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Richard Clay - A Brief History of Graffiti

Documentary film exploring the history of graffiti

Man facing camera and pointing to a wall with Graffiti on it

The research tests Clay’s ideas through the filmmaking process. Interviews with artists, cultural sector professionals and academics provide a lens to examine, analyze and discuss a wide array of illicit marks – iteratively shaping the research.

Conceived, written and presented by Clay, A Brief History of Graffiti (first broadcast BBC4 26.8.2015) examines the similarities and differences between illicit mark-making practices across a wide range of cultures and periods. From scratchings on Ancient Roman walls in Lyon, to revolutionary and commercial lithographic posters on the streets of nineteenth-century Paris, to words and images left in the Catacombs beneath that city, to Soviet soldiers’ writings on the walls of the Reichstag in 1945, to the emergence of modern graffiti styles in late twentieth-century Philadelphia and New York, their global spread and their relationships with illicit stencil art and the ‘art world’.

Clay investigated the role of illicit mark-making in:

  1. mediating social, cultural and political struggles;
  2. the shifting status of such mark-making in terms of the law, the ‘art world’, commercial bodies and differing publics;
  3. how mark-makers’ attempts to counter the ephemerality of their efforts can be understood as responses to human mortality;
  4. the affordances offered by shifting technologies to illicit mark-makers’ creative practices;
  5. how cheap mass production of legal images has allowed them to fill public spaces, creating challenges for illicit mark-makers seeking viewers’ attention (but also allowing work to be seen beyond original sites of display)

The film had extensive media coverage and has been licensed internationally. It elicited interest from NATO and academia, becoming the basis for Clay, R. and Verrall, N. (2016) ‘Life Imitating Art, and Art Influencing Life: The use of Graffiti Information Activities and Influence Operations’, The RUSI Journal, 161(2), 64 -73.


Download PDF: Richard Clay - A Brief History of Graffiti (0.6MB)