From Ancient Pompeii to Contemporary Bethlehem: The Global Graffiti Trail

A few months ago I published photos of the graffiti of protest on Bethlehem’s “Security Wall.” I was really moved by the power of this seemingly controversial art form. Building on that, Sophie of Heading There brings you this guest post of her view on graffiti and its importance throughout history as spotted in her travels. All photos in this post are courtesy of the author. 

‘Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.’ -Banksy, Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall

Ljublijana 1

On my global travels I have noticed, in a broad sense, these two types of graffiti: the political and profound and the quirky and funny. There are of course other types too: the subtle and beautiful, tags and scrawls, works of art.


Even more widespread than corporations and advertising, graffiti is everywhere, from the ancient city of Pompeii to the ‘security wall’ of contemporary Bethlehem.

Santiago 2

‘We two dear men, friends forever, were here,’ and ‘I screwed the barmaid,’ are two of the thousands of example of graffiti etched into the walls of ancient Pompeii, proving that human concerns haven’t changed much over the centuries: friendship, love, sex, betrayal and politics- it’s all there. I found the graffiti to be one of the most astonishing aspects of my trip to the ancient city.

Graffiti is also present in the temples of ancient Egypt. It seems that throughout history there has been the urge to make a mark and lay down a name, to boldly say with the scratch of a stone ‘I was here’, or ‘this is what I think.’

Santiago 1

Ecuador, 2008. It was hard to walk a block or two without seeing the same phrase sprayed in red or black over walls. ‘Si, mi pais.’ ‘Yes, my country,’ to the new draft of the constitution which, amongst other things, was the first in the world to include legally enforceable Rights of Nature as well as legalizing civil partnership for same-sex couples. The graffiti silently yet powerfully signalled the people’s desire for change, just as it does on the ‘security wall’ in Bethlehem today.

Quito 2

But what about graffiti as a form of play and artistic expression?  Can this be just as powerful? In Valparaiso, Chile, there are explosions of colour across walls and doors, adding to the vibrant feel of the city and its creative history. ‘What an incredible thought,’ one graffiti artist said to me there, ‘that something you do will cause a passersby stop and smile’. Yeah, that’s pretty cool- that the image you create will change the course of someone’s day, even if it doesn’t change the world.

Valparaiso 1

One thing’s for sure, there are certain works of graffiti that are imprinted on my memory for good. Love it or hate it, the art form (or vandalism!) is one of the most diverse and powerful forms of expression on the planet.

Ljublijana 2

If graffiti can alter the way you look at things, does it have the power to instigate wider change? Which pieces of graffiti have had the biggest impact on you?

Sophie McGovern is a travel and fiction writer from a seaside town in North Yorkshire, England. Her travel adventures have taken her all over the world from a farm in Italy to a boat in Bath. She currently lives in Thailand where she writes fulltime for Heading There.


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6 Responses to From Ancient Pompeii to Contemporary Bethlehem: The Global Graffiti Trail

  1. Robbert September 3, 2012 at 12:34 am #

    Loved the article! It’s amazing how creative people can get with street art. I was in Penang, Malaysia and found some incredible street art from Ernest Zacharevic. Google it, it’s amazing.

    • Aaron September 4, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

      Cool! Love the image of the kids on a bike!

      • Robbert September 4, 2012 at 11:38 pm #

        I know, right! My personal favourite was the little kid standing on the chair, but the kids on the bike is his most famous one and it’s easy to see why. 😉

        • Aaron September 12, 2012 at 11:51 am #

          I didn’t see the one of the kid standing on the chair. I’ll have to check it out.

  2. Ruth (Tanama Tales) November 1, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    I have always admired the creativity of graffiti artists. I always pay attention to stuff painted in the walls in countries I visit (even though some cannot be considered art). It gives you a lot of insight of what is in the minds of citizens (and what are the current issues.).

    • Aaron November 3, 2012 at 2:19 am #

      Me too. It’s not so often that you get to see such blatant statements way out in the open! Tells you a lot about the general mood in a place, particularly if you see a particular message repeated often.

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