Session 12 – TAGging through time: new perspectives on graffiti and mark-making, from ancient to modern times.

Timetable: Saturday morning 0930-1240 in the Theresa Singleton Zoom Room

Format: Standard

Organisers: Emma Bryning, Charlie Kendall


Tagging, getting-up, throwing-up, bombing, scribbling, scratching, drawing, writing, spraying, vandalising … As an act of mark-making, graffiti can be described using a variety of terms, reflecting both its interdisciplinary nature as well as its historic and subcultural roots. Although commonly perceived as a modern phenomenon, graffiti can be viewed as a continuation of mark-making practices from pre-history and ancient history through to the present day. Such mark-making practices have been repeatedly described as a declaration of ‘being’ and confirmation of existence in a particular time and space, a topic pertinent to this year’s theme of ‘life’.

The study of graffiti intersects with a wide variety of disciplines and can be understood as a form of visual communication, an expressive art form, evidence of anti-social behaviour, a way of understanding private and social spaces, a global movement, and as an historic record. How this type of mark-making is understood often depends on one’s own positioning, influencing language choices and the treatment of the marks themselves. Over the last few decades, there has been an increased interest in the study of historic graffiti, while the discourse into contemporary mark-making continues to grow. Rarely, however, are the two discussed together. This session hopes to bring together speakers from a variety of disciplines and different perspectives who interact with and study mark-making in order to gain a more interdisciplinary understanding of mark-making practices over time and how we might understand graffiti today.


0930 – Session introduction

0940 – ‘Most Curious Memorials’: Graffiti and Eighteenth-Century Antiquarianism at the Tower of London

Dr Madeleine Pelling, University of Edinburgh, University of York

On 17 November 1796, the Rev John Brand, secretary to the Society of Antiquaries, delivered a report on a remarkable discovery made some five years previously at the Tower of London, the significance of which were still being unravelled. Standing before the assembled members at Somerset House, he described in an account later published in the society’s journal Archaeologia how workmen, converting part of the Beauchamp Tower into a mess for the British army officers garrisoned there, had uncovered extensive historical graffiti. Peeling back layers of wood panelling and plaster, the workmen had revealed, as Brand put it, ‘the undoubted autographs […] of the several illustrious and unfortunate tenants of this once dreary mansion.’ The society, already versed in the study of ancient Roman and medieval inscription in Britain, quickly commissioned several engravings of the mainly Tudor and Elizabethan graffiti to accompany Brand’s essay in Archaeologia, translating them into the formal language of eighteenth-century antiquarianism.But what did it mean for an establishment institution like the Society of Antiquaries, gathered just a short distance along the Thames from the Tower (by then an increasingly popular visitor attraction), to report on the historical politics of incarceration and the role of graffiti in subverting structures of power? By turning a spotlight to this important find, Brand conducted a historiographical experiment. In his account, this paper argues, Brand sought to write a brief history of England made intimate through close analysis of the graffiti, the historical moment and embodied process of mark-making (which Brand speculates was done ‘with nails’) in and through which they were produced. Working to decode the graffiti – which ranged from crudely carved initials to more masterfully executed coats of arms, poetic inscriptions, Christian and occultist iconography – Brand was methodical in his experimental approach, making explicit and intermedial connections between the markings and other extant historical sources, including published texts and manuscripts, paintings and oral history.

0955 – A War of Words: Graffiti at Times of Conflict

Dr Sven Ouzman, University of Western Australia

Many things are called ‘graffiti’. Some are, some are not. Resistance is arguably the central element of graffiti. This resistance often operates at a low level – a protest against an alienating urban space, for example. But possibly looking at the ‘graffiti’ made during times of conflict can help test and/or contextualise this resistive element. This work uses examples from the Indigenous rock arts of southern Africa and northern Australia, to marks made by soldiers during the South African (Anglo Boer) War, 1899-1902, Palestine-Israel conflict, through interstitial spaces used by Indigenous people in occupied countries. There is also an underlying ‘war of words’ in terms the names we give marks –‘graffiti’ as opposed to ‘art’ or ‘historic inscription’– each of which has specific social, epistemological and especially legal consequences. This legalistic aspect may help us take another look at graffiti, not just as words/marks – but as other-than- human entities to whom/which we are obligated.

1010 – ‘Cancelled Owing to War’: Excavating Moments in the Richmond Castle Cell Block Graffiti

Dr Megan Leyland, English Heritage

Written on the corridor wall of the nineteenth-century cell block at Richmond Castle, the lines ‘League Cancelled owing to War’ mark the moment in 1939 when a group of soldiers’ darts game was interrupted as the Second World War loomed. Elsewhere, in one of the cells, a First World War conscientious objector captures his reasons for opposing the war stating, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’, and in another, Murray marks his visit in 1967 by stating ‘Murray was Here’. These are just a few of over two thousand three hundred graffiti which line the walls of the Richmond Castle cell block. Created over the course of around 100 years, these marks provide glimpses of the often transitory presence of the cell block’s occupants and a tangible connection to moments in the lives of their creators. Using in depth exploration of individual inscriptions and the spaces and circumstances in which they were made, this paper will consider the multiple ways the graffiti and the act of their creation can be interpreted; as products of boredom, acts of resistance or markers of presence. In unpicking the layers of graffiti it will also suggest how these surviving marks can shed new light on both the lives of their creators and the use of the cell block over time. The research presented in this paper is the result of English Heritage’s Richmond Castle Cell Block project (2016 – 2019) which, with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, worked to research, conserve and share the stories of this remarkable record.

