Graffiti's Medieval Antecedents

When graffiti writers talk about tagging up, they are talking about a physical process that requires lugging paint, finding the right place, being there--in a subway tunnel, on a highway flyover, in an alley, wherever--whatever the weather conditions, cleaning the walls, and drawing letters that require full sweeps of their arms as well as small, controlled amounts of pressure on the nozzle.

The art of the letter form is thus very physical. Translating the fantastic image in the mind--the graffiti piece--into a larger than life mural requires physical, emotional, and spiritual acumen. It is marvelous to watch a symbol--already an abstraction--become further abstracted and then linked to yet another abstracted symbol, made to look three dimensional, and then filled with shapes or images or colors or more stories in pictures.

Graffiti writers at work--play--are like eurythmists who reveal to the eye through movement what language and music bring to the ear, according to British eurythmy instructor John Ralph. "Words and music are not interpreted; the implicit inner gestures are displayed in their authentic movement, feeling and character," Ralph says.

Rudolph Steiner, an anthroposophist and proponent of the Waldorf education system, put it this way: "If a human being reveals through eurythmy-gestures what his being inherently possesses as language, and enables the entire soul experience to become visible, then the mysteries of the world may be artistically expressed."

This idea brings me to the research of Dr. Thomas Armstrong, who says that "words have deep connections to the human musculature. Scientists believe that language emerged, at least in part, from the physical movements of primates and early humans....In ways that are still too little understood, certain motor movements that functioned as communicative signs between humans over time became increasingly specialized in the vocal cords and other speech-producing areas of the body and brain." Body language?

Armstrong says: "We can also see how literacy emerged from the body by examining the development of print historically. Before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, all manuscripts were written down by hand. That meant that the process of reading was intimately intertwined with the intensive manual labor of calligraphy. Medieval students sat at their places in medieval universities and laboriously transcribed their teachers' lectures (the word lecture comes from the Latin word legere, “to read“). The act of reading itself often involved touching the words as one read, speaking the words out loud, and putting one's whole physical and mental energy into the work of understanding and comprehending."

I have heard men and women who oppose the act of graffiti writing say they would like to break the writers' legs for breaking the law and defacing property. That's physical, too! It's ironic, too, since graffiti is an illumination of text, an adding of color and design by hand to reveal a glimpse of the soul through symbols that represent, but are not, experience. The desire to break legs is of course a gut reaction and somewhat medieval, so maybe it's to be expected as appropriate in such a discourse.

More on graffiti on the Strange Attractions page.

(Image by Archaic)