This article was originally published on my WordPress blog – March 2014.
A thank-offering for a successful voyage, or a fearful prayer before setting sail? A 13th/14th century ship graffito in Rochester Cathedral, Kent.
To many people the word ‘graffiti’ conjurs up images of desecrated walls, gang-tags and urban decay. Although some graffiti has a more positive purpose and image, as with the work of Banksy and other mural artists, it remains controversial and is never going to be popular with everyone (let me also say at the outset that I’m not advocating that people nowadays should put graffiti in places where they don’t have permission to do so).
The making of graffiti was once commonplace and apparently widely tolerated (1). Originally taken from an Italian verb meaning ‘to scratch’, the term ‘graffiti’ (singular: graffito) was first applied to unofficial markings made on building walls and other surfaces in the mid-19th century (there was no special word for it in English before that date). The modern negative associations of graffiti seem to be tied up with the invention of the paint-spray can in the mid- 20th century. All of sudden, the spray can made it possible to make large graffiti quickly: the speed of the spray gave less time for anyone to intervene and stop the process.
What could be called ‘historical graffiti’ – graffiti that predates the spray can – is perhaps most familiar to people from ancient churches, which tend to survive better than ancient secular buildings. That said, you can often discover historical graffiti in old houses, such as the remarkable 16th/17th collection in Tudor House Museum, Southampton (2). Stone and plaster were the two most common materials used for scratched graffiti, but it can be found on wood, glass and any other surface that could take a mark. Sometimes graffiti was made with pencil, charcoal, paint or some other medium, but these do not survive as well as scratches.
For anyone studying graffiti as historical evidence, there is a problem. Unless the context of a graffito can be dated closely in some way, you have to rely on comparative dating, based on the style or content of the image. For this reason, some scholars think that this stuff is useless as evidence of the past.
There is also the danger of fakery, but I think that this is a small problem. It can happen, though. For example, an (apparent) Viking-Age runic inscription was once discovered in Sweden (3). When translated it read:
Joe Doakes went east in 1953 – he discovered Europe, Holy Smoke.
However, there’s no money in faking graffiti. I also suspect that there is little fun in it, beyond the dubious pleasure of getting one over on us poor, trusting scholars.
But are historical graffiti worth preserving and recording? I believe so. For periods before literacy was commonplace and paper was cheap, drawing or writing graffiti was the only way that most people could set down their thoughts, feelings or very existence in durable form. To my mind, this transforms something that may seem trivial and banal into a precious survival. It can be really depressing to enter a medieval church and discover that some zealous former vicar or churchwarden had the walls scraped to remove what they doubtless regarded as ‘eyesores’. In removing old graffiti they also removed part of the personality and history of the building.
Most scratched graffiti is small-scale, which is not surprising, as it takes less time and energy to draw a small image than a large one. Any historic graffito that is over about 30 cms or a foot across counts as ‘big’. The largest one I have ever seen is in Dartington Hall, Devon, a truly stupendous image of a 15th/16th century ship that is around 3 m in length (4).
In the past, there were probably as many reasons for making graffiti as there might be nowadays: love, hate, lampooning people, expressing your identity, your beliefs and so-on. Some graffiti has a very dark purpose, such as venting the bile of racists and other extremists, but other examples can be more hopeful. The British writer Nicholas Monsarratt, working in South Africa in the early days of apartheid, saw something chalked up on a public building that to him conveyed both despair and hope, in three words: ‘God is black’ (5).
Up until the Protestant Reformation of the mid-16th century, a proportion of the graffiti in English churches most probably had some kind of votive purpose. This means that it was a prayer for help and safety in the future, or a thanksgiving for a trial safely overcome. Such an explanation is certainly credible when it comes to a lot of medieval ship graffiti. Seafaring was very dangerous, and a votive image might, it was believed, invoke the intercession of a saint or the Virgin Mary on the sailor or passenger’s behalf.
Probably the commonest type of old graffiti is the sort that just says ‘I was here’. In Western Esplanade, Southampton, near the harbour, there is a rather decrepit brick wall that displays some of the most poignant graffiti of this kind that I have ever seen. It includes a smiley face next to the phrase ‘GO ILLINOIS’ along with many names, including those of ‘H.Z.E. ATHERING OF ZION’, ‘CURT HODGES’ and ‘CAL AVERY N(ew) Y(ork)’. They all seem to have been made in 1944 by American soldiers waiting to board ships for the battles in France. For some of these men, these scratched records were probably the last signatures they ever wrote.
Blog © Ian Friel 2014 and photo © Ian Friel 2013
(1) J Fleming, Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England, London 2001, p 33.
(2) There is a very exciting project recently undertaken in East Anglia, the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, which has an impressive online catalogue of images: see http://www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk; Tudor House Museum, Southampton: www.tudorhouseandgarden.com.
(3) Quoted in A Rieth (trans D Imber), Archaeological Fakes, London 1967, p 160.
(4) For the image, which I recorded in 1983, see p 73 of I Friel, ‘Devon Shipping from the Middle Ages to c 1600’, in M Duffy et al. (eds), The New Maritime History of Devon, London 1992.
(5) In Japan, anti-racist activists have started and innovative programme to use Google maps to record the nature and location of anti-Korean graffiti in part of Tokyo. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-26635848; Nicholas Monsarratt, The Pillow Fight, London 1965, p 366.