Objects in a Glass Case

I recently got sent a copy of Scribbling Through History which was released just last year and is one of a whole slew of academic books on graffiti that have been published recently. The cover promises the long view on graffiti stretching back from antiquity to the present. Predictably enough, of twelve chapters, the two that cover modernity focus on the Middle-East and the internet. The rest of the content delves deeper into history where the modern idea of what constitutes graffiti becomes blurred with a greater variety of interpretation.

The introduction is an obvious place to begin and, rather than a few pages to skim through before getting into the meat of the book, it’s a really interesting read. The editors discuss the term ‘graffiti’ and how warped present-day views of it are with all of its baggage relating to the specific socio-political climate of 60-70’s New York. Refreshingly, rather than distancing historical graffiti from its modern counterpart, they explain that contemporary graffiti is a complex (sub)culture and attach this complexity to the past too. Examples of bygone wall writing “are likely to be the only relics of a more complex socio-cultural system which included other, ephemeral but no less important, forms of expression of which no other trace has survived.”

There is a snobbery inherent to the accepted perception of graffiti that draws on a particular “definition of (high) culture that belongs first and foremost on paper” and prejudices around what constitutes intelligence, literacy and education. The editors further point out that the idea of ‘heritage’ itself alters how historical writing surfaces are conceived of. So where does this leave a definition of historical graffiti? Well, aside from a very literal translation of it as writing scratched into a surface, here it is understood as a “socially acceptable means of communication, self-definition and space appropriation” particular to the context of the time.

The nomads used Safaitic script which, much like modern graff, they heavily stylised to make their graffiti illegible to outsiders.

Following this main intro, Ömür Harmanşah, then goes on to outline an almost mystical understanding of graffiti within the historical landscape. One in which people and culture shaped the natural environment as it shaped them. Ancient landscapes were viewed as sentient. The inscription of graffiti onto myriad surfaces was not just ‘leaving a mark’ but an engagement with the surroundings. This is an intriguing angle that at once stresses the importance of both writer and place.

After the intros the book is split into three sections; landscape, wall, and the written page. Of the first section I found the graffiti studied by Michael Macdonald particularly interesting. Macdonald has spent many years studying the absolutely beautiful and unique writing culture of nomads who carved into the rocks of the desert. It’s definitely worth checking out the many photographic examples on his website. In the chapter ‘Tweets from Ancient Arabia’ he compares the graffiti written by nomads in the deserts of Arabia with graffiti made by the nearby settled population of Nabataea. Both societies produced graffiti which Macdonald classifies as ‘and me’, pastime, funurery, and religious clusters of writing. The nomads used Safaitic script which, much like modern graff, they heavily stylised to make their graffiti illegible to outsiders. The Nabataeans often played with the letterforms of their graffiti too but generally used a different script to the language they spoke.

In many ways the graffiti made by the nomads and the Nabataeans share similarities of function and style. As a writing culture the nomadic graffiti is generally more sophisticated with distinct patterns of expression. However Macdonald seems to reconstruct the context of this graffiti culture only in relation to the Nabataeans. In the introduction to the book its authors urge the reader to “reflect upon the importance that our society, and the scholarly community in particular, arbitrarily ascribes to the written word.” Macdonald is generally at odds with this aim as when he points out that the nomads used writing only for graffiti “rather than writing with pen and ink.”

The differences Macdonald draws between the graffiti he is comparing stem from the status of the authors; one nomadic, one settled, one with statehood the other without, one ‘primitive’, one ‘cultured’. He puts forward a state-centric understanding of literacy whereby, despite the graffiti indicating that “literacy must have been almost universal among the nomads during this period”, the nomads were a ‘non-literate society’ because their writing wasn’t used for bureaucratic or ‘practical’ purposes. Meanwhile the graffiti of the Nabataeans is proof of a ‘literate society’ because of their settled (read civilised) status and state structures. The use of literacy is used here as a signifier of statehood vis-à-vis the uncivilised nomads. Thus the stylisation of the Nabataean graffiti is evidence of “a familiarity and easy mastery of the script” whilst for the nomads it shows its informality. Clustered graffiti are signifiers of piety or ceremonial use by the Nabataeans yet clusters of Safaitic graff are “simply an accidental consequence” of the landscape. While writing graffiti was clearly a universal skill in the nomadic society its spread is due merely to impulses of curiosity rather than hinting at organised schooling as in the case of their settled counterparts. An interesting detail though is that while the nomads carved their own graffiti the governors of neighbouring states used scribes to do theirs.

