What significance can an unauthorized mark on a city wall have? Graffitied messages in everyday life often go unnoticed, being perceived as being just one among many of the experiences bombarding the senses in urban space. Yet street artists often feel a need to put such marks on walls, even if it has no impact, to affirm their presence in public space, a presence that demands recognition even if none is in the end forthcoming.
Graffiti has long been the subject of popular and media debate and scholarly research. Opinions about its value or appropriateness vary, depending on form and purpose. While street art and commissioned murals are often appreciated aesthetically and are sometimes even considered to raise the market value of urban space, tagging and spray-painted messages are generally seen as vandalism and as indicators of undesirable neighborhoods.
Long live Anarchists
A sympathetic position toward graffiti sees it as a form of civil disobedience and freedom, as a sign of resistance to the orderly structure of the city space. This idealized view would perhaps contend that taggers are simply looking for visibility—to make a mark—in a society that does otherwise ignores them, to find belonging in a sub-culture. They would likely point out that views voiced through graffiti messages are able to find a place in public space when they are silenced in other venues.
In that sense, graffiti could be an act of resistance against the established system whether we speak of the urban structure, the political establishment, or the prevailing social and economic order. However, we can ask: can graffiti be equated with resistance in the sense of revolutionary activism? To idealize graffiti in this way is to bring to the fore questions about what conditions might make graffiti socially meaningful and purposive.
Graffiti is cool as long as it is not on my wall
This idealistic view is subject to a common criticism—namely, that it ignores the obvious; sometimes a mark on a wall is just that: a mark on a wall, one that is likely also vandalizing shared space. Moreover, it is arguable that we are asking too much of a mere mark on a wall in attributing meaningful political action to it. And in doing so, we raise unrealistic expectations of graffiti artists as activists dedicated to acts of resistance that would bring about revolutionary outcomes and radical social change. Perhaps worse still, we hold often hold such artists in contempt—as best disloyal, at worst hypocritical—if they take on commissioned mural urban art, for example, or if they make a living out of their graffiti work.
Those idealistic and unfair expectation as well as negative opinions of graffiti drive us away from looking at what is graffiti actually doing—when it is doing something—and make us fail to distinguish when it actually matters. In certain contexts, graffiti painters can advance the representation of a specific group or idea in public space that might otherwise lack such representation in the political dialogue. In urban spaces that are visually monopolized by the state or corporate interests, a graffiti message can bring visibility to counter-voices and mobilize solidarity among the audience who relate to that voice.
Nobody really pays attention to graffiti messages anyway
Even though graffiti paintings often go unnoticed in everyday city life, their relative persistence—and the insistence of certain messages on them—have an effect on our feelings and experiences of different city spaces. Even if we do not remember individual graffiti messages encountered in urban space, they nevertheless leave us with on overall feeling of a space that is inclusive of some groups, exclusive of others, and spaces that represent a certain viewpoint.
For example, when a small group of graffiti artists, paint the statement ‘anti-Nazi zone’ all across the walls of a small city they shape the city space as one that is anti-Nazi for pedestrians experiencing that space, even though this view might not be that of the majority. Irrespective, the graffiti manages to make this viewpoint visible in urban space.
Graffiti thus has the potential to turn spaces into places; personalized locales that invite affective presence; that influence our feelings of being at home or being foreign, included or excluded. This potential is dependent on the content and context of the messages conveyed, as well as the various individual interpretations of them. Pedestrians interpret graffiti in a variety of ways, often in ways that tell us more about the receiver than of the graffiti, ways that are influenced by the pedestrian’s own viewpoints, and their relationship and memory of the place.
The banality of graffiti in times of struggle
The influence of graffiti messages often come to the fore in times of political and social turbulence, when an inclusive political dialogue is most needed but is not accessible to all social groups. In times when political struggle is about visibility and presence, and opposition groups strive to challenge authority’s monopoly over the representation in public space, graffiti messages come to assert the right to self-representation and active presence in public space.
During the Egyptian uprising in 2011, protestors took over the streets and main squares in different cities in Egypt. Among the protestors, there were those who also took over the grey walls of the cities, visually occupying the urban space and replacing the monopolized visual culture of a country that had been saturated with Mubarak images, replacing them with images of the people and the aspirations of the revolution.
The graffiti messages of the revolution played a key function in reconstructing the image of authority and positioning the protestors as the ones in power. The messages were mostly anonymous, temporary, and called for a democratic dialogue. Pedestrians reacted to these messages, reconstructed them, and often soon erasing them (or covering them with new messages). And throughout the different political power transitions since 2011, the Egyptian authorities have followed and systematically whitewashed graffiti ‘uprisings’.
However, this tale of retrenchment is only one part of the story—the beginning of it—and the one that caught local and international attention. The rest of the story can be seen in the social life surrounding these graffiti messages and images, how they have lived on after being erased, how they were documented, and how they came to be an integral part of the visual production and representation of the opposition movement in Egypt. The graffiti of 2011 in Egypt interrupted what had been a very homogenous public space, monopolized by the ruling power. A space where only the government is allowed to represent and be represented, and the citizen is only allowed to participate passively, as a pedestrian.
From one viewpoint, it may seem naive to speak of graffiti and its effect in a context where a revolution has been followed by thousands of lost lives and a counter-revolution that continues to suppress voices of opposition. However, it is through such expressions that activist created spaces to make the censored voices visible. Political resistance is often seen clearly in protests and opposition movements, but we overlook quieter every day actions through which the censored voices speak out, creating visibility and solidarity for their causes. Those spaces are created through the continuity and insistence of those voices to appear when the authority persists on silencing them.
Look, another vandal
So next time you see new graffiti painted in your street, ask yourself what it could potentially mean for you and for others. Perhaps it is just vandalism, another annoying mark on a wall. But maybe it has real value for a marginalized group of people that see themselves represented through it. Or maybe—just maybe—it brings a new voice into the public space that triggers reflexivity among a wider group of people and thus, social meaning and purpose beyond a mere ‘mark on a wall’.