By Dr Alex Hale
‘The archaeologist’s job is not to discover officially (and tell) the stories of the past. Rather, the goal of archaeology is to open people’s minds and disrupt received perceptions of society, politics, places, peoples and material culture.’Doug Bailey 2017.
In 2015 an urban wall was photographed every week for 52 weeks. This act of recording aimed to capture the changing temporal nature of a city location and disrupt traditional archaeological timeframes. Graffiti sprayed on the wall came and went and appeared to lead to a destructive act of gentrification, driven in part by the ‘broken window’ theory. The unacknowledged driver of this cataclysmic event was not the graffiti but was in fact the urban waste disposal system, which left wheelie bins over flowing with rubbish adjacent to the wall. Through disrupted archaeological practice, this contribution explores creative urban spaces and hegemonic gentrification agendas. The project considers how the archaeological imagination (Gamble 2008, Shanks 2012) can be turned to unheard voices from across the graffiti world to ‘excavate’ urban change. It uses techniques such as repeat photography to unsettle traditional archaeological tropes of recording, in order to engage and consider the temporality of graffiti. By going beyond traditional archaeological methods it tests approaches that engage with unsettling material culture (modern graffiti) and sustains the need for disrupted approaches within the archaeologies of the contemporary past.
You wouldn’t necessarily place graffiti within the context of archaeology, apart from maybe the explicit Roman graffiti at Pompeii or the Nordic runes carved into Neolithic burial chambers on Orkney. But as you will see below, graffiti and street art provide suitable subjects that archaeologists can engage with. Rather than archaeology in the traditional sense being the excavation of past ruins, this paper takes its starting point from contemporary graffiti. The modern tag is the most ubiquitous form of graffiti, originating in New York in the late 1960s and spreading to other cities during the 1970s (Cooper 2008). This form of messaging, from the delineation of territories to developing hand styles and reputations, is one of the most prolific stratigraphic layers of the archaeology of the contemporary past. And it changes, not through traditional timeframes, but on daily cycles and in some spaces, hour by hour. This article considers the tagging of in an urban alleyway, Gifford Park, in Edinburgh as an archaeological site worthy of observation and documentation in order to engage with and interpret an urban message boards, within the disruptive context of contemporary archaeology.
Through current social media platforms, such as Instagram we can engage with, investigate and partake in the globalised build-up of a new stratigraphy of the Anthropocene (Edgeworth 2014). Digital space has altered our engagement with visual culture and in the case of graffiti it has expanded the available data whilst at the same time created multi-temporal images (MacDowall 2017). This dynamic layer of spray paint/information/artefact requires a different type of trowel for archaeologists to excavate. Before we explore the types of ‘trowels’ available, let us consider graffiti within the context of archaeology in the 21st century.
Archaeology in recent years has blossomed as a subject that more and more people engage with. Whether it’s watching programmes on TV, consuming social medias, immersing in VR worlds, visiting public excavations of ancient kings in car parks, or taking part in community projects, we are seeing a plethora of archaeology being undertaken in both new and traditional spheres. This is part of a broader wave of ‘democratising heritage’. The drivers and levers for this range from government cuts to heritage bodies to the transformative power of funding bodies, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, which puts enabling people at the core of its strategy. Along with the growth in our interest in the past, is a broadening of what archaeology means today, why it is practised and what is its function in the world. As a result of this a more reflective approach has been developing along with a specific subject strand that has been called ‘archaeologies of the contemporary past or contemporary archaeology’ (Buchli and Lucas 2001, Graves-Brown et al, 2013). This aspect of archaeology focusses on the archaeology of the most recent past, encompassing the 20th – 21st centuries and at the same time considers the practice of archaeology today. This area of the subject provides the space and within it, some of the potential methods and theoretical frameworks for archaeology to consider contemporary graffiti (Oliver and Neal 2010).
Is there a graffiti archaeology?
Before we consider examples of graffiti archaeology in the city, I want to introduce you to some of the concepts and approaches that already exist for engaging with graffiti that have intersections with archaeology. In 2003, Cassidy Curtis began a project called ‘Graffiti Archaeology’ (http://grafarc.org, accessed 21.5.2018). This project documented both the walls on which graffiti is painted and the graffiti itself as the material culture (artefacts). The project records time passing and the results of artistic interventions at certain moments. It focusses on the finished artworks, which comprise mainly pieces, with some throw-ups, and little attention was paid to tags. Over the course of over 12 years the Graffiti Archaeology website gathered hundreds of images from dozens of walls across the USA. This approach clearly struck a chord with people interested in graffiti, but it also chimed with contemporary approaches that aimed to apply digital technology, to document and disseminate artistic processes in the near present.
