graffito [key]. 1 Method of ornamenting architectural plaster surfaces. The designs are produced by scratching a topcoat of plaster to reveal an undercoat of contrasting and deeper color. The technique of graffito was used in ancient cultures including those of Egypt and Greece. It was refined in Italian decorative art of the 15th and 16th cent., being then used to treat the entire facades of buildings as great formal mural decorations. Around windows and doors were architectural borders depicting pilasters, colonnettes, and caryatids; remaining surfaces were covered with medallions, garlands, and arabesque bands. Fine examples remain, especially at Florence, and the medium has occasionally been revived in modern buildings. Graffito decoration is applied to pottery by coating an unfired piece with a contrasting color of clay and scratching a design through it to show the color underneath. The slip ware of the Pennsylvania Germans is a good example of graffito work. It is also spelled sgraffito. 2 An irreverent inscription on a wall in a public place is also called a graffito (pl. graffiti). The term graffiti was first used in this sense by archaeologists to designate informal writings on tombs and ancient monuments. Today, as then, graffiti deal with a wide variety of subjects and are often satirical in tone. In the second half of the 20th cent. the term has been applied to many acts of property defacement involving paint and other graphic media.
See R. Schacter, The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti (2013); studies by E. L. Abel and B. E. Buckley (1977), C. Castleman (1982), and M. Cooper and H. Chalfant (1984); S. Corcoran and C. McCormick, ed., City as Canvas (2013).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Architecture