Q: Is it becoming acceptable to use “graffiti” as a verb? I recently encountered a sign that read “Do Not Litter / Do Not Loiter / Do Not Graffiti.”
A: Yes, “graffiti” is a verb. Five of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult (Cambridge, Collins, Lexico, Merriam-Webster, and Merriam-Webster Unabridged) recognize “graffiti” as both a verb and a noun.
Merriam-Webster, for example, defines the noun as “usually unauthorized writing or drawing on a public surface” and the verb as “to draw graffiti on” or “to deface with graffiti.”
The verb showed up in print a few decades ago, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.
The OED’s definition of the verb is “to cover (a surface) with graffiti, apply graffiti to; also, to write as graffiti.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from a newspaper in southeastern England: “The material has a wood bark finish which is very difficult to graffiti” (South Oxfordshire Chronicle, Nov. 20, 1987).
As for the noun, English borrowed it in the 19th century from Italian, where graffiti is the plural of graffito (a little scratch). In English, “graffiti,” plural of “graffito,” originally referred to drawing or writing that was scratched on ancient walls or other surfaces.
The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, uses the plural and refers to marks at the site of a Neolithic tomb on Mainland, the main island in Scotland’s Orkney archipelago:
“The slight scratching of many of the Maeshowe Runes, and the consequent irregularity and want of precision in the forms, and also, no doubt, in the orthography and grammar, of what, it must be remembered, are mere graffiti” (Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, 1863, by Daniel Wilson).
In the mid-20th century, according to the OED, “graffiti” first appeared in print as a singular mass noun—like “writing,” “art,” or “vandalism”—for “words or images marked (illegally) in a public place, esp. using aerosol paint.”
The dictionary’s first example is from the July 27, 1961, issue of The New York Times: “The slogans were scratched out … in the never-ending battle between those who write and those who remove graffiti.”
Here’s an early example we’ve found that’s more obviously singular: “the graffiti is passable—‘Norman Norell Is A Yenta’ ” (New York magazine, Sept. 1, 1969).
Most of the standard dictionaries we use say the noun “graffiti” can now be either singular or plural, but it’s usually a singular mass noun. The dictionaries say the singular “graffito” is usually limited to archeological or other technical writing.
The OED and many standard dictionaries also include “graffitied” as an adjective meaning covered with graffiti, and “graffitist” as a noun for someone who writes or draws graffiti. The first Oxford citation for the adjective, which we’ve expanded, refers to a school in Buffalo, NY:
“I came across a graffitied bulletin board in a guidance office that was a combination of ribbing and signifying. Under the graffiti ‘Hoes of Buffalo sign here’ were five names.” (From Ribbin’, Jivin’, and Playin’ the Dozens: The Unrecognized Dilemma of Inner City Schools, 1974, by Herbert L. Foster.)
The earliest OED example for “graffitist” is from the New Statesman (Dec. 2, 1966): “His gift is to bring out the scholiast—or the graffitist—in the reader.” A scholiast was an early commentator who made marginal annotations in ancient literature.
The next example refers to an artist inspired by graffiti: “For Pop Master and one-time graffitist Claes Oldenburg, the blossoming graffiti are like a dream come true” (New York magazine, March 26, 1973).
We’ll end with an Oxford example of “graffiti” used as a singular mass noun in Ed McBain’s 1977 mystery Long Time No See: “The graffiti was oversprayed—Spider 19 giving way to Dagger 21, in turn giving way to Salazar IV, so that nobody’s name meant a rat’s ass any more.”