In 2013, Christian P. Acker published what can be described as the first typology of USA graffiti tags. He worked with writers from across America, to document their tags and the way in which they developed their hand styles (Acker 2013). This book forms a bench mark in documenting hand styles and as such is a seminal work in graffiti archaeology. Typological classification has been used in archaeology to define changes to styles of similar objects as far removed as obsidian blades from pre-Hispanic groups in Mesoamerica to the differences in beer bottle designs between Britain and Sweden (Shanks and Tilley 1992). Typology is the recognition that design/form/function change as a result of internal and external factors, but that those changes can be considered through the documentation of each individual form and then by comparing the forms with one another (Hill and Evans 1972).
So, these conceptual and practice-based approaches provide us with the potential to address changes in the urban environment. They illustrate methods by which change can be documented and how traditional archaeological tropes can be repurposed and applied to modern evidence, such as graffiti (Bailey 2017). So, the current project considers the creative practice of graffiti at a specific location over no time at all in traditional archaeological terms, but over a whole epoch in contemporary archaeology; the year 2015. The timescale chosen to record the wall was weekly, which led to at least 52 recording instances.
52 weeks of graffiti archaeology at Gifford Park
If we reflect for a moment on the previous projects, we can see that the images on Cassidy Curtis’s website ‘Graffiti Archaeology’, when compared, illustrate change in a range of urban environments. The hand styles of tags and the process of graffiti writing was captured in print by Christian Acker, but the temporal dimension was not a focus for his book. So, with these two quite different representations of change and development borne in mind, this project approached graffiti as a fluid medium, one that can be documented through Instagram and as a result of which disrupts our perceptions of both archaeology and temporal engagements with city walls.
Part of the thinking behind choosing a single wall aimed to highlight the issues that traditional archaeology has tended to focus on individual sites; Pompeii, Stonehenge etc. This type of focus can often miss wider, contextual issues that may be happening on a broader, landscape scale. We also wanted to explore how graffiti can be treated not as an iceberg from history, but as part of the palimpsest of the urban environment. In this respect the graffiti forms the central focus for the study, but it is also part of a complex ‘graffitiscape’ comprising networks of actors, from graffiti artists to local businesses, municipal contractors, artists, and civic and national institutions. All of whom can affect the space in which we find the graffiti, but whom we rarely if ever encounter. As we shall see this network can be pulled and pushed by the graffiti and other actors in directions that are not always predictable, but archaeology can provide methods that can document and interpret these forces and their effects.
So, we documented a graffiti wall every week for a year, using photography as the medium of recording and an Instagram account as the means of dissemination of the images. Previously a single year has been problematic to delineate in traditional archaeology because the resolution of much archaeologically-derived data precluded such refined dating. I had assumed that I wouldn’t get much interest in posting photos of the same wall, once a week over the course of a year. But the combined nature of documentation-dissemination provided a number of results that illustrate how by applying the archaeological imagination we can register intended and unintended consequences of graffiti’s agency in the urban realm. Over the course of the 52 weeks, the following changes were recorded and discussed through the Instagram account. As you can see the graffiti wall shows a number of different tags and is complimented by the range of colourful bins, all of which go to make up an everyday urban alleyway. Over the course of the year I took and posted 53 photos, gathered 46 followers (whilst following 146). The posts accrued 213 ‘likes’ and I’ve had comments from 45 people, many of which have been conversations focused around three areas:
- people who have written on the wall
- liking the idea of watching the wall for the year
- commenting on the range and styles of tags on the wall
In terms of writers, at least 16 tags were recorded and there were five changes to the graffiti during the year. These events were as follows:
‘OE’ tagged on 13.2.15
‘ALKO’ tagged on 23.2.15
‘ALCO’ tagged on 22.4.15
Winston got covered with silver spray on 19.5.15
‘JKeal’ tagged on 13.7.15
Through the Instagram conversations the protagonists within Gifford Park graffiti became apparent. These conversations have enabled me to begin to understand the range of writing and some of the ‘conversations’ that were being played out on the wall. For example, on 19.5.15 when the blue Winston tag got sprayed over with silver paint, subsequent comments indicated that this was part of a ‘beef’, between Winston and someone else. But rather than the Winston tag being over-tagged; ‘bitten’, it was simply crossed out. Who crossed it out is unclear, although a later tag, ‘OE’ (Own Edinburgh), on an adjacent wall was also written in silver. As it turns out Winston is a member of one group of taggers and OE represents a different group.
Other comments have included the suggestion that ‘writers are stuck in the 80s’, reflecting on the types of hand styles that can be found in parts of Edinburgh. Comments have also been made by people who have written on the walls in the past, giving a sense of personalized space and heritage to the location. In addition, to the changes of graffiti, are the wider changes that have taken place over the weeks. These changes have been captured both in the photographs and on the comments on the Instagram account. Changes identified on the photos alone included the locations, movements and contents of the rubbish bins. The bins move through weekly rhythms of filling up, overflowing in some cases and eventually being emptied.
