The First Graffiti Artists Were Some Serious Dorks - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The First Graffiti Artists Were Some Serious Dorks

The First Graffiti Artists Were Some Serious Dorks

By Berthold Seewald



Centuries ago, it was like texting.

By Berthold Seewald

When a couple of 20-something Californians wanted to immortalize themselves on Rome’s Colosseum, they did what some of us have only fantasized about. First they strayed from their tour group somewhere in the nosebleed section and then scratched their first initials into the stone: N and J, each letter standing a proud 3 inches high. The police, however, weren’t impressed and promptly arrested them.

Some might be quick to dismiss “N” and “J” as young hoodlums. But their act is also a reminder of the momentous transformation of the graffiti artist — from a coveted witness of daily life to a punishable offender in a society whose home and property owners suffer several hundred million euros’ worth of graffiti-related damage each year. (In the U.S., a study from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services found graffiti costs taxpayers about $12 billion annually.)


Yet people keep expressing themselves through markings and drawings, and they have been for centuries. Alongside the more “developed” artistic representations of animals in caves dating back to the Stone Age, less talented clan members sought to win their own piece of eternity with the print of a sooty hand. Hundreds of these handprints have been discovered in prehistoric dwellings all over the world, from France to Spain and even in Indonesia. By the Middle Ages, monks sat in cloister copy shops, earning their doctorates in salvation by copying Bible manuscripts — while writing of their actual suffering in thin strokes. “It is so cold here,” for example, or “I am so thirsty.” 

Pompeii’s graffiti got straight to the point: “I am yours for a piece of copper,” touted service providers of the world’s oldest profession.

Oftentimes, though, graffiti was used in the same way during its early days as it is today: to spread rumors and innuendo. Some featured public jabs at politicians, while one rude message recorded from Roman times within Pompeii noted that a certain woman “made money from her body,” says Samuel Merrill, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of London’s Institute of Modern Languages Research, citing a colleague’s work.

Indeed, graffiti was ubiquitous in Pompeii. Around 2,500 examples — often short and awkward messages — have been discovered in ruins buried in 79 A.D. by Mount Vesuvius, the bulk of which are found in academic publications. Pompeii’s graffiti tended to get straight to the point: “I am yours for a piece of copper,” touted service providers of the world’s oldest profession, while a certain “Attica” was to be had for “16 asses.” Then there’s the blunt assessment from one happy customer: “You blow well.”

Of course other topics were explored in Pompeii as well. Graffiti was used to make political announcements, for example, according to an article in The Classical Journal by Frank Frost AbbottMagical formulas to protect against theft and demons have been found alongside hasty payment settlements and announcements of upcoming circus events. And while at least one person scratched a shopping list into the wall of a private house, Merrill says, there were also warnings on the outside of houses, like this one: “Whosoever besmirches this wall, upon them I will summon the wrath of Venus.” 

Grumpy homeowners weren’t the only scrawlers. Creators were often pilgrims who sought to document their restorative travels. Some travelers, in fact, made sure to leave a mark of their Mediterranean adventures on ancient sites, such as the English poet Lord Byron did his name is supposedly graffitied on Cape Sounion’s Temple of Poseidon, though there’s not necessarily concrete evidence that he did it. (Even so, the tale has inspired others to do the same.)

It was to this same tradition that “N” and “J” apparently ascribed during their visit to Italy’s capital. Sure — for them, marking up the Colosseum was probably more about being immortalized in a selfie. (That photograph will likely make its appearance in court as evidence.) Meanwhile, a Russian tourist who also recently carved his name into the famed building got fined more than $24,000 — but avoided jail time. Too bad. Jail cells have long been places decorated by inmates with all sorts of markings and drawings.

Jose Fermoso contributed reporting.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories