What is Graffiti Archaeology?

Graffiti Archaeology is a project devoted to the study of graffiti-covered walls as they change over time. The core of the project is a timelapse collage, made of photos of graffiti taken at the same location by many different photographers over a span of several years. The photos were taken in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and other cities, over a timespan from the late 1990's to the present.

Using the grafarc explorer, you can visit some classic graffiti spots, see what they looked like in the past, and explore how they have changed over the years.

Three moments in the history of one wall

Site keywords: graffiti archaeology, graffiti, graff, graf, flix, archaeology, archeology, grafarc, graffarc, grapharc, urban art, timelapse collage, chronocollage, chronomontage, photomontage, flash, palimpsest, psychogeography, diachronic photography, rephotography, archaeophotography, urban exploration

A few words from the "Archaeologist".

Cassidy Curtis
June 2005

Graffiti is the chameleon skin of the urban landscape. Equal parts public art and vandalism, virtuosity and subversion, it is among the most ephemeral forms of human expression. Graffiti walls are repainted frequently, as different writers compete and collaborate on the public canvas. A given piece may last years, weeks, or mere hours. For graffiti writers, this is expected and in fact fundamental to their process, which they perceive as an ongoing dialogue. However, most city dwellers experience this constant change only at a subconscious level.

Graffiti Archaeology (grafarc.org) captures this process of constant change and makes it visible. Grafarc.org is an interactive, timelapse collage of photographs of certain walls, taken over a span of months or years. The photos are precisely superimposed, so that by moving through the layers, you experience a compressed version of time passing, as old tags are submerged beneath new ones. You can see how one writer's style changes over the years, or explore the dialogue between writers as they paint over each other's work. The project also functions as a living archive, since most of the pieces on the site no longer exist in the real world.

Grafarc.org mirrors the actual public space of city walls in the virtual public space of the internet. The site design is intended to encourage curiosity and exploration; to facilitate comparisons over time and space; and to reveal, rather than hide, the assembly process. Each photocollage is assembled by hand and corrected for skewed perspectives and lighting so as to faithfully recreate the appearance of the flat wall. However, the warped photos' irregular outlines are preserved, hinting at the photographer's original point of view.

The photos themselves are gathered from diverse sources, including my own collection, other photographers, and various graffiti sites on the web. As grafarc.org expands to include more cities, the web is becoming ever more important as a resource for the project. The site has attracted the attention of both graffiti artists and photographers, and a vital online community is beginning to form around it (http://flickr.com/groups/grafarc). This community has become essential for weaving together disparate threads of visual information into a nuanced, structured historical record.

This project is an example of a new phenomenon unique to the era of digital photography and the internet: structured, networked, grass-roots assemblage. The world is being more throroughly photographed now than at any point in human history, and people are sharing these photos freely on the web. Choose a subject, and you can now see it from many different points of view, even from people who only captured it accidentally. Graffiti Archaeology shows that by assembling and juxtaposing these scattered fragments, we can gain new kinds of insight. What else can we reconstruct from so many points of view? What subtle dimensions will we discover?

What people are saying about Graffiti Archaeology

Graffiti Archaeology is one of the most ambitious, as well as impressive, web projects we've come across in quite some time. -Wooster Collective

The whole spectacle of Graffiti Archaeology has a kind of protozoan beauty about it. -Sarah Boxer, The New York Times

It's a design tour de force. -Boing Boing

The navigation tools turn what could have been a slide show into a fascinating excavation. -USA Today

Websites have been displaying pictures of graffiti art for nearly a decade. Graffiti Archaeology is the first to show the work's evolution, and its context. -Noah Shachtman, Wired News

Anyone who's looked at all those peeling layers of paint has wondered what's underneath. And they've thought, "Wouldn't it be great if there was some kind of slide show to show us this space over time?" But this is the first time it's been done in any kind of methodical way before. -Susan Farrell, Art Crimes

...embraces the principles of visual elegance and communicative clarity that have been at the core of graphic design since anonymous scribes first developed writing. -Mark Getlein, Living with Art.

Possibly one of the coolest things to come out of street art and Flash, especially for those of us who have a weird craving for archiving... These are the kinds of ghosts from the past that we are definitely interested in dredging up. -Juxtapoz Online

A neat site, but can it really be considered archaeology? -Anita Cohen-Williams, ArchaeologyOnline