Both the term “graffiti” and its rarely used singular form “graffito” are from the Italian word graffiato meaning scratched. In ancient times, graffiti was scratched into surfaces with a sharp object, although chalk and coal were also used. Graffiti is defined as a form of artistic expression ranging from simple words to elaborate paintings made without permission and within public view.
Graffiti has occurred since ancient times with examples dating back to Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Miriam herself refers to examples of graffiti, some designed to leave a message or accompany a work of art, but most to scar the walls in the underbelly of her great city.
In THE DEADLIEST LIE, Miriam remembers having visited the dungeons of the Serapeum, where she noticed scores of short messages scrawled on the stone walls where daylight had penetrated. Most of the graffiti were in Greek, many in verse, all dated, some even mentioning the author, his profession, and homeland.
In THE DEADLIEST THIEF, she meets a friend in a cookshop and angles their chairs so neither has to look at the back wall with its several large paintings, all of men in a latrine, each scrawled with descriptive graffiti, none leaving anything to the imagination.
And again, in THE DEADLIEST LIE, Miriam tells us of the destitute conditions she confronts in the Rhakotis Quarter: “As expected, I encountered the dreariest buildings, the dustiest yards, the grimmest alleys, the foulest gutters, the hungriest mosquitoes, the scrawniest cats, the filthiest children, the saddest drunks, the oldest whores, and the vilest graffiti.”
But, as we’ll see in next week’s blog, graffiti has come to be regarded in modern times as an evolving form of social expression.