Ancient bins are ‘bread and butter’ when it comes to traditional archaeology, as they represent the detritus of life that people discard. Think of Mesolithic shell middens or rubbish pits found stuffed with bones, pottery and stone implements that get excavated in Iron Age hillforts. At Gifford Park the bins were one of the actors in the network and took a central role in the events that unfolded between weeks 26 and 31, that changed the whole area. Many of the decisions that led to these events were ‘off-screen’ and took place between local residents, businesses, Edinburgh City Council and Sustrans, the national cycle network organisation. It turns out that at the beginning of 2015, Edinburgh City Council passed planning consent for Gifford Park to be redeveloped, as part of a wider cross-city cycling, infrastructure project. As a result, Gifford Park received major changes between weeks 26-31. These included:
- the pavement was relaid with smooth tarmac
- the stone bollards were removed
- a cycle-friendly traffic light and crossing system was installed
- all the graffiti was removed (buffed) and the walls were re-plastered
- a mural was painted on both gables, designed by local artist Kate George and painted by ‘the local community’
So, a cataclysmic event, akin to the burial of Pompeii by the ash clouds spewed out by Mount Vesuvius took place at Gifford Park. Not only was the graffiti totally removed, but the wall was muralised as part of Edinburgh City Council’s ‘gentrification agenda’, which included the new cycle route and moving the bins into a neat corralled space, out of the way. So, the recording project was well-placed to document the changes defined by ‘off-screen’ actors and it also had to adapt to incorporate these off-screen events. The gentrification of the alleyway led to an insightful period of understanding the complex nature of urban landscapes, the different actors and agents that effect the landscape and the way in which graffiti can be used in a number of different ways to suit the needs of different aspects of urban ‘communities’.
As soon as the mural had been completed it was tagged with a huge silver ‘OE’, which looks like an outline for a throw up. This attracted a number of different reactions from the people I had been discussing the wall with on the Instagram feed. These included the comment;
‘Fuck that’s disrespectful as fuck not saying the graffiti is but that is really bad’ (Instagram alexgchale, 5 August 2015, accessed 21.5.2018). One of the subtle messages that may not be clear to all when the mural got tagged by OE, was the location of the tag itself in relation to the specific content of the mural. The giant OE was positioned to overlap the part of the mural that attributes the painting to the artist, the volunteer helpers and the funders. Clearly the gentrification of Gifford Park and the appropriation of the walls did not please OE and their beef was written large on a very specific part of the mural.
One specific issue that got raised in the local press was the typical rhetoric when it comes to graffiti. The following quote from Lisa Sibbald, chair of the Southside Association, illustrates an attitude towards graffiti, which singles it out as the scourge of the urban landscape. She is quoted saying “This space is particularly prone to graffiti, and there’s nothing artistic about it. Business owners are constantly taking it upon themselves to cover new graffiti when it appears, but within days it’s back’ (Edinburgh Evening News, 15.1.2015). However, as the project has demonstrated the walls were actually relatively static, with only 5 changes over the course of 26 weeks. It was very clearly more than just the graffiti that was affecting perceptions of Gifford Park. As a result of the observation period of 52 weeks we can see that in particular the bins presented a dynamic artefact, but it was the graffiti that was identified as detrimental. Clearly the graffiti comprises visual material that can draw attention, but in the case of Gifford Park, it was used to focus the debate away from the rubbish and the bins, given that they were the responsibility of the local businesses. But if we look carefully the graffiti reappears in close proximity to the original wall.
Graffiti archaeology and future urban change
And so, to close we can critically reflect on our project and consider the short-comings of the ad-hoc, social media-driven low-tech, lunchtime walks appraoch applied to Gifford Park in 2015. But we can also consider it within the corpus of other works such as that by Susan Hansen and Danny Flynn, who apply ‘longitudinal photo-documentation’, (aka repeat photography) to consider the forms of conversation that are played out on graffiti walls (Hansen and Flynn 2015).
Overall, I hope that this paper has enabled you to consider how urban walls that get tagged become far more than message boards, they are artefacts of contemporary archaeology. They respond to visible and invisible agency and they create their own agency that provides insights into city creativity that can be considered through archaeology. This approach can also enable us to think about future locations of graffiti ‘conversations’, which include not only the walls and the writers, but also the wider community. To this end we should consider where those future walls might emerge, and how as archaeologists we become part of the networks that consider future graffiti spaces and conversations. This approach will enable archaeologists of the contemporary past to reflect on graffiti as an agent/artefact in urban contexts. Graffiti is often too easily vilified, rather than being seen as part of a cast of actors in a complex production, where the city is the stage.
Dr Alex Hale is an archaeologist, who works in Scotland. He considers archaeology to be a creative practice that should be far more accessible and part of a democratic process that enables people to understand themselves, each other and our space-time journeys together. Alex can be contacted on email: firstname.lastname@example.org or social media: @ScotGraffiti
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