The Language of Despair

For the thousands of city workers who routinely travel in from the suburbs by train the view from the carriage window is of little moment.  Such people will usually have a newspaper or book to occupy their minds.  The scenery, for the most part, consists of rusting tin fences, brick walls, weed-infested banks, and all the accumulated debris of a mechanical civilisation.  What you look at from the train window is the backside of a civilisation – the bared and ugly buttocks of an industrial society.  And those images of squalor never seem to change much.  The rusting signal boxes, the newspapers caught up in the rank vegetation, the piles of slowly-decaying iron, were all there when I was a child.  There is something timeless about suburban railway-line squalor.  Even those faded signs on the walls advertising “Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills” have survived several generations of travellers.  Likewise with some of the slogans:  “Don’t Get Yanked Into War” is still faintly visible on the brick wall, fifty years after I first saw it as a youngster.  Some might say that this particular slogan has maintained its relevance, the message outliving the medium!

Few people would find anything uplifting in such sights.  One who did was the late Michael Wharton, better known as Peter Simple, that eccentric columnist for the Sunday Telegraph in Britain.  During the 1970s) he wrote a little piece in his column regarding the conservation of suburban railway line squalor:

They are miniature wildernesses, places that men have made, certainly, but places which have the pathos of all things that have once been used but are now neglected and abandoned: tangled garden-plots, rusting springs, shattered bricks, shards, books sodden by the rain and, blistered by the sun, lumps of newspaper that no one will ever read again.

The train, held up by signals, slows down in the summer heat; the wondering eye looks through the glass into those suburban jungles and finds there, as in childhood, a mysterious poetry.  Who knows what strange flowers – moly, nepenthes – may grow among that unloved, grimy undergrowth?

Perhaps it is as well this has not occurred to the official mind.  Wouldn’t it wish to institutionalise this sense of wonder, to incorporate it into its official system: tidy up almost all the eyesores in its own image but leave, for recreational purposes, a few Protected Areas of Designated Suburban Railway Squalor?

This is marvellously rendered and the images are instantly familiar to us.  What Wharton does not mention is the sort of unnatural rankness of the vegetation.  The weeds seem to reach absurd heights.  It brings to mind a terrible image mentioned by Leszek Kolakowski in one of his books:

I was told that near a Nazi extermination camp, where the soil was superbly fertilized with the ashes of unaccountable cremated bodies of the victims, the cabbage grew so rapidly that it had no time to form a head and produced instead a stem with separate leaves; apparently it was not edible.

In this age of ecological sensitivity, I doubt that Peter Simple’s view would find many adherents.  And yet, there is one group of people (if one could really call them a group) which does have some real emotional connection with such railway squalor.  These are the graffiti producers.  In fact, when I supposed above that the environs of the suburban rail lines exhibited a sort of timeless character, the one exception would have to be the graffiti.  I speak here not of the scrawled political slogans or the dribbling obscenities (Peter Simple very tastefully described the subject matter of this latter category as “advice on human reproductive processes”).  Nor am I concerned with those outpourings of puppy love that one sees painted on hoardings or carved into trees and park benches, arrowed hearts with “Trevor loves Laura” or similar. Such little inscriptions are probably as old as writing itself. I have read somewhere that crude inscriptions have been found on the inner sides of certain pyramid stones presumably left by the citizens or their corvées. One of them reads: ‘the Pharaoh must be mad’!   I am concerned, rather, with those strange hieroglyphics which fall in a sort of no-mans-land between recognisable written characters and formless doodling, or between modern art and wholly randomised angular forms. Some of us, of course, would make no distinction between modern art and wholly randomised forms, but opinions differ on this matter and I refuse to be drawn into an argument. Whatever the case, the graffito producer of the latter categories – a sort of post literate language- seems to be a new development in the ancient ecosystem of the railway wilderness.  Here is a shining example of Darwinian evolution at work.

