Saturday, 21 March 2015

History of Graffiti: Kilroy Was Here

Do you remember Kilroy? It is the first graffiti I remember.   Long ago in Morgantown, West Virginia, while walking with my mother, I saw Kilroy for the first time.  

Kilroy is mentioned in the Dictionary of American Slang,  Langensheidt © 1975, as a nonentity that originated with US troops in WW1.  I've not seen Kilroy mentioned in other print dictionaries nor online versions.  Oxford holds no entry, Larousse, none, the Winston Dictionary neither.  It's typical to ignore graffiti but The World is Our Canvas is a graffers moto and Kilroy Was Here proves it.  Kilroy is history.

There are several websites dedicated to the urban legend, Kilroy was here-- how it may have originated. That website hosts personal testimonies. Much evidence suggests Kilroy originated with US troops but one of the legends talks of ancient Irish Lore : “Kilroy, son of here”.  

Here is the poem by Peter Viereck:

Also Ulysses once--that other war
(Is it because we find his scrawl
Today on every privy door
That we forget his ancient role?)
Also was there--he did it for the wages--
When a Cathay-drunk Genoese set sail.
Whenever "longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,"
Kilroy is there;
he tells the Miller's Tale.
At times he seems a paranoiac king
Who stamps his crest on walls and says, "My own!"
But in the end he fades like a lost tune,
Tossed here and there, whom all the breezes sing.
"Kilroy was here"; these words sound wanly gay,
Haughty yet tired with long marching.
He is Orestes--guilty of what crime?--
For whom the Furies still are searching;
When they arrive they find their prey
(leaving his name to mock them) went away.
Sometimes he does not flee from them in time:
"Kilroy was--"
(with his blood a dying man
Wrote half the phrase out in Bataan.)
Kilroy, beware. "HOME" is the final trap
That lurks for you in many a wily shape:
In pipe-and-slippers plus a Loyal Hound
Or fooling around, just fooling around.
Kind to the old (their warm Penelope)
But fierce to boys,
thus "home" becomes the sea,
Horribly disguised, where you were always drowned,--
(How could suburban Crete condone
The yarns you would have V-mailed from the sun?)--
And folksy fishes sip Icarian tea.
One stab of hopeless wings imprinted your
Exultant Kilroy-signature
Upon sheer sky for all the world to stare:
"I was there! I was there! I was there!"
God is like Kilroy; He, too, sees it all;
That's how He knows of every sparrow's fall;
That's why we prayed each time the tightropes cracked
On which our loveliest clowns contrived their act
The G. I. Faustus who was everywhere
Strolled home again, "What was it like outside?"
Asked Can't, with his good neighbors Ought and But
And pale Perhaps and grave-eyed Better Not;
For "Kilroy" means: the world is very wide.
He was there, he was there, he was there!
And in the suburbs Can't sat down and cried.

The English version of the Wikipedia article Kilroy was here states that the graffito's origins are debatable.  It mentions the names Kilroy has throughout the world:  Chad, Some, Clem, Moita, Foo was here, Sapo.

The French version of the Wikipedia article Kilroy was Here suggest only that the graffito originated with the US troops in Normandy. There is a detailed list of uses in popular culture.  The French version states that during the conference of Potsdam, Stalin asked his assistant “Who is Kilroy?”  Noteworthy uses in popular culture for 'Kilroy Was Here' are: Isaac Asimov’s “The Message” (1955), Elia Kazan’s film A Street Car Named Desire (1951), and in the Manga Prophecy de Tetsuya Tsutsui.  See the article for a full list.

The Italian version of the Wikipedia article Kilroy Was Here also states that the origins are debatable.  The etymologyst David Wilton published an article stating that Chad, the English version and Kilroy the U.S. version fused during the war.  It doesn’t say which war.  The Italian version also reports that Stalin asked the famous question and that Hitler thought Kilroy was an American super-spy.  The Italian links to other mentions in popular culture that the French article doesn’t state.

The Straight Dope article about Kilroy is worth reading.  It mentions that the New York Times published an article about Kilroy in 1946. 

All of the articles say that the significance of the graffito, Kilroy, is not the illustration itself but its ubiquitous appearances. 
Edited 5 April, 2015


  1. I used to draw Kilroy all the time in school. Interesting post!

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    2. I mean, I need to correct lots of mistakes in this post. Argh!

  2. I had a 'how to draw comics' book when I was a kid and Kilroy was in that - only I didn't know he was called Kilroy, or that he was famous!

    Stopping by from QOTKU blog :)

    1. Hi AJ, Thank you for your comment. I loved reading your post on ego. It's funny that Kilroy was in an instructional manuel.

  3. Hi Angie, stopping by from Janet's blog. I had read about the U.S. troop origination but not heard the rest of the stories. It's good to read it from other points of view too. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Hi Lisa, thand you for stopping by. Janet is so generous, it blows my mind. Kilroy is a great example of 'urban legend'.

  4. I'd heard of Kilroy, but not of all those differing origins. Interesting. Thanks for sharing this.

    -- Barb, visiting from Janet's blog

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  6. I read all my typos and can't help but laugh. It's either that or jump off the balcony. Any suggestions will be warmly welcomed

    Cripes, I wrote thand with a "d" to Lisa. HAHAHA!

  7. I commented on your postcards from Paris blog but found you here, too. Just wanted to say hi again!

  8. Hi Angie, I'm also stopping by from Janet's blog. I didn't know much about Kilroy: thank you for enlightening me.

    PS I love artists. :-)

  9. Angie, what a pleasure it has been to come over here and click on all your links and see your art. Such talent you have. The tigre est magnifique! (I know enough French to know I mangle it, so apologies for that.) I confess that I'm envious of your years living and creating art in Italy and France. Well, except for the "creating art" part of it--- my creative abilities are non-existent. But how wonderful it would be to spend time writing in the places you've been. *sigh*

    [I said it on my blog and I'll say it here too: when a person knows several languages, as you must, any typos can simply be dismissed as glitches in translation.]

    1. Hi KD,
      Thanks for your kind words and for giving me the excuse to use typos. cringe. I too mangle French,

  10. Oh! Brilliant post! I've always loved Kilroy. Trying to remember when I first saw him and can't. Glad you've collated all the info in one post!

  11. I've been to DC a few times, but honestly, the most vivid memory I have was of spotting a Kilroy Was Here. Might have that to blame for my interest in street art. :)

  12. Interesting post, Angie. This brings back memories. An old boyfriend from Normandy (there may be that French connection there) use to to draw Kilroy on the back of his envelopes when he would write to me. It made me laugh each time because he was a gorgeous looking guy, nothing like Kilroy. Anyway, thanks for stopping by my blog and I'll call you soon once I'm over my jet lag.