On the Writing on the Wall
Updated: Jun 21, 2019
For the latrine philosopher, subway prophet, pilgrim, prisoner and pauper, the chief desire is just the same as that of the politician, artist and media celebrity (and, I might add, bloggist) - to be heard, to leave a mark, to say "I am here - look at me". Street Art which peaked in popularity in the latter half of the twentieth century, largely falls into two categories – disfiguring vandalism and clever and often remarkably beautiful works that in recent years have become recognised as a legitimate art form worthy of museum display. Indeed, there are now neighbourhoods reserved for the display of graffiti and international graffiti festivals.
The phenomenon of writing or drawing on walls is by no means a recent one. Its history can be traced back to the Upper Palaeolithic (Late Stone Age) cave paintings in south-west France, to scenes of gladiators in Aphrodisias, Turkey, and to indecent scrapings on the walls of a brothels and taverns of Pompeii.
Graffiti in any age tells us something about society and about the individual who left it, even if it is nothing more than absent-minded scribbling. A study of old telephone directories, often repositories of ballpoint doodlings, might prove very revealing for a future social historian. Much of the graffiti that is found in medieval buildings indeed appears to be nothing more than meaningless jottings of amusing figures, animals, monsters and machines and symbols (though perhaps the latter have some long forgotten meaning behind them). Then there are humorous, political, poetic or erotic texts. Some graffiti has religious significance and is a form of prayer. Drawings of ships, frequently encountered in churches, were intended either as a request for heavenly protection on a forthcoming sea voyage, or as thanksgiving for journey safely undertaken. Crosses are a type of graffiti found in many holy sites. Thousands were carved into the walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They say nothing of the individual's identity, but are entirely personal; messages left by the pilgrim for the eyes of his maker. For the knight or noble pilgrim, leaving a heraldic design was almost the same as writing his name. Heraldic emblems were family signatures. Written names of course were an even better way to get the message across. When in 1384 an Italian traveller named Piero Vendramini climbed to the top of a column at the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre and painted his name and the year of his visit in still very visible red paint, he was perhaps partly doing so in thanks for having safely made his pilgrimage. But more than that, he was, in the most prominent place in the Christian world, making it known to posterity that he had once existed.