The more astute observer – a sort of railway siding ecologist – will be able to discern many other characteristics of this mode of human communication.  In the first place, one can quite properly speak of a demography of graffiti. Its presence and abundance is demonstrably correlated with urban wastelands such as rail corridors.  Furthermore, within its total range or territory, one can speak of trends in abundance or density.  It works something like this:  As you travel in from the most outer of the suburbs, the density of graffiti on available substrates (walls, tin fences, billboards, etc.) gradually increases until a maximum is reached in those industrial suburbs ringing the inner city. Thereafter, as one approaches the city centre itself, the density of graffiti tends to diminish.

One other characteristic in the demography of graffiti is clearly discernable.  Within its general habitat, a definite dominance hierarchy prevails.  The most favoured sites – large walls or fences in full view of the travelling public- tend to exhibit the most highly developed forms of the product.  These are often works on a massive scale, full of intricate detail and, usually, many-coloured.  Less favoured sites such as metal signal boxes, car bodies, posts, and small billboards, are colonised by more primitive forms of the work, often no more than a single scrawl made (one supposes) with a single movement of the hand.  A comparison with biological colonisation is not at all out of place. The most complex and well-developed species occupy the most fertile niches whilst the lowest-order colonisers are pushed to the marginal habitats.

We need to differentiate, too, between what I will call, for want of better terms, scriptorial graffiti and pictorial graffiti.   The former is related to written text, the latter is not.  There is, of course, a gradation from one to the other so that strict categorisation is not always possible.  As a rule though, the pictorial form is on a larger scale, occupies the better niches, and is usually multicoloured.  Moreover, the pictorial graffiti often shows signs of real artistic ability.  The colours are well chosen and well blended. The work shows some evidence of overall concept and of planning.  Remembering that these larger pictorial works are probably executed under the cover of darkness and in some haste (lest the offenders be observed and apprehended), we have to grudgingly admit that production in such circumstances requires real talent.

There are, in fact, several problems with the use of the ‘word ‘graffiti’ to cover such a range of defacing techniques.  In the first place, the origin of the word is from the Italian graffio – ‘a scratch’, and is this somewhat inappropriate for the larger, pictorial works. Again, the word graffiti is, strictly speaking, a plural noun in Italian and its singular is graffito.  However we now tend to use the word as a mass noun with a singular verb.  To add to the confusion, many people now regard pictorial graffiti as an art form, thereby blurring the distinction between art and vandalism.  Mind you, I would be the first to admit that some of the more complex graffiti designs are infinitely preferable to much of the rubbish that hangs in galleries of modern art.

We now come to the most difficult question of all.  Does an individual work of graffito have any meaning?  Let us leave aside, for the moment, the question of why it was produced.  Can it be read or deciphered in such a way as to deliver a common understanding to all who study it?  On first appraisal, that seems a silly notion.  The stuff seems to be simply some sort of doodling by minds which have no other purpose than to deface or to establish some sort of territorial conquest- “see that there; I did that”. One thinks of those Viking raiders of old who, having sacked some little village, were often wont to carve a rune or two on some imposing local monument.

And yet, I still have some lingering doubts.  Is it not the case that, when you look at scriptorial graffiti, certain shapes or certain strange hieroglyphs seem to show up wherever you go.  Sometimes, those strange scrawls seem maddeningly close to an English or Greek or Cyrillic character and yet, not quite the thing.  They are not quite intelligible, but yet not really to be classified as random movements of a marking pen or a paint brush.  A possibility begins to form in your mind.  Could those strange hieroglyphs really constitute some form of primitive written language?  If that were the case, then it would have to be some sort of unconscious action – a case of the writer being simply an unwitting intermediary allowing the unconscious mind to express itself. We must suppose it to be unconscious since to do otherwise would be to postulate some sort of underground “school” in graffiti, where the language is taught.

Now I am well aware of certain types of graffiti which are partially or fully legible to ordinary folk like us.  Recently, looking out from a train window over a vast demolition site, I saw a message scrawled on a single remaining brick wall.  It read “Power to the lonely”. In other cases, the letters are simply deformed English characters which probably could be recognised with a bit of practice.  Indeed, there are helpful sites on the World Wide Web which instruct the young criminal on how to produce such deformed letters with a single stroke of the spray can or marking pen.  These letters are not what I have in mind.  I am thinking, rather, of markings which cannot be associated with any recognisable characters in any language and yet seem to be reproduced, as the same shapes, in different places at different times.  It is a case of something “Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken” as Shakespeare tells us in one of his sonnets.

