  11. GRAFFITI PRESENT AND HISTORY (among: Medieval).
  13. BIBLIOGRAPHY for 5th Edition.

Literature: BOSMANS/THIEL: "Guide to graffiti-research," Gent, 1996.

Art Crimes Front Page