Text in Art 8. – Graffiti Part 2 – “Kilroy Was Here”

 

Although much of early graffiti might not be considered ‘art’ as such, it certainly falls under the genre of popular art – the art of the people and the streets.

 

Kilroy Was Here was a popular World War 2 graffito, largely forgotten today. It originally appeared in Britain where it was known as “Mr.Chad” and was accompanied by the words, “Wot, no sugar” or “Wot No Bread” etc. to comment on food rationing and shortages during WW2.  Mr.Chad was carried abroad by British servicemen and at some point during the War he and Kilroy joined forces. “Kilroy was here” emerged in America during  WW2, first appearing in military dockyards and on warships in late 1939.

“The mischievous face and the phrase became a national joke,” according to author Charles Panati. During the Forties, Kilroy was everywhere. Panati comments, “The outrageousness of the graffito was not so much what it said, but where it turned up.” He mentions appearances on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Marco Polo Bridge in China, huts in Polynesia, and a girder on the George Washington Bridge in New York. Legend has it that pregnant women were discovered by hospital staff to have “Kilroy was here” written across their stomachs. Panati says, “The most daring appearance occurred during the meeting of the Big Three in Potsdam, Germany, in July 1945. Truman, Attlee, and Stalin had exclusive use of an opulent marble bathroom, off-limits to everyone else. On the second day of the summit, an excited Stalin emerged from the bathroom sputtering, ‘Who the hell is Kilroy?'”

Graffiti itself is an ancient practice and has been found in the ruins of Pompeii, on the walls of ancient Jerusalem and in ancient Egypt. Kilroy follows a long tradition, but has become more famous than any of these archeological discoveries. The best-known story of the origin of Kilroy connects him with James J Kilroy, of Halifax, Massachusetts. The New York Times of 24 December 1946 reports: During the war he was employed at the Bethlehem Steel Company’s Quincy shipyard, inspecting tanks, double bottoms and other parts of warships under construction. To satisfy superiors that he was performing his duties, Mr. Kilroy scribbled in yellow crayon ‘Kilroy was here’ on inspected work. Soon the phrase began to appear in various unrelated places, and Mr. Kilroy believes the 14,000 shipyard workers who entered the armed services were responsible for its subsequent worldwide use.

'Kilroy' on the WW2 Memorial in Washington. DC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another story would have us believe that Kilroy worked as an inspector in a Detroit bomb factory where, after checking a bomb he would write on its side in white chalk “KILROY WAS HERE”.  These bombs were distributed throughout war-torn Europe and “Kilroy” became a celebrity.  As the allied forces took back towns from the Germans, soldiers would write on walls still standing: KILROY WAS HERE.  After the war, the name “KILROY” became synonymous with Graffiti.

A soldier in Italy (1943–1944)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because of its worldwide use by the armed forces “Kilroy Was Here” became part of popular culture and lasted for decades after WW2. 

'Kilroy' on the Berlin Wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A popular rhyming joke, sometimes found alongside the Kilroy graffito:

“Clap my hands and jump for joy;
I was here before Kilroy.”

“Sorry to spoil your little joke;
I was here, but my pencil broke.”
— Kilroy

 

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2 thoughts on “Text in Art 8. – Graffiti Part 2 – “Kilroy Was Here”

  1. Seriously awesome read. I enjoyed the refresher on Kilroy as I hadn’t read about him in years and never anything on his history.

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