I suppose we have a sort of precedent for graffiti as unconscious language in that strange case of William Butler Yeats and the “automatic writing” of his wife, which led to the publication of A Vision in 1926.  More pertinent, perhaps, is that scholarly work on cultural ethnology and mythology, Hamlet’s Mill, by Giorgio De Santillana and Hertha von Dechend (Nonpareil Books – D.R. Godine, New Hampshire, 1977).  Here the authors present some very interesting data on the unconscious transmission of certain universal elements of myth.   Meaning can be transmitted without understanding.  We have that on the good authority of Aristotle who defined an esoteric doctrine as one which is learned long before it is understood.

Here then is a golden opportunity for all those young and budding students of language and ethnology padding about the Groves of Academus. Get yourself a research grant to travel around the world, photographing graffiti.  When you get back home, compare all of your material and look for some common symbols.  If you are successful then, without doubt, you will achieve a status comparable to that of Sir James Frazer.  You will have discovered a new language and a new, universal tribe. You may even be able to translate this language.  The world will be your oyster. Mind you, I could be years behind the running with this suggestion.  Some American museum of modern art has probably commissioned such a study and, even while I write this, distinguished academic journals are probably moderating an intense debate in the “correspondence” columns.  After all, Peter Simple did briefly mention a rather shadowy figure called “The Master of Paddington” whose works in graffiti are avidly sought by just such museums.

But let us leave aside such matters of intrinsic meaning, interesting though they are. How is one to interpret all this graffiti stuff in terms of human behaviour?  I am not a psychologist or sociobiologist, but I do have a theory.  I propose that the occurrence and relative abundance of what  will call “traditional” or “old fashioned” graffiti is simply a direct and tangible manifestation of human anxiety, human frustration, and of a sense of hopelessness.  It is, in short, a sort of index of spiritual sickness.  I omit here the larger and more complex examples of graffiti “art” where the ‘artist’ might well be able to admire his or her own production and, indeed, entertain the idea that others might enjoy it too.  What I am referring to her is that graffiti which simply defaces without doing anything else.  I am aware that many scholarly papers have been written about the motivations associated with graffiti vandalism – protest, notoriety, challenge, and so on.  Many of these studies also suggest that the phenomenon is not limited to any particular social grouping but most seem to agree that the ‘traditional’ form is produced predominantly by young males.  This is apparently not the case with ‘stencilling” where young girls are often involved too.

In any age, it is reasonable to assume that the particular Weltanschauung expresses itself in different ways at different levels in society.  Our own age is characterized by a worldview which is actually a negation of that very concept.  There is no worldview, no meaning outside biological determinism, which might explain our existence.  Amongst the intellectuals this is characterized by the flight from metaphysics.  Reality is what you wish to make it in your particular ‘language game’. So it was that Nietzsche, the harbinger of the age of unreason, exhorted the Übermensch to throw of the shackles of reason and the slave mentality of religion to proclaim the individual will as supreme master. That’s fine if you have the wherewithal to maintain such a philosophy and still earn a quid and enjoy life. Nietzsche, it is true, went mad in the end but other apostles of meaninglessness, Freud for example, enjoyed huge success.  In our own time, Richard Rorty has made a very successful public lecture career promoting the idea that we should embrace meaninglessness as a way of ‘letting the fly out of the flybottle’ to quote Wittgenstein.

But philosophies, or should I say anti-philosophies, have a way of percolating downwards and they will invariably manifest themselves at other levels in society where they cannot be sustained. For some teenagers in industrial suburbia perhaps the hopelessness of a life without meaning expresses itself in the diseased art-form of graffiti. Maybe when human creativity is stifled in this way the artistic desire burns on but, finding itself thwarted at every natural opening, finally expresses itself in the diseased form of graffiti.  The crippled intellect, deformed by the blight of meaninglessness, slouches out under the cover of darkness to relieve itself in this manner.  It is a sort of defecation of the intellect.  This explanation may not apply to the larger, pictorial forms of graffiti whose production is associated with a quite separate and well-defined sub-culture.  But more of that shortly.

