By Diane Cooke
Graffiti are writing or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched or painted illicitly on a wall or other surface, often within public view.
The word graffiti, or its singular form “graffito”, comes from the Italian word graffiato which means “scratched”.
While the practice of creating graffiti has existed since ancient times, it came to the forefront as a modern art movement in the second half of the 20th century.
Darryl McCray, known as Cornbread is widely regarded as the father of modern day graffiti. He began to write on walls in Philadelphia in the late 1960s. McCray, got his name from a cook at a youth detention centre during one of his early stays. He kept pestering the cook with demands for cornbread instead of the stale white bread being served.
He didn’t get the cornbread, but he got the name. And the name stuck — not just to McCray, but to walls all over the city when he started tagging in the late 1960s. He was just a teenager and an orphan. Then the grandmother who raised him died. Cornbread remembers at one point being a young man writing on walls and crying.
Pre-Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, McCray’s tagging got him instant notoriety.
“When I realized all I had to do was write my name on bizarre things, I became a glutton for publicity...and the media was more than glad to accommodate me,” he remembers.
He cannily kept upping the ante — tagging the Jackson 5 plane, police cars, and in one of his favorite stories, an elephant.
“I was on the bus one day, reading the newspaper and it said ‘Cornbread is shot to death.’ I knew I had to do something amazingly bizarre to let people know I wasn’t dead. I started writing ‘the real Cornbread is not dead,’ but people thought it was an imposter. So I go to the zoo. It’s a big tourist attraction. I watch the zookeeper shower the elephant with a hose, watch him tug on his flappy ears, and pat his side. The elephant is tame. I saw the zookeeper was not in danger.
“After three days of watching this, I go to the zoo early in the morning, climb over the fence, into elephant’s enclosure. I take the top off the spray paint, start shaking. The balls start rattling. He turns around, he looks at me, doesn’t pay attention. I paint ‘Cornbread lives’ right on his side.”
The graffiti movement spread to New York City and blossomed into the modern graffiti movement, which reached its peak in the U.S. in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then spread to Europe.
In the 1990s an anonymous street artist came to the fore and has become world famous. Banksy, whose identity remains unknown - although the two names most often suggested are Robert Banks and Robin Gunningham - is believed to have been born in Bristol, England, around 1974.
He rose to prominence for his provocative stencilled pieces in the late 1990s. Banksy is the subject of a 2010 documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which examines the relationship between commercial and street art.
Banksy began his career in Bristol's graffiti gang DryBreadZ Crew. Although his early work was largely freehand, Banksy used stencils on occasion. In the late '90s, he began using stencils predominantly. His work became more widely recognised around Bristol and in London, as his signature style developed.
Banksy's artwork is characterised by striking images, often combined with slogans. His work often engages political themes, satirically critiquing war, capitalism, hypocrisy and greed. Common subjects include rats, apes, policemen, members of the royal family, and children.
In addition to his two-dimensional work, Banksy is known for his installation artwork. One of the most celebrated of these pieces, which featured a live elephant painted with a Victorian wallpaper pattern, sparked controversy among animal rights activists.