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How does graffiti provide an alternative voice in history?
By Keenan Thornton ©
“… There is a sense in cutting ones own name upon imperishable rock without defacing it. Some may come afterward, and seeing it, feel as if meeting an old friend.”
- Carter Henry Harrison
Today, the word graffiti tends to refer to any graphics applied to a surface in a manner that constitutes vandalism. But the word graffiti was first used to describe inscriptions, carvings and figure drawings that were found upon the walls of ancient ruins or monuments, created without explicit permission of the original creators. Graffiti from ancient times has lent itself as evidence to archaeologists and historians, but it is often overlooked as a usable historical source thanks to the modern perception that the word graffiti implies it is van-dalism and does not contain useful historical narrative. By looking at traveller’s graffiti from the past, the work of Roger O. De Keersmaecker, G. Maspero and J. Derrida give insight into arguments of historical antiquity versus evidence that have surrounded graffiti, how it can constitute a narrative and how ‘voices’ come through from the past. “The historian studies the past textually” and this causes them to rely mostly on the dominant voices of history, negating the potential use or value an alternative form of information could have as a source. Keith Windshuttle’s “The Killing of History”, like Derrida, helps to examine who these dominant voices are. Alongside Jim Sharpe’s “History From Below” alternative voices are brought to light, how the historian is able to study them, and finally how graffiti provides an alternative voice in history.
Because “the historian studies the past textually”5, graffiti is often overlooked as a usable historical source, not just because it is often pictorial but because of the modern perception that the word graffiti implies it is vandalism. But there is graffiti from past times that has been looked at historically, specifically what is known as traveller’s graffiti. Upon the pyramids are thousands upon thousands of scribbled names and initials, and all across the monuments of the Nile and inside the remains of tombs, from Egypt to Sudan, travellers have left their names and effigies from across the eras. The ‘travellers’ who have left their marks were all people on a journey and the inscriptions that can be found from the 1700’s to early 1900’s have been the most scrutinised and made the most famous historical inquiry. An expert in this particular field, Roger O. De Keersmaecker writes about his interests in the lives and stories of people and of the multitude of travellers whose journey’s can be traced through their graffiti. Keersmaecker’s documentation6 expresses the importance of studying traveller’s graffiti; the appearances of key historical figures in Egypt in the past, tales of unknown Napoleonic soldiers, discoveries of who was first to enter a tomb and the amazing stories that without the “defacing” of monuments would otherwise be lost to history. He says that “graffiti brings the travellers closer”, and what is “interesting”8 is finding a famous European individuals name from the past stretched across different temples and monuments of the Nile and researching and discovering more about them through books, photographs, paintings, and diary entries8.
Over time there have been many different opinions about traveller’s graffiti. Even in the nineteenth century there were those who considered it vandalism and early in the twentieth century there were already those who saw an importance in treating graffito’s as a form of antiquity. However there is never one side taken in considerations of graffiti, whether it is vandalism or if it has historical value. As Keersmaecker’s research brings to light, rather in the past it seemed one’s consideration of an individual graffito was a biased personal and cultural product of their age. As he points out from his study of travel accounts in the 1800’s “when it [the account] was written by an English traveller they would note that most of the graffiti they saw was from the French, and when it was written by a French traveller they noted that most of the graffiti they saw was from English travellers”.
One traveller from the 1850’s, George Melly, commented in his published travel accounts on the “disgraceful practice which has grown up among traveller’s in the east, of defacing the temples and other monuments of antiquity… Pompey’s pillar has not escaped this irruption… and is emblazoned with names. I am sorry to add, that they are British ones”. George Melly appeared to greatly criticise the vandalism on such a monument, but later in his account while visiting the “temples of Semna” he found “among the sculptures… the names of Wilkinson, Holroyd - Hyde…” and others “of European celebrity”10. Suddenly here “in such good company”10 Melly was proud to inscribe his own name. It was simply common for a traveller in Egypt to leave their own name somewhere in the course of their travels, and a traveller like Melly’s consideration of the difference between vandalism and antiquity is slightly hypocritical; it is dependant on who created it, when and where. The names of key travellers before him are worthy to be remembered in stone while bias is shown to the majority of travellers in his own era who, according to him, are simply adding to the destruction of venerable monuments.
taste are irritated when they come across them”7, states G. Maspero. In his
article “New Light on Ancient Egypt” Maspero makes light of the ironies of
perceptions of vandalism versus antiquity that arise over traveller’s graffiti.
