The absence of graffiti


I had my first encounter with graffiti in Korea today when I noticed cryptic writing and macabre paintings sprayed in black spray paint on the walls of a murky, pedestrian underpass.  I saw them in Seoul near Itaewon, a district frequented by foreigners.  I have noticed since I arrived here last February that Korean infrastructure noticeably (and mercifully) lacks signs of graffiti scrawl.  I’ve heard that graffiti exists in Hongdae, an free-spirited, bohemian district in Seoul, but I have not seen it.  It’s my observation that Koreans generally do not deface public places by scrawling graffiti on buildings or infrastructure.  In Korea, graffiti is neither a widely accepted art form, nor is it typically used for decorative purposes.  Not far from where I encountered the graffiti, I saw a wall ornately painted with a mural of children flying kites in a grassy field.  The mural has been there for awhile, and it still has not been defaced by graffiti vandals.
 
This is a far cry from American culture, where graffiti is widely used, particularly in urban areas.  Recent news reports claim that Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman advocated punishing those caught defacing freeways with graffiti by cutting off their thumbs on public television.  While I doubt that remedy will work and is a very harsh punishment, it underscores that graffiti has a much greater impact on American culture than it does in Korea.  While some consider graffiti an art form, many in the U.S. consider it a nuisance, even criminal.  However, graffiti is a non-issue in Korea because it is virtually nonexistent here.  I don’t think this is because the punishment for unauthorized graffiti is necesarily harsh in Korea.  More likely, it is because graffiti is not a manifestation of Korean culture.
 
I was curious about the origins of the English term "graffiti," which is derived an Italian word.  Graffiti.org explains:
The origins of graffiti go back to the beginnings of human, societal living. Graffiti has been found on uncovered, ancient, Egyptian monuments, and graffiti even was preserved on walls in Pompeii. Graffiti is the plural form of the Italian word grafficar. In plural, grafficar signifies drawings, markings, patterns, scribbles, or messages that are painted, written, or carved on a wall or surface. Grafficar also signifies "to scratch" in reference to different wall writings ranging from "cave paintings", bathroom scribbles, or any message that is scratched on walls. In reference to present day graffiti, the definition is qualified by adding that graffiti is also any unsolicited marking on a private or public property that is usually considered to be vandalism.
Murals, mozaics, and wall carvings are all technically considered graffiti.  Ancient cave paintings in France are technically graffiti, as are markings carved into lava formations by ancient Hawai’ians on the Big Island of Hawai’i.  It’s interesting that the term "graffiti" has taken on such a negative connotation in the English lexicon.  Someday what people consider a nuisance may someday become cultural artifacts.  Some of it, anyway.  Probably not in Korea, though.
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