On the need for an expanded lexicon

I’ve been writing and thinking about graffiti for over five years and I’ve repeatedly run up against the failure of language to capture the nuances of the concept. Graffiti, if we believe the dictionary, refers to “writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.”[1]

This is fairly easy, right? Well, maybe not.

First, there are writings and drawings scribbled, scratched, and sprayed on walls and other surfaces in public places that are completely legal (or at least sanctioned). For example, there are the spray-painted marks made by municipal workers to indicate sewer, water, power, telephone, and other sorts of underground pipes and conduits. Such marks look relevantly similar to illicit graffiti and have a direct stylistic relationship to Cholo writing and other types of gang graffiti, yet are completely legal.

Second, there are situations where illicit marks become sanctioned or protected by local populations and municipalities. In Bristol, residents and businesses protect illegal spray-painted marks by Banksy.[2] Such works also display stylistic and technical similarities to graffiti, and remain illicit, but have taken on a protected status not shared by other graffiti.

Third, there are already several terms in existence that separate out some sorts of graffiti from some other sorts of graffiti. ‘Latrinalia’ refers to graffiti on bathroom walls. ‘Cholo writing,’ as discussed earlier, refers to a specific sort of gang-related graffiti that entered the graffiti milieu in the mid-Twentieth century. ‘Street art,’ in popular language often used as a synonym for graffiti, which describes a small and vague portion of illegal graffiti that is appreciated by wide swaths of the population for its aesthetic qualities.

Other terms exist, but the extant graffiti lexicon is largely impoverished, and the classificatory system leaves a huge gap open that contains an incredible variety of illicit markings, made at different times, in different parts of the world, and under differing circumstances that share virtually nothing with contemporary graffiti forms. Think, here, of Kilroy, love messages carved in trees, the ‘I was here’ marks left by tourists throughout history, and the various sorts of messages found carved into walls in Pompeii.

Over the coming weeks, I will attempt to develop and define some new words to describe the various types of graffiti, in hopes that a new lexicon will open new avenues of discussion and allow for a greater specificity in extant discussions.


[1] Oxford American Dictionary, accessed 14 January 2010.

[2] See here, here, and here, for example.

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