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Graffiti: Graffiti as modern archeology

Graffiti as modern archeology
Graffiti is the chameleon skin of the urban landscape. Equal parts public art and vandalism, virtuosity and subversion, it is among the most ephemeral forms of human expression. Graffiti walls are repainted frequently, as different writers compete and collaborate on the public canvas. A given piece may last years, weeks, or mere hours. For graffiti writers, this is expected and in fact fundamental to their process, which they perceive as an ongoing dialogue. However, most city dwellers experience this constant change only at a subconscious level.

looking at graffiti covered walls you experience a compressed version of time passing, as old tags are submerged beneath new ones. You can see how one writer's style changes over the years, or explore the dialogue between writers as they paint over each other's work.

The world is being more throroughly photographed now than at any point in human history, and people are sharing these photos freely on the web. Choose a subject, and you can now see it from many different points of view, even from people who only captured it accidentally. Graffiti Archaeology shows that by assembling and juxtaposing these scattered fragments, we can gain new kinds of insight. What else can we reconstruct from so many points of view? What subtle dimensions will we discover?

Graffiti, by its very nature, is inevitably temporary type. Whether due to chemical cleansing agents deployed by local councils and property owners, or simply the effect of the wind and rain over time, at some point, it will, sooner or later, disappear.

The word graffiti means ‘little scratchings' and it comes from the Italian graffiare, which means to scratch and for thousands of years ancient cultures have engaged in this form of written expression. (Reisner 1971; Abel & Buckley 1977). When studied, the older examples of graffiti have often been used to provide insights into society - Pompeii being an obvious example (Abel & Buckley 1977:4). There is something about graffiti in this context that is somehow acceptable - visitors to Pompeii don't complain that the graffiti is destroying the landscape they simply view it as part of the history of the place. In the case of the Berlin wall, graffiti has actually been ascribed value, with the pieces of the wall available for purchase that have graffiti on them fetching higher prices than those that don't (Cavan 1995:4).

However, the graffiti from the Berlin wall is in the minority in its perceived value. Today, most graffiti is seen as a blight on our urban environment. Councils engage in ongoing, and often, unsuccessful battles to control the spread, residents write to local newspapers aligning the graffiti with, and perhaps blaming it for, other signs of urban deprivation such as violence and drug-taking.

Graffiti, exclusion and crime

The language used to describe modern day graffiti is more often than not couched in terms of ‘garbage, pollution, obscenity, and epidemic,' as ‘a disease, a blight, a form of violence, dangerous, and a product of the mad, the ghetto and the barbarian.' (Cresswell 1996:37) Exclusionary discourse of this type always comes back to the notion of dirt as a signifier of imperfection and inferiority. The graffiti writers are seen as outsiders linked by dirt that is not an accepted part of dominant society (Sibley 1981).

Graffiti has been viewed as an increasing problem for many cities in industrialised nations during the past 30 years. Graffiti is typically perceived as vandalism; a public nuisance to be dealt with by prohibitive measures and society has become concerned with attaching a criminal label to it, as it does with many activities that involve so called outsiders. The Home Office has suggested that graffiti may be a forerunner to other more serious crimes. They suggest that...

‘The motivation underlying vandalism by adolescent youths may also fuel other forms of delinquent behaviour, especially theft...' (Coffield 1991 in Crow 2003:112)

A British crime survey of 1998 found a co-relation between the physical disorder (graffiti, vandalism and litter) and the level of burglary, vehicle theft and violence in an area (Collins & Cattermole 2004:5).

The ‘broken window theory' developed by Wilson and Kelling outlines the causal relationship between disorder, fear and crime-once a window is broken in a building, and left unrepaired, it not only leads to the breaking of other windows, but to the community it is also a sign that no-one cares about the area. (Doran & Lees, 2003:1) The perception of a rise in disorder leads directly to changes in people's behaviour as they start to avoid certain places and it instills a fear that the area is unsafe and undesirable (Collins & Cattermole 2004:16).

It is easy to jump on this bandwagon, particularly if it is in our own back yard, but are we missing something here? Could graffiti speak to us in such a way as to tell us more than the fact that ‘Jonathan Cutteret wets his pants' or ‘Nobody loves Gloria Sqires because she is snotty'?

Urban space and everyday life

Urban spaces are in a continual state of flux; permanence is impossible. The inhabitants, their lives and their territorial markings are temporary. The city is being continually rewritten-like a palimpsest-layer upon layer, never quite wiping the slate clean.

The ‘messages' embedded in the landscape can be read as signs about values, beliefs and practices and geographers have begun to see the potential in reading the landscape and refer to its biography (Jackson, 1989:173). Michel de Certeau drew many analogies between the city, its inhabitants and their movements and the practice of writing and speaking. He saw the inhabitants of the city as ‘writing an urban text' as they move through it (de Certeau, 1984:97).

Although the graffiti authors are writing a text in a literal sense, there is more here to read than just their words. They are writing as part of their everyday lives, and as French sociologist Henri Lefebvre has stated, there is a power hidden within the banalities of everyday life. He developed the theory that space is not a neutral and passive geometry, that it is produced and reproduced, and thus represents the site of struggle (Bennett & Watson 2002:x). Graffiti in 1970s New York made its appearance as the city began to suffer ‘a rapid and highly visible decline of its physical fabric' (Cresswell 1996:31), perhaps a clear example of the city as the site of struggle.

The Situationists were profoundly influenced by Lefbvre's writings and they were determined to penetrate the outward, spectacular, commercialized signs of mass culture and explore its interior by examining everyday patterns of life, in particular people's use of buildings and urban space. By using the methodology of the Situationists and charting ‘signs' that are usually unseen, informal or even illicit-in this case graffiti-rather than the ubiquitous golden arches or neon coca cola signs, one can perhaps begin to read a text of a less homogenous, global nature. One that is perhaps more local in its outlook on occasion, but one that is nonetheless still capable of delivering insights that reach further than its literal and physical city boundaries.