And so, getting back to my proposal for a world-wide study of graffiti script, there seems little doubt as to what those strange hieroglyphs will say if someone is fortunate enough to break to code.  It will be something like those penultimate words from the Cross – Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabactani – a cry of anguish from the heart.  But, unlike the Golgotha cry which led to a triumph of the spirit, the anguish of the graffiti producer remains unanswered by the thousands of commuters who glide past it every day, their minds firmly fixed on the Dow Jones Index or the latest Mills and Boon romance.  The traditional type of graffiti is not a species of art, nor a merely destructive by-product of a criminal mind.  It is a cry for help.

Now, as I have already indicated, this sort of explanation might do for the sorts of graffiti that I observed along suburban railway lines in former times.  But things have changed in the graffiti scene over the last two decades.  There is a new breed of graffiti and it is not necessarily produced by sick people.  It is more commonly produced by hip people.   According to numerous official reports on the problem, one type of graffiti has come to dominate the practice over the past twenty years.  This is the graffiti which “forms an integral part of an entrenched sub-culture called Hip Hop”.  It is difficult to give a brief summary of what Hip Hop entails.  One element consists of the “performance” of certain types of music where human voices talk over the beat of the music or where elaborate sound mixing is used to produce “stuttering” or “scratching effects.  This, then, is a sort of auditory, dithyrambic, graffiti.  Another element is break dancing where the participants engage in vigorous athletic movements and whose exponents, I am told, include Michael Jackson – an ‘apostasy of the dance’ perhaps, to misquote Wagner.  But “Spraycan Art” or “Writing”, (which is how these folk quaintly refer to graffiti), is also part of the Hip Hop culture.

The interesting thing about the Hip Hop scene is its mimicry of religion.  The three elements, dance, music and art are precisely what one finds in a huge range of tribal religions. In many cases, there is also some form of initiation and some type of ‘ordeal’ to be undergone.  Mircea Eliade, that renowned historian of religion, has suggested that even in wholly desacralised societies like our own, we carry within us a large stock of camouflaged religious myths and degenerated rituals.  The unconscious has a religious aura because its structure and contents are the result of immemorial existential situations.  For Eliade, every existential crisis once again puts into question both the reality of the world and human presence in the world and the crisis is ‘religious’ because “on the archaic levels of culture being and the sacred are one”.

And so, what we are dealing with in the Hip Hop scene is no longer the sad product of tortured minds.  It is a well-organised counter-culture with sophisticated web sites.  “Folios” or collections of “railway carriage art” can be found at such sites.  The cult also has its own specialist language and I have in front of me a glossary of common terms used by the Hip Hop people. Some examples:

Throw-up:        A name painted quickly with one layer of spray paint

Bomb:              Prolific painting or marking with ink

Writer:             A practitioner of the art of graffiti

Tag:                 A writer’s signature with marker or spray paint

Public style:     Graffiti lettering which is legible to the general public

Hit:                  To tag up any surface with paint or ink

Kill:                 To hit or bomb excessively


The New South Wales Graffiti Information Service, which I consulted on the internet, also provides some information under the heading “Graffiti and Art”.  There is here an interesting sentence which goes; “It has been said that the only difference between vandalism and art may be permission”.  That is a fertile topic for another essay but I’m afraid I could not muster the necessary restraint to deal with such a statement in a cool, dispassionate and wholly objective manner.  Suffice to say that I can think of interesting and parallel analogies from other spheres of human activity:  “The only difference between suicide and murder is permission” or “The only difference between charity and robbery is permission”.  And so on.

What’s to be done about graffiti?  According to some published estimates, it costs Australia somewhere between $50 million and $100 million annually.  Like every other problem confronting us at the moment, the usual response from the authorities is to call for “public education” or “awareness programs” or “youth counselling”.  Certain concrete measures are being taken by some Councils and businesses.  Walls can be painted with special anti-graffiti paints or cleaned with special solvents.  But I cannot see this working for too long.  When sufficient walls, fences, etc. have been painted with anti-graffiti paint the “free market economy” will come into effect and certain paint companies will be able to exploit a new niche market opportunity by supplying anti-anti-graffiti paint to the Hip Hop client.  We don’t want any of this restrictive trade stuff.

