Thursday, July 27, 2006

Graffiti - a Human Pastime


Disgusted by graffiti? Don't be. You might be looking at the next Chauvet Cave Paintings. The desire to make a mark on the physical world around us is timeless, and seems to be a human universal. From 35,000 year old caves in France to the Egyptians, Romans, and religious sites in India, evidence shows that people have been scratching and painting what we would call vandalism today since before history itself.

The etymology of the word "graffiti" is somewhat ambiguous. Some say it is derived from the Greek word graphein "to write" and was originally used as a reference to drawing or scribbling on Roman architecture, others that it comes from the the Latin graffiare "to scratch." Either way, the modern connotations of illegal, antisocial, and rude vandalism on private property stay the same. Currently, there are programs throughout the US to clean up graffiti in order to preserve property value and maintain the respectability of neigborhoods.

However, the timeless nature of the art of graffiti begs the question: what's so bad about unsolicited artwork? Graffiti, like other modernly illicit expressions of human creativity, is a scintillating and usually beautiful corner of our culture. Moreover, our reaction to it also deserves examination as a commentary on social control and cultural programming.

So next time you go by the overpass, try giving the graffiti a second look. If it helps, think of it in a museum.

LINKS:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graffiti (informative page on graffiti old and new, some pictures of ancient graffiti)
http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/chauvet/en/ (official site for the Chauvet Caves, France, the spectacular caves where paleolithic depictions of the animal and natural world have existed undisturbed for the last 35,000 years. Click on "visit the cave" to take a virtual tour)
http://www.toursaudiarabia.com/graffiti.html (ancient rock art ["graffiti"] in Saudi Arabia, with lots of pictures)
http://users.adelphia.net/~craig_spaulding/Iraq/Sumerian-Writing.htm (Sumerian graffiti, may contain clues to how written language was developed)
http://www.trussel.com/prehist/news170.htm (article from LA Times on graffiti displaying what might be earliest known writing system)

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