Where did graffiti die? Where in these five centuries have there been such dramatic change?
GALLUP: This is an interesting question. It’s important because, in the 1980s, graffiti was really the only visible expression of anti-establishment thought in the world. And we’ve never seen anything like it since. That’s really the story.
DUBNER: Can you describe, for our listeners, the history of graffiti?
GALLUP: We could talk about graffiti as a political movement in the United States after World War II, but I think we could also use a different type of history to get at the issue of what made graffiti such an enduring expression. We’re talking about it, you will say, in the first decade of the 20th century. In the 20th century — and let’s be clear — before World War 2, graffiti was seen as an expression of rebellion, rebellion against authority. And if you look at some of the most famous graffiti that you can find in the early part of the 20th century, that rebellion didn’t just include graffiti: it encompassed all of the different forms of anti-establishment protest we think of today when we talk about graffiti. Like, the graffiti from the Paris Commune that spread in 1871 spread with the same sort of radical message that we talk about. It spread against a backdrop of what we think of as a strong government in this country. These are examples of protest that we don’t think of as political graffiti. It spread in an environment where there was no real government on our side. It was, basically, an anonymous force. And if you think about the famous anarchist graffiti, like that of Emma Goldman or the slogan with the anarchist motto, “Workers of the world, unite or die,” graffiti can express a message about this world of unrest within an anonymous world of the working class. And graffiti was seen through a lens of insurrection, not rebellion. This idea of anarchy came out of the working class — and as you’ll note, some of this was not the same anarchist idea of anarchist revolution you’ll see depicted in movies. The idea of the working class insurrection was much more in vogue in the late 19th century. The New York Times in 1876 was full of poems and a play that was very much about workers on strike in America, and it was written by a Chicago journalist named John Brown. One of his lines goes like this: “Every man has got a hammer which he has thrown and every man has
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