At my university there was a short cut we took known as Retreat Lane.
Overhung by trees, lined by old red stone walls and running between
the grounds of two mansions, it was a passage between the concrete of
the 1960s campus and the ancient city.
Ah good, the sea.
This phrase was inexplicably printed in huge letters on one of the
walls. In the middle of the plain of York, my University was probably
as far from the sea as it is possible to be on an island. For three
years I wanted to interrogate the writer and demand to know what his
thinking was. Probably it meant nothing, and trying to make sense of
it was as pointless as trying to make Beatles lyrics into a philosophy.
But as I neared the top of the rise in the road and saw those words,
everytime, I would feel a sensation of serenity, similar to when you
first glimpse the sea on your way to a childhood holiday. Perhaps. It
was the point at which we escaped campus, and positioned in a way that
meant you didnt notice it on your way back. Was it my imagination,
or did anyone else feel the air was distinctly salty at that moment?
Certainly graffiti here was more than vandalism, it was art, and I cannot
have been the only one to think so since it was never scrubbed away.
This is a sanitised example of graffiti in everyday life, as is the
intellectualised pub philosophy scrawled on the walls of my local. More
often modern graffiti is just a name, a mark that someone was there
at a date, a tag. It is in the back lots, the railway sidings, the derelict
inner cities. It is illegal. Modern graffiti has a bad press. In America
it is, wrongly in most cases, associated with violence and gang territory.
Here we associate it with the ills of society, a mindless vandalism,
a lack of anything else to do. The dictionary definition reinforces
this with its dismissive description;
Graffiti - writing, drawing on walls (often obscene)
Can there be any unifying philosophy behind this late twentieth century
To begin with, Graffiti has a long history, which could be stretched
to the cave paintings of prehistoric man. Brewers Dictionary of Phrase
and Fable tells us - (Ital. graffito , a scratching.) A name applied
originally to the wall scribblings found at Pompeii and other Italian
cities, the work of school boys, idlers, etc., many of them obscene
and accompanied by rough drawings. A collection of graffiti of Pompeii
was published by Bishop Wordsworth in 1837 and it provides a useful
insight into the life of the ancient Romans. Modern graffiti are found
on walls, especially in lavatories, on posters, etc. They are usually
crude and mostly erotic, but political graffiti are quite common and
were much in evidence in the 1930s.
Again there is the emphasis on the crudity of Graffiti, a tendency
to dismiss it, make it meaningless. But can any world wide phenomenon
be meaningless? There hasnt been a society which hasnt had
its form of Graffiti. In Graffito, a study of Graffiti
in Northern California, Michael Walsh comments on the similarity between
the graffiti writers of Ancient Pompeii and those of today - the marking
of their name on a wall. Todays use of the spray can, stickers,
posters, and fat tipped markers to voice rebellion, communicate love
or hate, send messages, or leave a mark saying I was here,
is only the latest evolution of the everchanging phenomenon of graffiti.
We might be led to the conclusion that the philosophy behind it is a
universal truth - humans like to make their mark. The philosophy of
graffiti is not in the words or pictures, but in a kind of rebellion
which they represent.
In the 1960s in New York, kids began to give themselves nick
names as a public street identity, which they would leave on the walls
of their neighbourhood. Taki 183, a teenager who achieved notoriety
and respect by leaving his name and street number across the city, sparked
copy cats when a reporter tracked him down and wrote an article about
him which appeared in the New York Times in 1971. In the sub-culture
that developed, the kids who could leave their names in the most inaccessible
places could become folk heroes. It is a phenomenon which has developed
its own language. A tag is the writers name or alias. A two colour
tag with fat or bubble letters is a throw up. A piece - short for masterpiece,
is a large scale multi-coloured mural of the writers tag, and a production
features characters and backgrounds as well as letters. In hip-hop
culture, graffiti is our written language, thats our hieroglyphics,
our fonts... says the Alex Aquino, the President of Ace Beats
Records in San Francisco. The culture fulfils the second definition
of philosophy, at least, providing a system of theories to live by.
Can graffiti point us to wider philosophical issues?
How many people can walk through a city and prove they were there?
Its a sign I was here. My hand made this mark. Im *******
These comments by graffiti writers are telling. It is human nature
to want to leave a mark on the world, part of the quest for eternal
life. People want to be remembered. Is it only about fame and notoriety?
The Graffiti artists in Walshs study claim it is a political act.
There is an agreement that they would stop if it were made legal. An
act of defiance, Walsh claims it is a ritual of simultaneous destruction
and creation which goes back to the Ancient cult of Dionysus and Apollo.
Graffiti artists describe themselves as rebelling against the establishment,
the government, law and order, and the capitalist art world. They say
a wall or piece of land should not be privately owned, any more than
art should. Often they are proud that their art is out there for everyone
The culture of Graffiti does provide a philosophy to live by for those
who choose it. Within the street culture, writers talk about how graffiti
saved their lives. The phenomenon of graffiti can also provide
us with important clues to the human condition, quite apart from what
the words actually say. Like most philosophies it will contradict itself.
It is a protest against the capitalist system of art galleries. Nobody
can own their art, it is there for all to see. At the same time, the
artists see themselves as modern day calligraphers, transforming the
alphabet, creating it in a different form.
They want us to see but not understand. The culture of Graffiti excludes
as the writer feels excluded. The philosophy of graffiti may not provide
any answers to the big questions, but it is empowering to those who
live by it. It provides a structure and purpose, and helps people get
sense from life, and ultimately, is this not the purpose of philosophy?
©2000 Jayne Sharratt