The famous “Kilroy was here” graffito featuring a long-nosed man peering over a wall appears to be an international phenomenon. Many people are familiar with the sight of the man and the accompanying text, and “Kilroy was here” pops up in some surprising places. The origins of this graffiti trend are a bit difficult to pin down, and there are several claimants to the original “Kilroy.”
What is known about “Kilroy was here” is that it appears to have emerged among American service members in the Second World War. Numerous Americans who served in the war became familiar with the jaunty figure and caption by the end of hostilities, and this distinctive marking endured in American military culture, appearing in Korea, Vietnam, and the Iraq Wars. He also appears to have spread to other militaries, and from there to the general population.
The elements of this graffito also appear to have distinct origins, rather than being the unified invention of one mind. The illustration is British in origin, and is known as a “Chad.” Chads were used in cartoons parodying shortages, typically with the caption “Wot, no...” underneath. The “Kilroy was here” script, on the other hand, may have come from an American naval shipyard, where an inspector supposedly wrote “Kilroy was here” on the ships he worked on.
The most plausible story about the script has to do with the way in which ship workers were paid for labor during the Second World War. Rather than being paid by the hour, laborers were paid in piecework. When multiple people worked on the same area of a ship, they marked their work with chalk marks so that their work could be tallied for payment. However, unscrupulous workers would move the chalk marks to increase their pay. In response, an infuriated ship worker supposedly started adding “Kilroy was here” to make it harder to move his chalk marks. These marks often wound up in places which would have been impossible to graffiti, such as the insides of hull liners, leading people to believe that Kilroy could turn up anywhere.
Others have suggested that the term came from military hospitals, supply companies, and a variety of other locations. Whatever the origin of the script, at some point it was connected with Chad, and it became a familiar sight. Some nations have their own variation. The Australians, for example, write “Foo was here” under the illustration, spawning a variety of entirely new legends.