The world is noisy. Images scream for attention. Adverts, street signs, web sites, consumer ‘information’ lurk all around us. These are licit and public marks. But many people are tired of being told to “STOP” by The Man or, as he is known in South Africa, Meneer. In the fight to fokMeneer and reclaim public space, people modify marks and make their own.
Some such marks skirt the edges of morality. Bumper stickers slyly state “Friends help you move, real friends help you move bodies”, or carved tree bark proclaiming ‘Barry loves Dawid.’ Other marks skirt the edges of legality like inbox spam and ambush advertising. And then there is graffiti. ‘Graffiti’ comes from the Greek graphein – ‘to write’. An innocent definition, until the writing appears on the wall – your wall. Graffiti is part of a larger ‘street art’ phenomenon that includes spraypainted walls, stencilled pavements, stickered stop signs, scratched glass, magic marker on toilet doors, bubblegum blobs arranged in letters or images, and even tattoos. True graffiti is deliciously Marxist – a crime against Meneer’s property. For outsiders, the inability to ‘read’ graffiti is frustrating and resented. For insiders, graffiti is a voice crying out in an unjust world (if you think everything’s ok, you are not paying attention). But most ‘writers’ are only dimly aware of graffiti’s history. So this is rumour control and here are the facts – I give you anarchaeology of graffiti (trust me, I work for the government, I am here to help J ).
Where does graffiti come from? How old is it? Some say it came from racial frustration in 1960s Philadelphia then moved to New York, Basquiat, the world. Others say it’s as old as writing. 72 years after the alleged birth of Christ a graffito appeared in Pompeii joking “O wall, why don’t you collapse from the weight of all the scribblings on you!” There is graffiti in ancient Mayan caves, cathedrals, brothels and parliaments (really - check out Germany’s Reichstag). Vikings, Marco Polo, radicals, lovers and lunatics have all graffitoed. As old as writing? I say it is much, much older and the answer lies, as all good things do, in Africa. Africa gets remarkably little attention in graffiti circles despite being home to an original tradition of place-ma(r)king. Check out Xzibit 1 - a 77 000 year old chunk of decorated pigment from Blombos Cave in the Cape.
Xzibit 2 - 27 000 years ago, a now nameless San artist painted her Spirit World vision onto a stone slab. For her, this was not an image, but a way to release powerful Beings from beyond the stone into this world. Millennia later, Walter Battiss showed copies of San rock art to Picasso. Picasso was dumbstruck, hesitantly asking “Tell me Battiss, am I as good as your Bushman artists?” Ja, ja, you say, this isn’t graffiti but great art(efact) made by empowered people. True, true – wees rustig – just think how people mark landscapes over time. For true Indigenous protest art we need white folks. In 1651 Southern Africa was home to related groups of San gatherers, Bantu-speaking farmers, and Khoekhoe herders. Their relations with the European colonists who arrived a year later varied greatly. Initially, locals kept colonists alive and taught them the ways of the land. Later, European lack of respect and land hunger caused war, slavery, genocide. This conflict was not just physical – it used potent symbols. One such set of symbols is found in the remote southern Free State (home of the Currie Cup). In a hidden rock shelter guerrilla San painted two Europeans in an aggressive hands-on-hips posture, with guns, horses, lions - a sophisticated imagin(in)g of the enemy and protest at their presence.
At about the same time, Venda and Sotho artists were painting huge white trains and train tracks in northern Limpopo province as a protest against the machine that trucked Europeans in and trucked locals out to work on the mines. In central South Africa Anglo-Boer War rock inscriptions tell the British to ‘bokkor off’. These diverse rock art protests share a spirit of resistance very similar to the essence of modern graffiti. They also ask what makes something ‘art’ rather than ‘graffiti’? Time? Aesthetic appeal? Meneer? How much it’s worth? Art versus graffiti seems an interesting question. But it isn’t. Both are products of human history. Both are worthy of study. We must study the ‘low’ as well as the socially acceptable, né? Graffiti is more flexible than mainstream art. It frames serious sentiments quickly and pertinently. Race and politics mix like klippies and OBS, and sometimes only graffiti can get through to people. Check out this graffito, which appeared in Cape Town just before the 1994 elections. Funny, in a hard way.
Marks in place
Excavating graffiti’s archaeology does NOT mean all graffito are cool. Respected writers like ESPO lay it down:
You suck until further notice. Don’t write on houses of worship, people’s houses in general, other writer’s names and tombstones. Writing on memorial walls is beef beyond belief. Involving civilians in your beef is grounds for dismissal. Don’t let them take your heart away from you. If it’s not fun you’re doing it wrong or for too long.
Word. All hail ESPO. But sometimes beef is good. Sue Williamson laid it down to the ‘Sexy Boys’ – a gang advocating violent rape – by writing next to their tag “It should be taken as a crime if someone doesn’t wear a condom and he makes you go to bed.” Double word. If she protested like Meneer it would have been SAMO, SAMO. Instead, she makes conversation in one place. Likewise, Falco’s large slacker piece is tagged “So much attitude, not enuff aptitude” and makes its point on the street, the real classroom. But what about mainstream uses of graff in advertising, galleries, etc? A sell-out? Maybe not. Maybe this is what graffiti does – transgresses, crosses boundaries between ‘art’ and ‘vandalism’; ‘outlaw’ and ‘corporation’. Why should it not also sometimes piss off writers? Yes, graffiti in a gallery loses impact. And commissioning toys to stencil Linux logos on pavements is a co-opt cop-out. But be savvy – graffiti may be an anti-capitalism protest, but you use paint, masks, marker pens, have websites, wear fashionable ghetto threads. Bought or stolen these are goods, money flows and Meneer smiles. In the USA graffiti removal costs $12 billion a year. Surveillance companies luuuurv writers and their prying cameras invade our private and public spaces.
Make your mark?
What does the future of graff look like? I dunno, dunno how to excavate the future . One danger in an interconnected world is that writers mindlessly copy foreign styles without regard for local conditions, histories, places and people. Southern Africa has a big, beautiful and sometimes brutal tradition of place-making. Many writers know this and use it. But be-aware - Meneer is getting grumpy, making databases of tags to use as evidence (a picture can be worth a thousand days), infiltrating chat rooms to harvest incriminating statements, and making graff a serious show crime that deflects attention from true crime like corporate excess, bad city planning, increased poverty. Who’s the vandal – a writer putting up a beautiful piece or Meneer removing the piece? Beautiful or ugly, graffiti helps society realise all is not fukken well with the world. There is a battle for control over public space raging all around us. Maybe it is time to get up, get out and get over. Get it?
David Coulson and Alec Campbell. 2001. African rock art: paintings and engravings on stone. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Ernst Gombrich. The story of art. London: Phaidon.
Stephen Powers (ESPO). 1999. The art of getting over: graffiti at the millennium. New York: St Martin’s Press.