Case Study: Graffiti: meaning and value in the context of carved stones

Case Study 34

Graffiti: meaning and value in the context of carved stones

Mark Hall

Graffiti (singular, ‘graffito’) covers a wide range of inscribing and incising techniques whereby inscriptions, symbols and pictures are scratched into a surface; the meaning has been extended to cover surface marking, through paint, chalk etc where the intent is informal and unofficial. Until comparatively recently it has been regarded as a marginal, defacing act, coloured by perceptions of vandalism in recent centuries, rather than the many more centuries when graffiti were accepted as a legitimate means of public expression, comment and even supernatural invocation. Thus graffiti’s value in adding layers of biographical meaning has been neglected. There are notable studies of specific sites with historical graffiti (Anderson 1900; Pritchard 1967; Barnes 1994; Lowe 2008) but latterly more systematic surveys and theoretically informed studies have begun to be undertaken (Blindheim 1985; Bushnell 1990; Fleming 2001; Oliver and Neal 2010; Kupfer 2011; Hall 2012c; Champion 2015). There remains a perceptible, conservative boundary between the value ascribed to what is considered historical graffiti and that ascribed to modern graffiti on historical monuments and contexts (such as at Fowlis Wester, Perth and Kinross, Figures 1 and 2). This split between historical and modern graffiti is problematic: all graffiti is of its moment and historical. The popularity of graffiti-artist Banksy, and the 2016 decision by English Heritage to list graffiti made by the Sex Pistols, show that a more holistic view is gaining ground.

There is no comprehensive and systematic study of the Scottish evidence. Existing studies to date include early medieval sculpture bearing modern graffiti (Hall et al. 2011; Hall 2012a; Hall 2015a; Hall and Scott forthcoming). Some of these graffiti are of amorous intent and such incisions of intention and desire have parallels with much older graffiti, including for example the early medieval corpus at the Neolithic tomb of Knowth, Ireland (Byrne 2008, 90; Swift 2008, 123) and the mid-12th century Norse graffiti at the Neolithic tomb of Maeshowe, Orkney (Barnes 1994). Several of these are sexually explicit. Graffiti express the idea that something is important, sufficiently so to be written down or otherwise depicted. It acts as a testimony of bodily presence in a place; as a memorialization of an event, a feeling or an idea and, in devotional circumstances, as a ritualized incision of devotion. Holy or sacred objects and spaces can be incised with graffiti about everyday life, thus appropriating that sacredness in support of one’s secular life (Plesch 2002, 181).

In Scotland, for example, early medieval sculptures at Upper Manbean, Over Kirkhope and Govan, for example, were reused as modern graveslabs. Characterised in ECMS as simply defacement, they signal much more (Allen and Anderson, 128–9, 431–2, 467–72). It is possible that even those marked only with initials indicate appropriation for commemoration by members of the community unable to afford more than a pauper’s grave for their kith and kin. Such graffiti have been more or less ignored as unwarranted interference with their respective monuments. But more recent archaeological approaches to graffiti (Fleming 2001; Oliver and Neal 2010) have both confirmed its wide temporal range (almost as old as ‘writing’ itself) and its social value in articulating non-mainstream voices and how they both inscribe against the cultural ‘norm’ and use that norm to endorse their counter-cultural statements.

Figure 1: Fowlis Wester standing stone with left to right, medieval cross and modern inscriptions (centre and right). Copyright Mark Hall

Figure 2: Fowlis Wester standing stone with neat panel of modern graffiti. Copyright Mark Hall