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by Jayne Sharratt

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 1960’s 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 didn’t 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 phenomenon?

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 1930’s.”

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 hasn’t been a society which hasn’t had it’s 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. “Today’s 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 1960’s 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 writer’s 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, that’s 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? It’s a sign I was here. My hand made this mark. I’m ******* alive!”

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 Walsh’s 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 to see.

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

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