Why do we have such an urge to splash traces of our identities throughout our surroundings? City walls have long been more than just about keeping warmth in and danger out, but even before they existed and we sheltered in caves, we still found the need to decorate our immediate environment. Today though, the subject of wall decorations and just who has the right to make them has become an even more contentious issue.
Basic forms of graffiti were used as far back as early Greek and Roman times, notably in the use of the ichthys figure, otherwise known as the Jesus Fish. Here already, it was used a way to show membership of a group or to express opinion or belief. At some point though, these wall scratchings began to also be used for advertising purposes. Indeed, it is said that the earliest surviving example of 'modern' graffiti, in Turkey, is an advertisement for prostitution.
Over time, these basic forms of expression began to disappear in favour of more detailed and extravagant fresques and murals and the only people who continued to scratch messages on walls were soldiers and prisoners. Once again though, it was the need to sell and to advertise that bought messages back onto the walls of cities. Throughout the 19th century the cityscape was changed radically by the arrival of large, painted displays of produce and services, some of which are of course still visible today.
The city residents now found themselves surrounded by text and slogans. Whether it influenced them or not is an age-old debate, but it could not have left them unaffected. Indeed, when graffiti began to reappear in the city, notably in Paris, it was directly influenced by advertising. Guy Debord and the situationists hoped to provoke thought through the use of witty, pithy phrases that were almost a direct imitation of the kinds of slogans that people in the city had long learned to live with. Whilst these messages only exist in photos and books today (Sous la pavée la plage...), they continue to be influential amongst today's street artists, as can be seen in this example found in the Rue Chaptal.
Another one of the situationist's stock slogans was Ne travaillez jamais (Never work). It's unlikely that this message would be understood by the Russian immigrants in Paris who have taped and stuck a patchwork of work requests on a wall outside the Saint Alexandre Nevsky Cathedral. The wall here provides those who struggle to find the right words with a voice, and again shows how writing on a wall can help an individual in a city of 2 million people simply to exist.
Today, the worlds of advertising and graffiti seem to be far apart and few people see how closely liked they really are. In France, advertising boards and posters are regularly attacked by taggers who then leave tagged publicity messages themselves back to their websites. The irony of their gesture seems to be completely lost on them. Their motivation, a reduction in the number of 'aggressive' commercial messages in city centres, is perhaps worthy, but their inspiration comes clearly from the world of tagging. And is tagging not a step away from acceptable street-art towards self-promoting vandalism?
If many would argue that the distinction between graffiti as an artform and as an act of vandalism is in the choice of targeted support, few would argue that a suitable support would be the façade of a school for infants (the Ecole Maternelle Beslay).
The rather poor design of the establishment which did little more than give the taggers a mounted platform and a wall support should not be used as an excuse. We all struggle to be heard in the cacophony of the city, and such tagging can be seen as a cry from an invisible individual. The popular saying has it that walls have ears, but some walls should be entitled to silence.