Written in 1909 he discusses the effects of tourism in
The work of Keersmaecker emphasises the nature of graffiti in shedding light on the stories of people in the past. When looked at from this particular perspective graffiti becomes a form of narrative for the common traveller or person. Maspero’s rather romantic detailing of the graffiti left by French soldiers - “names, dates - protestations of affection for their native land” and “contempt for grammar”11 - highlights this same perspective. That graffiti serves a function for the common man not only to leave a trace of himself in history, but also to leave a narrative of his present, vibrates like a Derridean critique.
The issue that historians usually have with graffiti is that because “they study the past textually” - they rely on sources that constitute written information. Even though a graffito may be in written form and express something that needs to be read, often that isn’t enough to imply it has an historical narrative. Also, because the historian is placed within their age and personal context, they may perceive that graffiti is still an aspect of vandalism, even if it has value as a form of antiquity, scribbled during the time of an ancient society studied today. So, how can graffiti constitute an historical narrative if it’s not writing?
As Jacques Derrida argues, when opposing the western view that if it is “without writing it is without history”,, is that “writing designates the broadest of phenomena, [and is] everything that gives rise to inscription… any kind of markings - hieroglyphic - cuneiform, from the distant past to the present”, both “pictographic and ideographic”16. As Derrida states “writing can be articulated in graphic substances, wood, wax, skin - stone, metal” and that it is “aural as well as visual… the pictorial and the sculptural”16. With this argument in mind, writing then is any kind of “markings” and “images” that presents meaning and “exceeds speech”15, and so graffiti in any form in any era is writing. Therefore, since graffiti gives light to the stories and comments of people in the past that would otherwise be lost in the darkness, as the writings of Maspero and the work of Keersmaecker stresses, then it has a function as historical narrative. In this way, just like the writings of institutional historians from the past, ancient, objective or enlightenment thinkers, and even like the accounts of travellers in Egypt and Sudan, graffiti is a written expressive form in which ‘voices’ come through.
The dominant written texts of the past are heavily relied on as the voice of the past, because historians look to a specific kind of historical narrative. So what are the dominant voices? As Keith Windshuttle describes in “The Killing of History” they are found within the “biggest single source of evidence” that historians rely on; “the working records of the institutions18 of the past”. They remain dominant not because of who the individuals who established their voice in that time were, but from where these individuals recorded their voice. From what perspective these past historians were able to position themselves from the subject they were recording. By being a part of the “institution”, or by being above or outside of the social structure and subject that their work was enquiring about, their voice to future historians appears more reliable. Firstly, of course, because it is written, and secondly because it provides itself as an “explanation” that can be “analysed for authenticity and significance”18. The dominant voices provide information that is positioned and created in the way historians prefer, history that can be sifted through because it was created for the sake of posterity. This is the kind of historical narrative that is preferred, the kind that Windshuttle remarks were meant for “consumption”18.
often overlooked against this kind of evidence. Although graffiti clearly
represents a kind of narrative, because it can be perceived as vandalism it
appears to most historians that it does not provide a clear and purposeful
narrative. This of course does not stop it dead; historians have used graffiti
as evidence many times in the past to help in their study of societies. There
is a wealth of graffiti from ancient Roman societies, such as at
Graffiti like this has been used extensively not just in the study of ancient western societies, but all ancient societies, because it falls to antiquity. What needs to be clear about graffiti is that whatever era it is created in, it is never fully intended for future posterity. Like the works of the ancient historians, it was always created for “contemporary consumption”18, with not much or any consideration for who may look back on it centuries into the future, and how they may be socially challenged to perceive it. However, it would be remiss of historians to ignore such evidence simply because it doesn’t align with traditional views of written history.
ancient graffiti from places such as
“Given that this historical narrative is one way of viewing the world”, as Roland Barthes asked, “how [can it convince] its readers that it is the only way?” Windshuttles’s “The Killing of History” explains that the most relied on “historical narrative takes the form of documents that remain from the past”24, which are the dominant voices. As has been discussed it has everything going for it, which is why historians prefer it. Like Barthes questions, it’s obvious that there are other “alternative”24 ways to view history. The alternative voices in history were recognised – thanks to the Marxist approach to history26 – as the common people, those from below27, the working class. When trying to find these alternative views historians of course mostly go in search of the texts written by lower-order historians. Even in this case historians still prefer to go in search of a particular form of narrative.
