Graffiti (the Singular: graffito) are drawings or inscriptions on walls of buildings or other structures in the streets of modern cities. In most cases, graffiti are placed there illicitly and (intentionally) within public view.  As a genre of subculture, graffiti have existed since ancient times: they were present in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. A great number of graffiti were found during the excavations at Pompeii. The language aspect of ancient graffiti  (inscriptions proper) carry valuable information about the state of languages in the past.  The Safaitic language (a form of proto-Arabic, existing from the first century BC to the fourth century AD) is known only from graffiti scratched on the surface of rocks and boulders in the deserts of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The graffiti on the inner walls of St Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, dating back to the 11th century AD, confirm that the people of Rus at that time spoke the language which is now called Ukrainian, though the official language in Rus, after the adoption of Christianity, was Old Slavonic (or, more exactly, Old Bulgarian).

In modern Ukraine, graffiti are mostly political in character and rather unimaginative (Down with X, Y is a bribe-taker, etc. or there can be some “secret” combinations of figures and letters which only the initiated will understand). But generally, graffiti can contain a great deal of humor and popular wisdom. The same themes recur over the years, as do some of the favorite formulae of the graffiti-writers. For example, there must by now be thousands of variants of the X rules OK structure, said to have begun as a British soccer boast (Arsenal rules, OK?). Here’s an example from a collection of the graffiti: Apathy rules, OH DEAR; Examples rule, E.G..; Einstein rules RELATIVELY, Bureaucracy rules OK, OK, OK. Puns and word-play are popular in graffiti. Another example is the humorous playing with the words of a once popular song Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today. A notice next to a lift read: LIFT UNDER REPAIR – USE OTHER LIFT. The graffiti below the notice ran: This Otis regrets it’s unable to lift today. To fully enjoy the humor, here are the lyrics of the song:

Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today, madam
Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today, mmm
And she’s sorry to be delayed
But last evening down at lover’s lane
She strayed, madam
Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today

When she woke up and found
That her dream of love was gone, madam
She ran to the man who had lead her so far astray
And from under her velvet gown
She drew a gun and shot her lover down, madam
Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today

When the mob came and got her
And dragged her from the jail, madam
They strung her up on the willow across the way
And the moment before she died
She lifted up her lovely head and cried, madam

Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch
Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today.

Two long-standing graffiti are those of Kilroy and  Chad. Both are of World War 2 origin. Kilroy Woz Here appeared first. Who was “Kilroy” is not exactly known. One theory is that he may have been a Massachusetts inspector who in 1941 was marking the phrase on equipment to show that he had checked it. The American soldiers who were stationed in Europe and on the other continents during WWII and later used to inscribe the phrase Kilroy Woz Here and the corresponding picture on lots of objects they considered proper for this purpose.

In Britain a very similar image (called Chad, not Kilroy) was popular, but the accompanying inscription was different: Wot, No ____? The matter is that due to a shortage of goods and services, rationing was introduced in the war-time Britain. So, the first textual graffiti were “Wot, No bread?”, going on (later) to “Wot, No bananas?”, etc. Jocular inscription on the side of a military glider was: “Wot, No engines?” After the 1945 Labor election victory someone wrote on a wall in the Houses of Parliament: “Wot, NoTories?” Trains in Austria in 1946 featured Mr. Chad along with the phrase “Wot, No Führer?”

After I had a deeper insight into what graffiti were, I felt that no less than a dissertation could be written about them. What with the professional jargon used by graffiti-writers, this blog could be ten times longer. For instance, a piece (short form of “masterpiece”) is a large, complex, and labor-intensive graffiti painting which incorporates the 3-D effect, a fat cap is a nozzle used for filling pieces, a throw-up is a quickly painted graffito, a toy is a an inexperienced graffiti-writer doing poor work, a king (or a queen) is an opposite of “toy.”  Kings are separated into “inside” and “outside” kings. To be a king of the “inside” means you have most pictures inside trains (to “own the inside”), and to “own the outside” means having most pieces on the train surface, etc., etc.

When, upon my first arrival in Britain, I went to see some historic places and came across the graffito “MARK WAS ‘ERE” scribbled on the wall of a medieval tower, I didn’t approve of the fact that Mark had written it in that place. But the fact that Mark had dropped the “h” before a vowel at the beginning of the word, made me remember the peculiarities of the Yorkshire dialect. At that moment it was rather helpful 🙂


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