1025 – Graffiti in a Time of Corona

Emma Bryning, University of York and English Heritage

The desire to leave one’s mark on the world around us has been around for tens of thousands of years, from prehistoric mark-making up to the present day with contemporary graffitists. The universality of mark-making as a practice means that marks within our landscapes and environments have been found across the globe and across time, yet the marks themselves are inherently reflective and reactive to a specific moment in time: mark-makers can respond to a particular moment using physical and artistic gestures on the built environment around them.

During the current Covid-19 pandemic, our understanding of the distinction between public and private spaces has further intensified, a distinction which many modern graffitists have been responding to for decades. It has been during this time of global upheaval and uncertainty that the work of graffitists has also become even more apparent in an increasingly globalised world, whilst the importance of graffiti has also been demonstrated on a more localised and community level as well. Throughout the past few years during this Covid-19 pandemic, graffiti has been used to share messages of hope and solidarity; to challenge political decision-making and socio-economic inequalities; to celebrate medical staff and key workers, and even to share conspiracy theories and spread mis-information. For many during this pandemic, graffiti is likely to have helped inform part of our visual understanding of Covid-19 so far. This paper aims to examine some of the interesting ways that people have used graffiti to publicly respond in uncertain times.

1040 – Break

1110 – Hidden rock art landscapes of North-West Wales – the discovery of a new rock art site and megalithic tomb near Llanerchymedd, Anglesey.

Arwyn Owen, Manchester Metropolitan University and Michael Woods, Manchester Metropolitan University

In the Summer of 2020 two new cup marked rock art panels were discovered at a site known as the Foel on the Isle of Anglesey, North Wales. These finds lead to an excavation which revealed the rock art panel to be part of the remains of a destroyed Neolithic tomb. This lecture explores the rock art sites of North Wales, with a focus on cup marks and their relationship with megalithic monuments of the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods and explores the possible meanings or uses of these prehistoric petroglyphs.

1125 – Scratching in the language of their own

Dr Ulla Rajala, Stockholm University

In this talk I will look at the graffiti in central Italy during the latter part of the first millennium BC and explore the similarities and differences in the epigraphic habit among different language groups. Before Latin became dominant many of the different tribes were literate in their own language and one can follow the rise and disappearance of these languages. In many of them, graffiti was scratched mainly on pottery. I will discuss the chronological and geographical extent of the scratchings and what was presented in them. I will also discuss the wall graffiti in Pompeii and compare it to the Latin graffiti in the same town. I will use graffiti as a proxy for possible local identities and their expression.

1140 – Clapton is God: Music graffiti as Ritual

Paul Graves-Brown, University of York

Sometime in 1965, 66 or 67 (no one seems quite sure), the spray painted words “Clapton is God” appeared on a wall outside Islington Tube Station. Eric Clapton later suggested it was the work of Hamish Grimes, a promoter for The Yardbirds. The phrase was rapidly reproduced across London and even spread to New York. Irrespective of Eric Clapton’s prowess as a guitarist, graffiti related to pop and rock stars is often part of a quasi-religious culture of acclaim that can be seen, for example, at Graceland, Abbey Road and a number of sites across London related to David Bowie. It is probably no exaggeration to regard these graffiti as elements of pilgrimage; tactile practices that distinguish visits to Graceland or London’s Heddon Street from mere tourism. And the graffiti themselves often hint that fans regard their idols as more than mere mortals, even if they do not suggest, as in the case of Clapton, that their object of veneration is god.

1155 – The graffiti paradox: or why Banksy can go f**k himself.

Matthew J.Champion

The word ‘graffiti’ belongs to archaeology. As simple as that. Not street artists,not taggers, not vandals – but archaeologists. And we want it back. Archaeologists invented the term ‘graffiti’ in the middle of the nineteenth century to describe the informal inscriptions they were then recording at newly discovered Roman sites such as Pompeii. When first coined the term was purely descriptive, and had no negative connotations whatsoever. In fact, the negative view of graffiti as an activity also tends to date from the same period, with a gradual shifting of perceptions. It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that graffiti began to be generally regarded as something that was destructive, anti-social, and anti-establishment. Except when it wasn’t. This is the two-fold paradox of graffiti studies. More recently, alongside the study of the modern phenomena of graffiti and street art, has been an increasing number of attempts to draw direct parallels between the modern graffiti of the city streets, and the corpus of historic graffiti inscribed into many of our ancient monuments across the globe. To work alongside modern graffiti artists to examine the similarities between the two collections of material. Contrasting modern graffiti with historical mark making. The results have been, to date, mixed. Are we, however, coming at this from the wrong angle? Should we indeed be taking the contrary view? Should we instead be treating the modern street art and graffiti as we would an archaeological assemblage? In that way might we gain insights into both perspectives, but also stop looking at what they have in common, and rather identify the potential differences? It is in those differences that the value of such collaborations lies, and by identifying those areas of divergence, can we begin to better understand the meanings and motivations of those who left their marks on the walls many centuries ago?

1210 – Discussion chaired by the session organisers

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