Perhaps the way to solve the graffiti problem is to normalise it.  I note that some suburban schools have already moved in this direction by allowing large “murals” to be painted on school walls, fences, etc.  But we need to take it much further.  Promote it as a healthy leisure-time activity and provide suitable sites (at market rates per square metre) by way of blank billboards.  These “art sites” could be pre-sold to the client with a standard caveat so that any problems of pre-emptive strikes by freeloading Hip-Hoppers are the buyer’s responsibility.  Courses on graffiti composition, graffiti interpretation etc. could be offered at university level.  The new “privatised” sections of the major universities could very well turn a shilling or two here by joining forces with paint companies, billboard construction companies, etc.  Once all this happens, the whole scene will slowly lose its attraction.  We have a precedent in the case of faded jeans.  It was once de rigueur for the young rebel to wear tattered and faded jeans, preferably with large rips, etc.  Then, of course, the fashion companies lobbed on to this new market and soon everyone was wearing faded designer jeans. The young rebels gave up in disgust and began wearing baseball caps back the front. But this too, will no doubt be ‘normalised’.  And so, on it goes – a very material form of dialectical materialism.

Earlier in this essay, I made the assumption that graffiti of the unintelligible type is a relatively recent development.  That, of course, may not be true.  We must at least entertain the possibility that such a mode of expression – a protest or an attempted relief from intellectual despair – may be as old as human history.  We have an account in the ancient literature of the shipwrecked Aristippus and his men being swept up onto the Rhodian Shore. They have no idea where they are, and they are gripped by that fear associated with all unknown places – “here there be tygers”.  Then, in the sand, they see markings – unintelligible but clearly of human origin.  And so Aristippus delivered up a line which has now become a commonplace in the history books: “Let us be of good hope, for indeed, I see the traces of men”. I sometimes imagine that what he saw was an early example of graffiti.  Perhaps some outcast from the nearby city, some youth recently made jobless as a result of a new shipment of slave labour, had scrawled his frustration and sense of hopelessness upon the sand.  The New Testament, too, contains that famous incident where Jesus, having posed an awkward question to those who were about to stone the adulterous woman, bends down and writes in the sand.  Was he writing down the sins of the stone-throwers or was it just indecipherable doodling while he waited for an answer?  And, of course, I need to mention that famous incident of graffiti production given in Daniel in his account of Belshazzar’s Feast – Mene mene, tekel upharshin.  Well, it wasn’t really graffiti but it was rather difficult to interpret.  Could we not say that today’s writing on the wall is no less prophetic than that mentioned by Daniel?

Even more shocking thoughts come to mind.  Readers of this essay will no doubt recall a number of recent television programs dealing with the development of Homo sapiens.  It started with Jacob Bronowski and Sir Kenneth Clark, but then everyone else jumped on the bandwagon.  Certain cave paintings from whatever lithic period are given as evidence of our “coming of age’ as it were. We think immediately of Chauvet and Lascaux.  This interest in art, they suppose, really marks out the beginnings for civilised humankind.  I think you know what I am about to say, so I’ll just set the scene for you.   It is a starlight night sometime in the Neolithic era. The tribal elders are up on the hill with the young initiates.  They stand between two great rocks placed there in the dim past by their ancestors to mark the positions of the setting sun at the summer and winter solstices.  The lesson in astrogeography is about to begin and the chief teacher points to a constellation of stars we know as Ursa Major.  Tomorrow afternoon, it will be basic geometry.  Down below, meanwhile, two spotty-faced youths recently ejected from the class for sub-standard work, creep into a storage cave under the cover of darkness.  One holds aloft a sputtering torch.  The other carries a crude pot, possibly made from a Pterodactyl skull.  It contains red ochre and some lumps of charcoal.  They are clearly up to no good.  All this time, they are stuttering out some sort of litany but the words are unintelligible and appear to be repeated after the fashion of a record player stuck in the one groove.  Make of it what you will!