In the grottes d’Arcy caves in France, there is the imprint of a child’s hand.
It’s 30,000 years old and was probably created by a child standing with their hand above their head while someone else sprayed paint over it. It’s the earliest stencil we know; an astonishing mark to leave. It’s an intensely human act, almost as if it is saying, “I was here.”
What makes something graffiti as opposed to art is a killer exam question. Graffiti is an unlicensed mark in a public space, though what counts as “public space” has changed over the years. In ancient Pompeii, much of a house was not really considered private — so you find house walls were heavily graffitied by visitors, sometimes with derisive sentiments about the family who lived there. Families didn’t remove them because it would look as though they were not big enough to rise above it.
Graffiti now appears in galleries and its artists are recognised as being very skilled. Many are trying to get us to look again at our environment; asking whether the public sphere should be dominated by symbols of commercial culture. Having said that, if someone painted on the side of my house I would be extremely unhappy about it.
A Brief History of Graffiti, presented by Professor Richard Clay, is on BBC Four later this month
1. Blek le Rat
Banksy is quoted as saying: “Every time I have a good idea, it turns out that Blek had it 20 years ago.” Blek, who was born in the Fifties, trained as an architect and street art owes him a debt: he upped the game of how aesthetically sophisticated graffiti could be. There is beautiful continuity in his work: 30,000 years ago someone sprayed a hand on to a cave in Burgundy; today, he is spraying stencils all over the world.
2. The Cave of Hands, Patagonia, 13,000-9,500 years old:
Probably made by filling a shell with ochre paint, then blowing. A reminder that the desire to leave a mark is something we hold in common across the millennia.
3. Graffiti of Soviet soldiers inside the Reichstag, 1945:
It’s a really diverse set of messages. Some very nasty. One says: “You sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.” But there is also a love heart.
4. Lee Quiñones, Fabulous Five train, 1977:
Growing up in New York in the 1970s — a dark time — Quiñones didn’t take up graffiti because he was angry but because he loved his community, hated watching it fall apart and wanted to brighten up the world. His train graffiti often contains messages about how much he loves his mum.
5. Lek, Sowat, Mode2, Futura 2000, “Underground Doesn’t Exist Anymore”, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2012:
These artists caused a massive stir in France and were then invited to create a work in the Palais de Tokyo. While they were there they broke into the air vents and created this work that no one will physically ever see.
6. Maeshowe Runes, Orkney, 12th century AD:
The graffiti in this neolithic tomb was probably made by plundering Norsemen, and much is quite laddish. But one reads: “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean.”