A brief history of graffiti and creativity

Sometimes it makes us laugh, sometimes it makes us think, and sometimes it is downright offensive. But what can graffiti past and present tell us about human creativity? Here, Dr Richard Clay investigates…

Viking runes, Maeshowe on Orkney. (© Doug Houghton Collection/Alamy

‘Graffiti’ is widely understood to mean scratching, writing, or painting illicitly in public spaces. Recently, in a wonderful article for History Extra, Matthew Champion explored medieval graffiti in British churches. Many of the people who left those marks were making creative leaps of imagination when they represented some pretty abstract notions in ways that were often aesthetically sophisticated. But some of the graffiti was verging on being superstitious in the eyes of Roman Catholic theologians, and some might actually have been left illicitly.

The same could be said of much earlier mark-making. While it is highly unlikely that Stone Age people had notions that map neatly onto our relatively recent ideas of public and private, did they have illicit marks – did they have, in other words, ‘graffiti’? If the 30,000-year-old paintings of mammoths deep in the caves at the Grotte d’Arcy in France were, as one imagines, part of a community’s religious practices, what about the painted stencil of a child’s hand nearer to the start of the cave system? Was it left there without permission? Did the child leave similar, long-lost paintings on the rock formations outside in the valley where the community spent much of its time? If so, did the child put their creative mind to work in figuring out how to avoid censure for leaving their personal mark on the walls? If they did, were they really a million miles away from the modern street artist who works out how to avoid CCTV and passing police cars?

The Vikings who meticulously carved runes into the walls of the Neolithic tombs at Maeshowe on Orkney (pictured above) were clearly less concerned about getting caught. Some of their runic graffiti was not just creative, it displays pride in the skills displayed by its forms. I love the piece that proudly declares that, “These runes were carved by the most skilled in runes in the Western ocean”. Quite possibly the carvings were left as Viking visitors took shelter from the weather and found that they had a little time on their hands.

Many of the runes are a little more explicitly ‘laddish’ than is appropriate for publication here. Nevertheless, even their lewd humour involves a certain kind of creativity, just like other, often pensive, examples of privy scribblings over the centuries. Personally, my favourite example was captured recently in a photograph of some urinals, one of which had at some point been removed from the wall of an unloved public toilet.

Where the loo had stood, one can see only broken tiles and a bedraggled pipe. In the space left by the porcelain somebody had written “Duchamp was ‘ere”, implying that around 95 years earlier the famous modernist artist had removed the urinal so as to turn it on its side and create his modern, sculptural masterpiece, The Fountain. Other graffiti from the past points to our shared human creativity in comparable ways, but with rather more political bite.

During my years conducting art historical research into iconoclasm of the French Revolution, I occasionally came across examples of 18th-century graffiti. Many of them, like modern ‘street art’, were left at carefully selected and symbolic sites. A statue of Louis XV by Edme Bouchardon, inaugurated in 1763, was a favourite target. The Parisian authorities had to put railings around the sculpture and post guards because people kept writing on the pedestal. But the graffiti continued, and those who left it were clearly thinking creatively about the meaning of the statue, the meaning that Louis XV had to the people who used the square, and how to use the site to publicise political points.

When Louis XVI was crowned in 1775, the first statue that was targeted by graffiti writers was, unusually, Giambologna’s sculpture of the much-loved king Henri IV on the Pont Neuf. One word, ‘Resurrexit’ was written on the pedestal, alluding to the part of the Easter Vulgate when the congregation asserts out loud that Christ is resurrected. This was a wonderfully hopeful graffito that pointedly noted that good old Henry had been reborn in the form of Louis XVI.

But, a couple of weeks later, the same word appeared on Bouchardon’s statue, cuttingly suggesting that Louis XVI would sadly prove to be the resurrection of the much-maligned Louis XV. This kind of scrawling implies a grasp of Latin, of politics, history, religion, the meanings of monumental sculpture, and an understanding of how people who see the graffito might respond. It seems creative to me. But is it going too far to think that all graffiti should be seen as being creative?

Portrait of Louis XV of France (1710-74), king of France. (Photo By DEA/G DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

In my BBC Four documentary, A Brief History of Graffiti, I argue that the most aesthetically sophisticated, most thought-provoking modern graffiti is not just creative, it should be considered to be art. The work of people such as the French graffiti legend Blek le Rat, or of the better-known Banksy, certainly sell well on the art market. Indeed, two of the other French ‘street artists’ who I interviewed for the film, Lek and Sowat, have just been appointed by the Académie de France to spend a year serving as fellows of the Medici Villa in Rome, an honour previously afforded to the likes of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres [a French Neoclassical painter, b1780–1867] and Debussy [a French composer b1862–1918]. Such graffiti writers are today being widely recognised for their creativity.

Since making the film, I have found myself thinking about the long history of graffiti that is somewhat less visually striking; about the ‘I woz ‘ere’ school, and about some of the lewd scrawlings that still persist today. Perhaps one day such marks might prove interesting to historians, although they are unlikely ever to be described as being art. Still, I suspect that my mum would disapprove… So, is such stuff really indicative of creativity?

It makes me uncomfortable to write it, but I think that it is. I might not like all illicit marks, but they at least involve somebody having thought creatively about how to avoid getting caught. I take an odd comfort from that fact, even though I would prefer such creative thought to be put to more productive uses. On the other hand, at its best, despite its illegality, I cannot help but feel that the kind of graffiti that is widely recognised as ‘street art’ is a wonderfully creative visual antidote to the dominance of advertising in public spaces.

Does all graffiti tell us something about human creativity? Yes, it reminds us that creativity is that most rare of phenomena – a constant in culture.

Dr Richard Clay is a senior lecturer in the history of art at the University of Birmingham. His documentary A Brief History of Graffiti aired on BBC Four in August 2015.

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