Wall stories: The funny and often beautiful world of graffiti

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

There's a vast conversation going on, and it's happening right now in a street near you. Some of it is funny, some of it is strangely beautiful, some of it is downright disturbing. Paul Vallely has seen the writing on the wall

Graffiti is the way that a society talks to itself. That's the theory of Axel Albin and Josh Kamler, a couple of designers from San Francisco who started photographing examples in the area around their studio and then became infected by the idea and began to garner examples from all around the world. Mind you, you know what they say about people who talk to themselves.

If graffiti is a kind of conversation it's a pretty solipsistic one, a dialogue of the deaf, peppered with Pinter pauses, for there are none so deaf as those who will not listen. The standard polarity is between those who insist that graffiti is a modern art and those who think it a vandalising nuisance.

There is, of course, something about graffiti that humanises. The oldest ones I've ever seen were in the Ephesus, the Greek city shaken to ruins by an earthquake AD614. The tourist guide pointed out scratchings in the great white stones which he said were an antique advert for a local whorehouse. In Pompeii the scorching ash wiped out human life but preserved the drawings and phrases etched into the walls recording abuse of the powerful, magic spells, declarations of love, smutty aphorisms and political slogans. They are the mere marginalia of a culture but they summon as in dreams the voices of long since buried men and women.

In the old days it was blade on stone, though a friend once stayed in the gatehouse in Windsor Castle where the staff pointed out to him the tiny initials A B in a pane of ancient sagging glass; they were scratched by Anne Boleyn, with her diamond ring, as she awaited transportation to the Tower of London. But the tools of modern choice are the spraycan, the marker pen, the sticker and the stencil. Much of this is mere self-indulgence – calligraphic signatures by which taggers mark out their territory as tomcats do with urine. When I lived in New York in the mid-1980s the city was a battleground between taggers, the most active of whom left his mark on 500 buildings, and the authorities who ran intensive graffiti removal programs. The city's mayor, Ed Koch, convinced that graffiti fuelled a general sense of squalor and a heightened fear of crime, spent $22m on zero-tolerance policing and a chemical wash for trains that dissolved the paint. The B-boy rebellion was crushed. But other rebels have taken their place.

Rebellion is at the heart of graffiti which, by definition, is inflicted on someone else's property. That revolt can be political, as in the words once daubed on the Berlin Wall or the images on today's Israel security barrier where Banksy painted a satiric hole revealing an idyllic beach on the other side. It can be poujadist, as in the curmudgeonly resident of Barcelona who painted: "Why call it the tourist season if we can't shoot them?" It can be cultural: "Your TV wants to own you" in New York. It can be ironic: "I just want to be your housewife". It can be humorous, as in "I still hate Morrissey". (Well, I thought that one was funny.) It can be all those things: "Wanted: dead kids for war" in Manhattan or "Create beautiful children: marry an Arab" in Tel Aviv. It can be brave, like the anarchist's "Against all authority" in Tehran. Or chilling, as was "Remember the flowers I sent..." in the same city.

But its great joy is its evanescence. It is, like the life it celebrates, impermanent. "Please don't take this sticker down," said the sticker in San Francisco. But somebody will. Somebody will.

'Written on the City', by Axel Albin and Josh Kamler, is published by How Books, £16.99. To order a copy at a special price, including free p&p, call 08700 798 897

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on