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Monday, 10 January 2011

Is graffiti ever acceptable?

Of course not, it’s illegal. But from the Rosetta Stone to Banksie, it’s been going on a long time. So can graffiti ever acquire a social value?

London’s two famous Nelson statues had contrasting experiences in graffiti and vandalism lately. Our first Nelson, who has been a statue for nearly 200 years, Admiral Horatio Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar Square, stands on his 56 metre column and survived the Battles of Copenhagen, the Nile and the aerosol graffiti of the recent protests (although the plinth had “Revolution” emblazoned on it). The Christmas tree beside Nelson’s Column fared worse. The annual gift to the UK from the city of Oslo given since 1947 as a token of their gratitude for help in the war, war was lit ablaze by the vandals.

London’s other much loved Nelson statue, Nelson Mandela, who stands in Parliament Square got a tough time - graffiti and a rag tied round his neck (quite what the message was here is lost on me). Beside his neighbour, the statue of Churchill, the ground was marked with the words “Churchill, common gangster, traitor, killer.” Worse than that a man swung on a union flag draped to the Cenotaph, Whitehall’s Portland stone memorial to the war dead which just a few weeks ago saw dignitaries paying wreaths of poppies in remembrance of their sacrifice. Such lack of respect for people who died in the wars is high contemptible, and paradoxical in that our war dead died to save our very rights of expression that they the anarchists, quite distinct from the majority of the decent protesters, now abuse.

Despite the vandalism, the most iconic image of the recent student demo will surely always be a positive one - of school girls linking hands to save a police van from being battered by vandals, surely the most iconic London photo in ages.

Does graffiti ever have a place in society either in art, or a form of public expression?

Perhaps the most telling historical graffiti is in Pompeii the Roman city consumed by volcanic ash in 79AD, which preserved wall writings on a multitude of subjects. These range from the mundane “On April 19th, I made bread.” (Quiet why one would need to write that on a wall, I don’t know), to the factual, “Antiochus hung out here with his girlfriend Cithera,” which I suppose is an ancient version of “we woz ere”. There are rude ones such as “Epaphra, you are bald!” and “Phileros is a eunuch!” to the downright cruel “Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they ever have before!”
But then there are graffiti that give helpful household hints such as, “Let water wash your feet clean and a slave wipe them dry,” and ofcourse to the romantic, “If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girl friend.” Unsurprisingly much of the Pompeii wall-chat is of an unsavoury nature, the great sentiments of human kind from Pompeii to the 21st century pub urinal have never changed and ancient graffiti is the common trig-point proof. Today, the Pompeii graffiti transmits messages across millennia about how people lived in 79AD with more lucidity and perceptive detail than any monument, tome or edict ever could. It’s a vox populi of the common person, a primitive community billboard for the masses unlike so much of written history where the words are given over to the victor or the intelligentsia. The tiny details of Chie’s haemorrhoids, the bitchiness of whoever wrote that, the intrigue, the debauchery, romance, boasting, show our commonality and oneness between nations and across time in full measure.

The Rosetta Stone and Graffiti

So given the passing of the sands of time through the hour glass, does a piece of graffiti acquire respectability? Does it at some juncture come of age and receive the badge of societal endorsement? Does time turn something worthless and crude in to a priceless historical artefact? Perhaps.

Take the Rosetta stone, the British Museum’s most important artefact which 200 years ago was used to help decipher hieroglyphics. It has three obvious scripts, Demotic, Hieroglyphics and Greek; but look closer and on its rugged edge and you might notice a fourth script: English. It’s a tad faint but can be still read as “Captured by the British Army 1805”, which purists at the time could have argued is a form of graffiti, defacing an ancient artefact. But today joining the dots backwards, it gives the stone an extra richness, another, more modern story for it to tell, about how the British fought Napoleon’s armies over 200 years ago to capture it in Egypt.
It’s not just old graffiti - modern graffiti too can be much coveted and loved at large. Take Banksy, the Bristol graffiti artist whose street art often of a political and thought-provocative nature is highly regarded and although books have been written about him and some of his stencilled wall art can sell for tens of thousands of pounds, is still essentially graffiti despite for despite its richness of thought, is held to be so due to its illegality.

(London City Steps in no way advocates graffiti but has a strong appreciation of Banksy and Pompeii. )