Graffiti: A history

Graffiti comes from the Italian word "graffiato," meaning "scratched" which has the same root as the Greek verb "graphein," meaning "to write." While it may seem like a new phenomenon, graffiti is not a modern form of expression. "There is quite a long history of graffiti in Western civilization. It first started with the Crusaders, who used it effectively as personal identification when they went from Europe to the Holy Land to say 'I was here.' The Americans also took it to Vietnam to identify themselves in the places where they stayed," explains Dr. Baruch Blich, senior lecturer at the Department of History and Theory at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Blich says that the first well-known graffiti in Israel was from the War of Independence when Palmah soldier Baruch Jamili wrote his name in tar on the wall of a water pumping station on the road to Jerusalem, which he guarded. The inscription, "Palmah, Baruch Jamili, PT [Petah Tikva]," has since been erased but Jamili subsequently became a household name in Israel and was eventually immortalized in a song by Shlomo Artzi in 1974. Graffiti's current incarnation originated on the streets of New York City in the late 1970s, strongly associated with hip-hop music and breakdancing, but in Israeli it has developed an identity of its own. "Israeli graffiti is unique from other places where the focus is more on typography, taking a word and making it into an abstract image, and is also closely linked to the hip-hop scene. Here, it is mostly stencils and images. People recognize Jerusalem as an international city and they know that people can understand that in any language," observes Paul, a visiting American artist. "Here, it reminds me of [the graffiti in] South America. It's more fun and free and there are less rules and machismo than in the USA where there are lots of social norms. Here it's a completely different scene." In the past three or four years, the Middle East has become an increasing focus for graffiti. The West Bank security barrier has become a canvas for activists and artists from around the world. "The largest wall in the world is [just] a taxi ride from west Jerusalem's center, so that is the main thing that attracts graff and street artists alike to the area from every place on earth," says INSPIRE, one of Jerusalem's most prolific street artists. Larger-than-life murals on the nine-meter high wall in Bethlehem and Ramallah by UK-based "guerrilla artist" Banksy have garnered international attention, including an IDF soldier examining the ID card of a donkey, which appeared at Jesus' birthplace last Christmas. "I came to see the West Bank barrier because whatever goes up on it will be historic since it's so political, like the Berlin Wall in a sense. The art there is going to be documented because eventually it will come down when they realize they've finished with it," says Paul. In the meantime, graffiti in downtown Jerusalem is being documented on-line at: