And the words? They are names, warnings - "Get out!" "Leave me alone!" - declarations of love and hatred, membership of gangs, denunciations: "X is a thief", "Y is a bastard." And messages: "Why are you late?" Even some philosophy: "Death is the enemy".
Tagging - marking with spray paint the nicknames of individuals or gangs who claim patches of territory - is the most common form of graffiti. Young people, mostly boys, will go to death-defying lengths, crawl on trains, swing under bridges, to proclaim their existence to the bemused world. The world, for its part, tends to respond with graffiti-resistant paint, clean-up squads and policies of zero tolerance. Eradicating graffiti is seen as the first step to making a safe, crime-free environment for citizens.
In the United States, graffiti is identified in the public mind with gang warfare. Spraying gang tags in a neighbourhood directly menaces those not in the gang and challenges those in other gangs. While communities and law enforcement agencies band together to wash out graffiti, devise programmes to divert youthful energies and call for greater legal penalties, earnest PhD students write theses on cultural variants of tagging and expatiate on the history of public writing.
Graffiti includes political statements, works of art and hip-hop poems as well as tags. Groups with names such as Crazy Young Artists (CYA) collect examples of graffiti art going back to the 1970s. CYA begn by painting on a subway line in New York, developing complex shapes that echoed comic books and agitprop in their outlines and sharp colours. Books such as Spray Can Art by Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff have conferred artistic respectability on such writings. Postcards of graffiti are available in art shops.
Louis Vuitton's best-selling luxury handbag this season is called the "graffiti bag" - although it is hard to believe anyone toting such a pricey bag would be thrilled to find a gang tag on their front door.
Yet the question remains, is graffiti a symptom of an alienated, dangerous youth or a form of folk art? For many taggers, the question is as alien as a tax demand or census form.
For social historians, the answer is ambiguous. 2MAD, one of the founders of CYA, left to join the US Marines: Basquiat, originally a graffiti artist, joined the New York cocktail party circuit. And long ago, all the sentiments in the second paragraph were written on a wall in Pompeii, the Roman city buried 2,000 years ago in an eruption of molten lava from Vesuvius.
Perhaps the last words should go to one of those Romans: "I am amazed, O wall, that you have not collapsed and fallen, since you must bear the tedious stupidities of so many scrawlers."
VICTORIA NEUMARK. Graffiti Photograph by Robert Yager
From Pompeii: www.smokylake.comChristygraffiti.htm
For list of sites, including Massachusetts Department of Correction Gang Site, try: http:members.tripod.comCar1815amergraf.html
Research on graffiti: www.streetgangs.comgraffiti
Art archive, gallery and history of modern US graffiti: www.atl49st.comcya.html