Scratches, scribbles and drawings have existed for as long as mankind: from Egyptian hieroglyphics to the subversive graffiti of today, such markings have proved to be a priceless resource for historians. In the new BBC Four documentary, A Brief History of Graffiti, being shown later this week, Professor Richard Clay reveals the hidden meanings captured within this public art, along with the social and historical relevance of such signs.

Richard Clay in Berlin.

Sorana Serban: Professor Clay, in the beginning of the documentary you talk about the urge that humans have had for centuries to leave a mark. You also describe the cave paintings of d’Arcy as high-quality art. In the case of graffiti, what makes the difference between a sign or scribble left for posterity and an artistic gesture?

Richard Clay: It is more of a case of millennia than centuries! The Grottes d’Arcy-sur-Cure paintings [in France] have been dated as being over 30,000 years old. I reckon that all art can be thought of as being signs (i.e. as marks that point to meanings that viewers determine). But then, that can be said of a scribble. So, perhaps the question boils down to ‘what is art?’

If you’d asked somebody on the street in the 18th century whether they knew any artists, they might have said ‘yeah, I know a couple of good cobblers’.

Our modern notion of art really only became dominant in the 19th century. If you’d asked somebody on the street in the 18th century whether they knew any artists, they might have said ‘yeah, I know a couple of good cobblers’. I’ve always preferred the question ‘when is art?’ to ‘what is art?’ In the modern world, something becomes almost unequivocally art when certain privileged people declare it to be art. When a curator puts an object in a gallery or a museum, when an art critic writes about it, when an art historian mentions it in a lecture, when an auction house puts it in an art sale.

Richard Clay at graffiti exhibition, Palais De Tokyo, Paris.

I’ve always preferred the question: when is art? to what is art?

That is broadly what George Dickie argued with his institutional theory of art. In other words, graffitists like Blek le Rat, Lee Quiñones, Lek and Sowat, who all feature in my BBC Four documentary, are all pretty clearly producing ‘art’ because certain professionals recognise their work as such; the intriguing thing is that they all produced the same kinds of work prior to their acceptance by the art world. That is one of the things that I like about good graffiti - it is out there in the public sphere inviting all of us to have our say in declaring it to be ‘art’ if we so wish.

That is one of the things that I like about good graffiti - it is out there in the public sphere inviting all of us to have our say in declaring it to be ‘art’ if we so wish.

SS: Although the documentary has a chronological structure, there is nothing mentioned about graffiti in the Middle Ages. What happened during that time?

RC: Ah, that is the problem with producing a ‘Brief History of Graffiti’ in 59 minutes! We did toy with the idea of filming the amazing runes that Vikings carved into the Maeshowe [a Neolithic chambered tomb in Scotland], Bronze Age tombs on Orkney, or graffiti carved into church walls in Britain. There is a whole range of medieval sites where graffiti still survives across Europe.

Richard Clay’s lithographic print in Paris.

I still think that Blek le Rat’s work, for example, is politically provocative when displayed in a gallery.

SS: The street art of the 1970s and 80s had an important political dimension. Does art rooted in graffiti lose the potential to subvert the status quo once it is transferred on canvas and exhibited in the gallery or museum context?

Graffiti even today, the word - like so many others - doesn’t have a single fixed meaning.

RC: I guess that depends on the artist. I still think that Blek le Rat’s work, for example, is politically provocative when displayed in a gallery.

SS: Coming from the Italian “graffito”, when was the term “graffiti” first used in its current meaning?

RC: The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example of graffiti being used to refer to writing, rather than scratching, dates to 1877. Of course, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t used earlier. Even today, the word - like so many others - doesn’t have a single fixed meaning.

Lee Quinones painted subway car in the late 70s / early 80s.

SS: On Instagram, the hash tag #graffiti has more than 12 million search results, with images varying from walls or vans covered in all over painting, up to photos of graffiti-style drawings printed on T-shirts. Has consumer culture expanded the notion of graffiti or is the term frequently misused?

RC: I think of words as being signs (just as I think of art works as signs). A written word points to meanings and so does a spoken or sung word. Those meanings can seem quite fixed. I suspect that we all know roughly what is meant when I write ‘dog’. But, I much prefer cats to dogs and the word dog has particular meanings for me that are not terribly positive (I got bitten as a child!). Whereas you might be a dog lover and the word would have positive connotations for you. Many words are considerably less stable than ‘dog’ and their meanings can mutate considerably over time and in different contexts (e.g. ‘art’ or ‘graffiti’). I think it is fascinating that we can observe the use of the word ‘graffiti’ expanding, loosening, tightening and changing.

Graffiti at Palais De Tokyo, Paris.

It seems to me that the more online our lives become, the more aesthetically considered and thought-provoking graffiti seems to be. Maybe all our ‘placeless’ online activity makes us more mindful of how a wall’s location in physical space shapes the meanings of any marks that are left on it. As Blek le Rat said, if he paints a sheep on a cinema’s wall it has a very different meaning than if he paints a sheep on a bank’s wall.

SS: Unlike two or three centuries ago when revolutions were fought in the streets, nowadays the online has become an important realm for the freedom of expression. Are walls still a site of confrontation or are they being replaced by their digital equivalents?

RC: I think that images/words on walls and the online world can have fascinating inter-relationships; they can shape one another. It seems to me that the more online our lives become, the more aesthetically considered and thought-provoking graffiti seems to be. Maybe I’m just looking more closely (in between glances at my iPhone to check my email in the middle of the street…). Or maybe all our ‘placeless’ online activity makes us more mindful of how a wall’s location in physical space shapes the meanings of any marks that are left on it. As Blek le Rat said in part of the interview that I did with him that didn’t make the final cut of the documentary, if he paints a sheep on a cinema’s wall it has a very different meaning than if he paints a sheep on a bank’s wall.

SS: As contemporary urban spaces are becoming increasingly sanitised, what do you think will be the future of graffiti?

RC: I think there are more people with spray cans than people with high-pressure hoses.

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You can watch A Brief History of Graffiti, presented by Professor Richard Clay, at 9pm on Wednesday 26 August on BBC Four, as part of the BBC’s Pop Art celebration.

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To continue the debate of what art really is, we recommend: Is This Art?

Words: Sorana Serban

Image source: BBC / Kaboom Film & TV / Charles Furneaux