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Modern graffiti

In the 20th century, especially during World War II, 'Kilroy was here' became a famous graffito, along with Mr. Chad, a face with only the eyes and a nose hanging over the wall, saying "What No [scarce commodity]…?" during the time of rationing. Twentieth century warfare saw the advent of many new aviation technologies, closely followed by the advent of airplane graffiti, including the nose art made famous during World War II.

Starting with the large-scale urbanization of many areas in the post-war half of the 20th century, urban gangs would mark walls and other pieces of public property with the name of their gang (a "tag") in order to mark the gang's territory. Near the end of the 20th century, non-gang-related tagging became more common, practised for its own sake. Graffiti artists would sign their "tags" for the sake of doing so, or to increase their reputation and prestige as a "writer" or graffiti artist. The first documented cases of illegal markings created with a spray can were created by an artist named "Cornbread" from Philadelphia. The spray can became an important characteristic for the lettering styles which followed.

Taggers sometimes select tags, like screennames, to reflect some personal qualities, but often a tag is chosen for how the word sounds when spoken aloud or how the letters sit with each other when written; usually referred to as how the tag "flows". The letters in a word can make doing pieces very difficult if the shapes of the letters don't sit next to each other in a visually pleasing way. Also some tags are humourous plays on common expressions, such as: Page3, 2Shae, 2Cold, In1 and many others. Tags can also contain subtle and often cryptic messages or in some cases the writer's initials or other letters become a part of the tag. The current year is often put up next to tags as well; the bomber Tox, from London, never writes just Tox; it is always Tox03, Tox04, etc. In some cases, "writers" dedicate or create tags or graffiti in memory of a deceased friend, for example, "DIVA Peekrevs R.I.P. JTL '99". Tags are usually between 3 to 5 letters long to make the process of doing them illegally faster, but can be any length at all.

Competition exists between writers as to who can put up the most, or the most visible or artistic tags (see Graffiti art battle). Writers with the most tags, throw ups and pieces up tend to gain more respect among other graffiti artists, although they will also incur a greater risk if caught by authorities. As well as being prolific, writers are also expected to have "style", which means their work is artistic and accomplished, and the combination of the style of the work with the volume of work is what gets graffiti writers kudos from their peers.

In some cases, taggers have achieved such elaborate graffiti (especially those done in memory of a deceased person) on storefront gates that shopkeepers have hesitated to cover them up. In the Bronx after the death of rapper Big Pun, several murals dedicated to his life appeared virtually overnight; similar outpourings occurred after the deaths of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.

Other works covering otherwise unadorned fences or walls may likewise become so highly elaborate that property-owners or the government may choose to keep them rather than cleaning them off. "Free walls" or commissioned walls are now a common part of the culture.

Some graffiti has local or regional resonance, such as wall and street sign tagging in Southern California by gangs such as the Bloods and the Crips. The name Cool "Disco" Dan (including the quotation marks) occurs commonly in the Washington, D.C. area. One famous graffito in the DC Metro area appeared on the outer loop of the beltway on a railroad bridge near the Mormon temple as seen here. Its simple scrawl "Surrender Dorothy" summoned visions of the Emerald City of Oz and has remained on the bridge for nearly 30 years off and on beginning in late 1973. Pressure from the Temple saw it removed, only to reappear. This "giraffiti" became so well known among the Mormon community that their newsletters often mentioned it as a specific example demonstrating misunderstanding. (See "In View of Temple, Graffiti Again Seeks Dorothy's Surrender" and "Landmark to most, temple is sanctuary for area's Mormons" in Mormons Today.)

Theories on and the use of graffiti by avant-garde artists have a history dating back at least to the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism of 1961.

Most of those who practice graffiti art wish to distance themselves from gang graffiti. Differences in both form and intent exist: graffiti art aims at self-expression and creativity, and may involve highly stylized letterforms drawn with markers, or cryptic and colorful spray paint murals on walls, buildings, and even freight trains. Graffiti artists strive to improve their art, which constantly changes and progresses. Gang graffiti, on the other hand, functions to mark territorial boundaries, and therefore does not transcend a gang's neighborhood; in the eyes of lovers of graffiti-art, it does not presuppose artistic intent.

The designs, while chosen to appear distinctive and recognizable, are more likely to be influenced by the speed with which a tagger can execute them (thus minimizing the chance of that tagger being caught). Those who distinguish between tagging and graffiti generally accept tagging as gang-motivated or meant as vandalism (illegal) or viewed as too vulgar or controversial to have public value, while they can view graffiti as creative expression, whether charged with political meaning or not.

Many contemporary analysts and even art critics have begun to see artistic value in some graffiti and to recognize it as a form of public art. According to many art researchers, particularly in the Netherlands and in Los Angeles, that type of public art is, in fact an effective tool of social emancipation or in the achievement of a political goal.

The murals of Belfast and of Los Angeles [1] offer another example of official recognition. In times of conflict, such murals have offered a means of communication and self-expression for members of these socially, ethnically and/or racially divided communities, and have proven themselves as effective tools in establishing dialog and thus of addressing cleavages in the long run.
A "tagged" construction scaffolding.
A "tagged" construction scaffolding.

Computer generated "tags" of usernames are now increasingly popular on forums, one notable site being gaia online.

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