Graffiti and the marks of culture

Graffiti and the marks of culture

22 May 2009

If today’s graffiti is vandalism, why are older markings so compelling?

Dr Catherine Padmore


First published in The Big Issue, 19 May 2009, Vol 329

I was in England a while ago, researching my next novel, and what struck me most was not the museums, palaces or great houses I walked through, but rather the graffiti. I don’t mean the bright aerosol swirls beside railway tracks or school-desk proclamations of ‘Bazza luvs Cheryl’, but the older scratches left on some of England’s most significant sites.

In every ancient place it seems that people long dead have left their marks. Some inscriptions give initials, names or dates, while others are barely legible, their details smoothed and smudged by the passage of time, weather and innumerable fingers that have touched them.

In Hampton Court, the palace King Henry VIII acquired from Cardinal Wolsey in 1529, graffiti adorns walls and windowsills. Someone has carved the outline of a hand into a stone sill, which gives me a shiver as I lay my own upon it and realise the two fit perfectly. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum holds the 16th-century, four-poster Great Bed of Ware, the colossal scale of which attracted travellers to the inns that housed it. The oak bed is ornately carved, and scratched into these carvings are the names and initials of those who slept in it, along with shiny red wax from personal seals. Similarly inscribed are the pews within the Church of St Mary the Virgin, in Oxford. Here, Ed Barrar scratched his name, while up in the dome I discovered ‘WF 1762’ and ‘Robert Beckley 1676’. On the gate of tiny Wytham Church, Oxfordshire is a single capital ‘A’ with no other markings beside it.

Seeing these, I am reminded of inscriptions from other travels: stonemasons’ marks inside the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral; the Dudley family carvings in the Tower of London; the 3000-year-old chalk curves that comprise the White Horse of Uffington (in Oxfordshire); and, further afield, the ribald graffiti of Pompeii and the frenzy of names around the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur dome in Paris. The marks also turn my mind closer to home – to the hand stencils of Indigenous Australians, made by blowing pigment onto and around hands to leave a silhouette behind.

I can’t help but wonder about the authors of all these enigmatic marks. Who were ‘WF’ and ‘A’ and Robert Beckley? When did Ed Barrar live? Was he afraid the vicar might hear him scratching away at the pew? How old were these authors when they left their marks? What were their secret hopes and public humiliations? What made them laugh? The inscriptions don’t answer these questions, but they connect me to the people who walked in places before me.

It strikes me now that the separation I’ve made, between older practices and today’s graffiti, is false. While one is treated as important historical information and the other condemned as vandalism, both reflect a very human desire to leave something of ourselves in the landscape; something that will remain behind us. Contemporary graffiti doesn’t yet have the poignancy of the older marks because no time has passed, because the creators still live. But the urge behind them is the same.
I walk through these inscribed sites and my fingers stroke the graffiti of the past, as future fingers may trace our own marks. What will people glean about us from the scratches we leave behind?




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