Geography has developed an alternative to its nomothetic approach that simply predicts patterns in space. The ideographic approach describes the specifics of places, the uniqueness of place, its ‘genius loci' defined as a unique and unchanging spirit of place. An ‘authentic' sense of place discovered through a direct and genuine experience of the entire complex identity of place - going beyond the ephemerality of the constantly changing modern world. (Crang, 1998:101). The approach here therefore is that of the anthropologist or ethnographer, gathering research of an empirical nature. In search of meaning, not laws and discovering this by ‘stepping into the flow of events.' (Jackson, 1989:172)

As the area changes from residential to industrial it is apparent that the density of graffiti thins out and the type of graffiti changes. Within the industrial area there is a predominance of ‘tags'. There could be two reasons for this; firstly one of the usual motivations for this type of graffiti is ‘getting up' in an area that is dangerous or difficult, so industrial areas that are seen as controlled or official may present the right type of challenge; secondly the industrial area is less populated by the author's peers, so direct, personal references are less likely to be read by the actual subject.

Graffiti and communication

Graffiti has been described as representing part of a ‘twilight zone of communication' and the content of this communication therefore deserved analysis. Wall inscriptions are said to reveal ‘developments, trends and attitudes in man's (sic) history...little insights, little peepholes into the minds of individuals who are spokesmen not only for themselves, but for others like them. (Reisner, 1971:1) During transcription changes in language became obvious.

It was also clear that a particular ‘speech community' (Bloomfield, 1965:42) was operating using particular types of slang that are not part of our ‘official language' (Bourdieu, 1991:45). For example some acronyms were regularly used, some of which were decoded. For example, IDST stands for both ‘if destroyed still true' and ‘I demand sex tonight'.

As the content was transcribed street by street, particular authors and subjects revealed themselves, including a foot fetishist amongst others. It was also possible to categorise the graffiti, with simple name and initials being the most prevalent type, closely followed by that which referred to attraction - Nisa 4 Tom for example, then by insults, ‘I was here' and sex. Some, however, remained impossible to classify. By further defining the categories by colour it is possible to get a very quick visual picture of the make up of a road in terms of whether the authors are full of hate, or love, or obsessed with sex.

Territories and motivation

By transposing these subjects to the map, territories were revealed. Often these were very local, covering just one or two streets. Sometimes, as in the case of the foot fetishist, they traveled further afield. The majority were territories covered by author, but there was also a concentration of left wing political graffiti to the south of New Basford, bordering onto Forest Fields, an area that has a mixed population, but a substantial proportion of alternative, left wing, politically active residents.

The Home Office suggests that the motivation for graffiti is prestige and excitement.

‘...most of the vandalism seems to be committed either by young children in unsupervised play or older adolescents seeking prestige or excitement...' (Coffield 1991 in Crow 2003:114)

However, if we refer back to the notion of graffiti writers as outsiders, perhaps it isn't as simple as that. As Skelton and Valentine stated, ‘one of the clearest demarcations of power, wealth and influence in the urban landscape has always been the ability to invest ones living space with meaning-to literally occupy, define and decorate one's surroundings.' Therefore the rise of graffiti can be described as an effort on the part of marginalized and powerless young people to inscribe their living space with meaning against high odds. (Skelton & Valentine 1998:306)

Street corners and vacant places of local areas may be seen as places whereby teenagers can meet and create their own identities. These places then become imbued with cultural values and meanings, affording a sense of difference and of being special. In their attempt to reclaim these everyday public spaces, teenagers leave graffiti as a territorial marker and symbolic gesture of their distancing from the world of adults. (Matthews, Limb, Taylor 1999)

These claimed territories play an important part in the creation of a sense of identity for the subject. (Entrikin 1991:302) A sense of belonging and emotional need to identify with one's particular place is very important to humans. Gaston Bachelard defined topoanalysis as the ‘systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives', hence topophilia, a love of place and conversely, topophobia, a fear of place (Bachelard 1958:8). Graffiti is an interesting example in the context of topoanalysis as it would seem to engender both topophilia and topophobia. Those that create graffiti do so because they want to identify themselves within ‘their' space and derive a certain amount of pride from that association. However as we have seen, streets covered in graffiti can be associated with vandalism and the fear of gangs of youth in ‘hoodies', particularly at night.

Young people also have to confront fear that stems from hostility from other teenage groups who want to ‘control' local areas where they ‘hang out' (Percy-Smith, Matthews 2001), and hassle from other kids and fear of assault, attack and fights keeps teenagers to tightly defined areas, where they feel safe and free to do what they want. (Matthews, Limb, Percy-Smith 1998:196)

The smallest territory within the space-‘Insults towards Wayne'-covers just three close sites in two streets. Presumably Wayne lives nearby, so for him this must be quite disturbing, although often when presented this raises a laugh. It is strange to see dyslexia being used as an insult as it is far less visible than skin colour, size, weight or glasses for example.

Bullying also leads to changed environmental behaviour through strategies of spatial and social avoidance.

‘... Different groups use particular places, such as the neighbourhood, to play out identity struggles between self and terms of shared interests, behaviours and circumstance which often give rise to multilayered microgeographies co-existing in the same location. (Percy-Smith, Matthews 2001:52 - 53)

In Wayne's case the bullying may have been executed indirectly, but it may still have had a similar effect.

Landscapes both produce and communicate meanings that we attempt to read and understand in all their complexity and contradictions. We may instinctively want this communicative ‘vandalism' eradicated from our society, but perhaps we should think again. It is a source of rich information, entertainment and social history.
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