When I walk through urban areas, I like to check out the local graffiti. Sadly Hereford’s isn’t generally anything to be admired. However, I was struck by the lovely calligraphic hand of the latest scribblings in the underpass.
I stopped to read it and was delighted to see Star Trek’s Mr Spock, as portrayed by the late and great Leonard Nimoy, being quoted. The silver writing at either end of the underpass reads, “live long and prosper”. Next to this in black it reads at the one end, “Look at life through the windscreen, not the rear view mirror” and at the other end, “I am the sea, the wind, the birds and the bees. I am you, you are me, we are the dirt, the flowers and the trees”. The overhanging bramble is a nice serendipitous touch.
This habit of scribbling on things seems so ubiquitous. It happens all over the world and throughout history. The word comes from the Italian graffiato, meaning scratched, and refers to drawing or writing illicitly in a public place. The earliest example is to be found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Spray painting using hands as stencils found on cave walls has been dated to 39,000 years ago; 2,000 years older than European cave art. Technically this probably isn’t graffiti as it is doubtful there were any laws against such things at the time. Murals such as these are created with permission to advertise shops or raise awareness of events such as the WWI commemorations.
Graffiti scratched onto stones in Syria and Jordan between the 1st and 4th centuries AD are the only examples of the now defunct Safaitic language. The catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius preserved graffiti at Pompeii, these included political slogans, messages of love and curses.
Graffiti in the Reichstag, made by Soviet Red Army soldiers when they captured Berlin at the end of WWII, is preserved by the Germans. During the 20th century, aerosol cans of paint were invented. These were most famously and effectively used on New York subway trains. In the 1980’s stencil graffiti became popular. The latest innovation is environmentally friendly graffiti using moss. Some graffiti “artists” go to great lengths, or in this case heights, to display their personal “tags”
There is fierce debate as to whether graffiti is art, an expression of freedom of speech or merely vandalism. In the UK the Antisocial Behaviour Act of 2003 came into force; the Prime Minister, Tony Blair declared “Graffiti is not art, it’s crime.” This Act can be used against the owner of any property that is “defaced” which might explain why so many priceless Banksy’s were scrubbed into oblivion.Here is an example of a Banksy – a rat taking a photograph. I don’t know why that appeals to me!
So, is graffiti merely vandals creating an untidy mess; is it an important historical source of social commentary; or is it artistic expression? Perhaps it depends on the graffiti. Whatever it is, it is clear that it has always been important to leave ones “mark”. Perhaps this blog is just one egotistical piece of virtual vandalism in the digital world?