When​ the London Tube emerges into daylight, the walls beside the tracks are laced with dark, dirty and dangerous-looking cables, but at intervals we may glimpse clusters of bold letters sprayed in brilliant colours on the side of a derelict building or a metal shed. And where the high banks of brambles give way to old brick beside the Overground there are long sequences of competitive exhibits in this style of graffiti. We may be reminded of the onomatopoeic monosyllabic words framed by jagged bursts which were found in comic books – WOOSH and SPLAT – and the miracles promised by the labels of cleaning products – DAZ and FLASH – but now the zigzag, blocky or rotund letters are so interlocked and jumbled that the words are often hard to decipher, even if the train is ‘held at a red signal’. And, when the words can be made out, they may mean little to anyone outside the circle of the artist.

Forms which so insistently project, shunning all recession and relaxation, must seem aggressive, but the fat, jumbled, colourful letters (here designated as FJCL) are certainly not the howls of the oppressed. The intrepid trespassers who are responsible, despite the furtive circumstances in which they work, display a jubilant elaboration and a relish for the enigmatic which are incompatible with expressions of anger. Nor are they spontaneous outbursts. The internet provides patterns for the different styles of letter and, even if rapidly executed, many of them are carefully rehearsed; ‘tags’ are done at a very different speed to more intricate pieces.

It is now too late to stop calling FJCL, or the insults and slogans which are often found on the same walls, graffiti, but the word originally described marks that were scratched with a blade or a point and thus differed greatly in character from anything sprayed, which is unavoidably soft-edged. A spray can is operated with the arm rather than the wrist. With some practice, pleasing loops can be produced, but a meandering cursive script is more common. The letters are rarely small. By contrast, a scratched line is incisive, can be dashed with rapidity, but must slow down when it curls. It can also be minute and tidy. Scratching was once an essential part of the business of recording – horses, indeed, are still ‘scratched’ from races and the ‘score’ is kept in many sports – and of amorous communication on glass panes or tree bark.

The word graffiti is related to the Italian sgraffito, a style of decoration in which fine lines are scratched through pigment to reveal burnished gilding beneath. The technique was employed in quattrocento panel paintings and in the polychrome baroque decoration known in Spain as estofado. Sgraffito also describes a technique employed to decorate the surface of pottery. And, in 19th-century watercolour paintings, a small scratch through a wash of colour to the white paper below was often contrived to imitate the roughness and rapidity of falling water in a distant mountain stream. Scratched graffiti are, however, seldom ornamental or artistic. They sometimes appear as tags on mirrors or windows (made with a key, knife or drill bit), but are more familiar to us in the form of marks inflicted on a poster beside a bus stop or on a station platform – sometimes on images which are deemed, and are perhaps sometimes designed, to be ‘asking for it’.

Interventions of this kind seem to be less common now. Philip Larkin’s ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ was written in 1962 in response to posters advertising seaside resorts and holiday camps. The laughing girl kneeling on the beach in the poster described in this poem has, within a couple of weeks, become ‘snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed’, with her crotch ‘fissured’. Astride a ‘tuberous cock’ and stabbed ‘right through’ the ‘moustached lips of her smile’, ‘She was too good for this life.’ The poster is torn off the wall: ‘Now Fight Cancer is there.’

Such attacks were a familiar sight, sometimes supposed to show the way the dispossessed exacted vengeance on the dreams – and lies – of publicity. More certainly, they were made by insecure young males acting out their misogyny – a condition which other posters now strive to eradicate (or at least fight). However, the most famous assault on the image of a female in Britain in the last century was not animated by impulses of this kind. On 10 March 1914 Mary Raleigh Richardson, an educated, high-minded art student (who died a year before Larkin wrote his poem) made an early morning visit to the National Gallery, smashed the glass covering The Rokeby Venus, and slashed the canvas – a protest, she claimed, against the government’s treatment of Mrs Pankhurst. The painting was a recent acquisition, saved by public subscription from export, and the publicity it had obtained made it a desirable target, as did the fact that it represented the goddess of beauty and was painted by Velázquez, the Old Master most revered by modern artists. Only later did Richardson claim that she was also offended at the way men ‘gaped’ at the painting. Now, however, it is often presumed that this was a blow against the ‘male gaze’, and it is more than twenty years since the proposal was advanced that the Venus should have been preserved in its damaged condition as a work by Richardson (presumably as a sketch, since her intention was to destroy it). As recently demonstrated, however, the painting is now vulnerable to assault by champions of a very different cause.

Whatever the significance of Richardson’s activism for artists today, it is not yet a model that can rival in its influence Marcel Duchamp’s additions to a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, which he made in 1919 to mark the 400th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. Having supplied her with a moustache and beard, he scribbled a coded obscenity across the image. Subsequent versions and replicas of this imitation of juvenile misogyny, made by both Duchamp and his disciples, are treasured by museums and collectors and have not only been admired as daring blasphemy but have excited much learned exegesis, including an article in Artforum in 1968 which suggested that, by adding facial hair, Duchamp linked Leonardo’s ‘homosexuality to this intellectually aloof lady’ and thus ‘exposed the raw sexual ambivalence underlying her image’. We may imagine a lawyer representing Titch Thomas (who, in Larkin’s poem, has signed the desecrated poster) justifying the action thus to a perplexed magistrate. For the moment, however, the veneration for Duchamp among orthodox academic modernists renders him less vulnerable than Velázquez to the charge of misogyny.

The urge to register one’s presence, even if only with a pseudonym, is a powerful factor in the history of graffiti. It is found when some forbidden or previously inaccessible territory is being explored (thus we know which artists first penetrated the subterranean ruins of Nero’s Golden House). There is also, it seems, an urge to join a community of trespassers or pilgrims. The circumstances are often puzzling. The 14th-century alabaster effigy of Ralph of Shrewsbury in Wells Cathedral is not only covered with names and initials – cut, three or four centuries later, into the episcopal gloves of his praying hands and also the flesh of his face – but some of the letters are deeply incised with neat serifs. These must have taken hours to execute, surely suggesting that the cathedral’s guardians either indulged or ignored the abuse of this ancient image of a pious predecessor. Just possibly, such graffiti were themselves regarded as a mark of piety.

FJCL is of course not only a feature of TfL but is found all over the world (I am reliably informed that it has spread to many parts of China). In Barranco, a suburb of Lima, sprayed letters, often combined with figures and faces, are seen not only beside the freeways but along whole stretches of the side streets; they sometimes compete with, and occasionally invade, commissioned murals. In a few places FJCL is permitted, in others it’s illegal. Portions of the wall outside Lima’s art museum seem to have been reserved for graffiti. Special tours are advertised. The letters are invested with the geometric energy of the birds and beasts – the flamboyant serifs recalling fangs and claws – found in the textiles that were made there long before the Spanish arrived with their firearms, and the alphabet. It exceeds in its vitality much of the work that is carefully packaged for museums of contemporary art, which solicit the approbation of the graduate in modernist theory and anticipate the predictable pieties of interpretive curatorial labelling.

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Vol. 46 No. 7 · 4 April 2024

Nicholas Penny, writing about graffiti, mentions some of the applications of the technique of sgraffito in the fine arts and pottery making (LRB, 7 March). Sgraffito is also the term for the decoration of the façades of buildings in the canton of Graubünden in south-eastern Switzerland, particularly in the Lower and Upper Engadine valleys, Bergell and Val Müstair. These designs – geometric patterns, rosettes, ribbons and mythological figures – may cover part or the whole of a façade, and surround doors and windows, corners etc. They are etched into the surface plaster by a knife or stylus so that the colour of a deeper layer shows through.

John Potts

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