More than just scrawls on walls

More than just scrawls on walls

Is graffiti a mark of disrespect of social comment? Denise Bates looks at its long history

Denise Bates, historian, researcher and writer

Denise Bates

historian, researcher and writer


The word graffiti was originally a term which described man-made marks and scratches that adorn walls and rock faces. It includes ancient marks that are almost as old as the human race, through to spray paint in a modern day underpass. Thanks to the latter, graffiti has now acquired a negative reputation and become a byword for the wanton damaging of someone else’s property by daubing it with paint or gouging it with tools.

 JSC carved these initials in a tram shelter at Balajora on the Isle of Man in 1934
Overpainted graffiti can give it a sense of respectability. JSC carved these initials in a tram shelter at Balajora on the Isle of Man in 1934. It would be fascinating to discover who (s)he was
 Three different masons’ marks at Fountains Abbey
Three different masons’ marks at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire Adam Jennison

Graffiti can be particularly helpful when there is a dearth of other sources to study. Even when there are accounts which show an official point of view, unauthorised scribbles by people whose names and deeds have been lost to history may add to, or contradict, other records. Roman soldiers left drawings on the Empire’s outpost at Hadrian’s Wall giving clues to their everyday life in a place that many would have found desolate and cold. In 1640s and 1650s the Roundhead soldiers who scored marks into church buildings confirm by this action their personal contempt for the practices of the established religion.

Worcester Cathedral
18th and 19th century graffiti at Worcester Cathedral – the work of tourists or naughty choirboys? Nell Darby

Graffiti began to interest educated Victorians in the 1850s, when archaeologists started to use the sometimes irreverent words and pictures on the walls of the lava-encased city of Pompeii to understand life there before the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in AD 79. As it became clear that they could reveal as much as about a society as its well-crafted artefacts, the lectures and publications that disseminated the new discoveries found a wide audience.

Despite their fascination with times gone by, respectable Victorians had little time for the casual damage that was inflicted on public property by vandals who thumbed their noses at the prevailing standards of good behaviour. As the country’s infrastructure grew, so too did a plethora of byelaws and regulations, specifying the penalty for anyone who wilfully damaged it. Occasionally, a letter in a newspaper highlighted a conflict between old and modern graffiti, pointing out that it, too, might be of historical interest to a future generation, especially if the perpetrator were to become famous. Far more frequent were the reports in newspapers across the country which detailed prosecutions for carving initials into wooden seats in cemeteries and parks or scribbling on the walls of transport waiting rooms. Typical punishments were a fine of several shillings and the costs of repairing the damage.

Mr Chad
Starting life as graffiti, Mr Chad became a much copied figure in mid-20th century Britain

From the newspaper reports it might be inferred that graffiti was the work of the poorer classes, but that was not the case. Plenty of affluent individuals were also involved. Within a few months of its opening in 1889, every available space on the walls of the third floor of the Eiffel Tower had been covered in what were described as casual inscriptions. The scribes took pride in placing their mark as high as possible and many of the culprits were said to be English or American. French and other foreign visitors were reported to sign the visitors’ book on the second floor instead of damaging the walls of the third. A few years later, British tourists were reported to be leaving their initials in Egyptian temples alongside the symbols of the Pharaohs.

There were several reasons why someone might decide to leave their mark. The graffiti that has already been discovered suggests that a certain disrespect for someone else’s property is centuries old. It may be that making a mark in a public place was a rite of passage for acceptance into some disreputable group. The perpetrator may have been recording something they considered an achievement, such as climbing a hill or tower, or simply to point out that they had visited a place.

Sussex Agricultural Express
This report from the Sussex Agricultural Express in 1888 is just one of many recording the wilful damage of public property by graffiti British Library Board

Tourist venues everywhere were susceptible to visitors leaving their mark. In 1895, Henry Hutchinson of Aberdeen made the news when he visited St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, armed with a mallet and chisel. He was apprehended while carving his name on a wall among scores of others, including, he alleged, Prince Albert. He was fined £1. A few months later, the York Herald reported that almost all of the initials carved into wooden benches in the city’s parks were gouged by people who were not local.

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One problem with carved graffiti is that it can come back to haunt the artist in unexpected ways. In 1896, the jilted sweetheart in an American breach of promise case proved her engagement by identifying the tree trunk into which her faithless admirer had carved their initials and a heart.

Large walls seem to have been a magnet for unauthorised posters and drawings and someone with artistic flair could find a large canvas on which to display their talent, even if it was necessarily anonymous. In 1913 a journalist bemoaned that some well-executed graffiti had appeared close to the local LNER railway station in Bedford. According to the journalist, in what appears to be a personal opinion, graffiti at this time usually represented one of three obsessions: religion, horse racing, or bestiality. Drawings of a political slant he considered to be uncommon.

Graffiti in the tunnels under Dover Castle
Graffiti in the tunnels under Dover Castle, much of it from the early 20th century

During the early 1940s, as Britain suffered the privations of war rationing, a simple graffiti image became so pervasive that it brought a shared experience to cities, towns and villages across the land. Known as Chad, the sketch was of a bald-headed man with a long nose, and grasping fingers peering over a wall. The drawing was accompanied by a wry caption which bemoaned the endemic shortages of supplies. It began ‘wot no’ and concluded with a word such as sugar, oranges or sausages? It probably proved a valuable outlet for the frustrations which affected most of the population.

Not all graffiti adorns public places. Inscriptions have been found in the servants’ quarters of large houses. Such disrespect, if discovered, might have led to instant dismissal of the culprit, but many modern researchers would conclude that the person would be an interesting candidate to identify and investigate their life story.

Cells also are a space where prisoners, whether ‘wrong-’uns’ or wrongly convicted, have recorded their presence. Some of the most poignant graffiti of the 20th century was etched onto the walls of Richmond Castle in Yorkshire during the second half of the First World War. When military conscription was introduced in 1916, a small group of conscientious objectors who also refused to serve in non-combatant roles were incarcerated in the castle for their stance. Sixteen such men initially left drawings and writing on the walls of their cells, and subsequent prisoners added to the gallery. These are now conserved as valuable historical artefacts. Although executed only with the materials which the prisoners had to hand, several of the sketches were done by accomplished artists. Equally valuable are words which reveal personal values and provide direct individual testimony about why some men refused to fight for king and country, however great the cost to themselves.

Some graffiti is executed with flair and has artistic merit. The drawings that appeared on the Berlin Wall, and unofficial art that sometimes springs up in a neighbourhood, show how difficult it can be to place the divide between social comment and vandalism. It always seems to have been difficult for the civic authorities to deal effectively with the unofficial marks that regularly appeared on walls.

Several approaches have been tried. Sometimes the culprit can be found and made to repair the damage or pay for a replacement. Sometimes the offending marks are left to the power of nature and eventually weather away. Carved marks are difficult to deal with and sometimes the only way to deal with defaced wood is to paint over it at the next refurbishment, sealing the damage in and giving it an aura of respectability. Plenty of heritage tourist sites have examples in their refurbished waiting rooms.

What will the present generation leave behind now that tourists can mark their achievement with a selfie and post it online? Perhaps graffiti is itself developing a new form now that some lovers add a lock to those that are fastened to bridges in many cities, arguably becoming a work of art in themselves?

As the Victorians realised, there is a distinction between the defacement of a place or object by the thoughtless or mindless and unauthorised marks which give insight into a society. It is a very high bar to leap but for the few marks that do reach this standard, their value to the historian may be profound.

Are the lovers, locks, fastened on bridges
Are the lovers, locks, fastened on bridges in tourist spots a 21st century form of graffiti? Denise Bates

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