She points out features from medieval book margins that are commonly found on walls today and evokes a belligerent hyper-literacy that is analogous to present graffiti.

Macdonald’s study is a fascinating topic but his prejudices cloud his analysis and means he is often at odds with the intentions spelled out in the introduction and later by Harmanşah. Ultimately Macdonald suggests that the nomads choice of writing surface was what stopped them developing into a ‘literate society’ which he basically defines as a bureaucratic state.

It’s actually in the final section of the book, in a chapter by Janine Rogers, that modern notions of graffiti are unravelled a bit and historical conceptions around writing are put into better focus. Rogers discusses the ‘graffiti’ made on the margins of medieval manuscripts in reference to modern graffiti. She describes a whole (literally) marginal writing culture that is fascinating to read about which exists as something on the fringes but not physically separate from the book it’s found in. Obviously finding writing in a book is hardly alien to the modern reader but the emphasis is on where the writing is and how the modern reader separates off surfaces as acceptable places for it to be found, in a way that the historical reader may not have. She argues that the medieval book was produced and read by multiple contributors which made it more of a bustling city street than the private space of Virginia Woolf’s room. In fact, much like modern graffiti, medieval book culture “was aesthetically driven and borne of the material nature of textual production.”

Rogers constantly conceptualises medieval manuscript graffiti in reference to its modern counterpart found on walls. She explains that medieval texts were underpinned by a philosophy involving two systems of compilatio and ordinatio. These ideas emphasised “the material, spatial and embodied nature of text” which are also relevant to understanding graffiti today. Ideas of rebellion, resistance, disruption and breaking boundaries are popular ways for graffiti to be understood but Rogers links wall writing back, as ‘stylistically resonant’, to medieval book marking. She points out features from medieval book margins that are commonly found on walls today and evokes a belligerent hyper-literacy that is analogous to present graffiti. Aside from her ability to draw more than a casual link to modern graffiti Rogers is also just an engaging writer. She introduces some great expressions such as the ‘manicule’ which is the medieval equivalent of the ubiquitous graffiti arrow. Later on she ends with a section called ‘the time machine of graffiti’ which begins with a quote from HG Wells!

Moving from the medieval Christiane Gruber brings Scribbling Through History up to the present with the graffiti around the occupation of Gezi park in Istanbul. This graffiti, it’s argued, didn’t just occupy the fringes of the movement but was integral to it and shaped the image of the resistance. Gruber explains the political context in which the authoritarian President Erdoğan had cultivated a masculine image that was attacked through the use of sexualised slurs on walls. As Istanbul’s various football fans came out to defend the demonstrators from police attacks they also provided a repertoire that was added to the graffiti slogans. Soon enough women, the gay community, feminists and prostitutes altered and added to the graffiti. Popular slogans and images, such as masked penguins and whirling dervish, referenced culture and events without alienating the disparate groups joined in protest. Gruber’s chapter reminds the reader just how contextual graffiti is and even minor details can be full of significance which are probably lost to the authors of the other chapters in the book.Scribbling Through History has a lot of content and Rogers isn’t the only contributor who collapses the modern distinction between writing and surface. In the preceding chapter Glen Dudbridge explores poetry from imperial China where the wall was equal to the page and a rich tradition of exchange existed. Some of the graffitied poetry has survived by being transcribed although Dudbridge, rather poetically, describes these as “objects in a glass case”. Elsewhere Rebecca Benefiel again reminds the reader how foreign graffiti of the past is when she claims it as Pompeian “oral social exchange”. Other interesting descriptions crop up such as authors who have written about, and in exchange with, graffiti or simply the ‘dipinti’ which were equivalent to fly-posting and very similar to sprayed graffiti. Elsewhere Hana Navratilova provides an interesting description of how dipinti was prepared and painted on Egyptian pyramids by passing tourists. All-in-all this is a nice book which provides a different way of thinking about graffiti.

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