In order to perceive alternative forms of evidence historians need to take the Derridean approach to evidence; that anything is writing and so therefore all forms of antiquity created by anyone have historical narrative. Historians often come across evidence “they had not anticipated… [and] this unexpected evidence will suggest alternative arguments [and] interpretations… to pursue”24. Graffiti, although it most often constitutes vandalism, contains historical narrative and is created by different individuals, and as Sharpe’s “History From Below” helps to understand, graffiti helps to “establish the identity of the lower orders”27 and as a form of alternative evidence of past societies, from Egypt to Rome, has been used to “criticise, redefine and strengthen the historical mainstream”27 because it is evidence from a totally different perspective. Those who deface walls and scribble slander and inappropriateness in human history, are “those writing history from below”, providing an alternative to the dominant voices. In this way graffiti is a written expressive form of historical narrative in which alternative voices “come to light”, and can provide a distinctly different perspective for the construction of history.
Bradley, Pamela “Cities of Vesuvius;
Curthoys, Ann and Docker, John “Is
- Roland Barthes quote sourced
- Derrida’s “Of Grammatology” sourced
De Keersmaecker, Roger O. Interview on traveller’s graffiti conducted via email
19 - 31 May 2010
- Harrison, Carter
Henry’s In Defence of graffiti quote “A
race with the sun”
- G. Maspero “New Light on
p. 150, 156
De Keersmaecker, Roger O. “Traveller’s Graffiti from
Manko, Tristan “Street Logo’s” Thames and
p. 7 - 9, 11, 43
Seaford, Richard “
Sharpe, Jim “History from Below” from “New perspectives on historical writing” (ed. Peter Burke), Polity Press 1991
Windshuttle, Keith “The Killing of History” Macleay 1994
www.StreetsofDublin.com/graffiti/1_ancient_graffiti first accessed December 2009
www.egypt-sudan-graffiti.be first accessed May 2010
www.Religionfacts.com/jesus/image_gallery/200_alexamenos_graffito first accessed June 2010
19 - 31 May 2010
a source became integral to this projects research. After researching his
background contact was made via email, as he lives across the other side of the
“Is History Fiction?” came later into the research and at the beginning of writing the essay. However, its information on J. Derrida’s “Of Grammatology” created interest in the text. After thorough analysis of chapter 7 “The Linguistic Turn”, it proved invaluable in providing a large body of historians and different opinions on historical narrative to be interpreted and integrated into the essay’s focus on graffiti. After the analysis of vandalism versus antiquity and the narrative of graffiti through the research of traveller’s graffiti, the historians and interpretations provided in the text helped to assess what constitutes historical narrative. J. Derrida’s quote on what is writing integrated perfectly with the essay’s focus on narrative and how graffiti can be used as evidence, as well as the quotes from R. Barthes which helped to strengthen the essay’s identification of the dominant historical narratives or “voices”. The text proved reliable in providing more sources of historians and information for the project at a point where Keersmaecker was being heavily relied upon, especially the quote “the historian studies the past textually” which proved highly useful in examining why the dominant voices are relied upon. The text was not written to discuss graffiti and the sources had to be interpreted differently to link them to specific ideas of graffiti and narrative that the essay’s first part on traveller’s graffiti had already addressed. The text proved useful in helping to build the essay’s argument on the arguments of previous historians, even though they discussing the construction of history not alternative evidence or graffiti.
This source had been a part of the project’s initial research, but not until it was decided to integrate quotes and information from “Is History Fiction?” was it considered to do the same with “The Killing of History”. The source is not about graffiti at all, and was the only source used within the essay that included terms such as “alternative” providing quotes which could be related specifically to the question, especially when Windshuttle discusses that “unexpected evidence will suggest alternative arguments and interpretations”. Windshuttle’s argument was very reliable in that it used strong terms that discussed evidence such as “institutional evidence” and history created for “contemporary consumption” and even suggestions of “alternative arguments and interpretations” within different forms of evidence which were used to strengthen the project’s proposed concepts of dominant and alternative voices. All the quotes used from the text were heavily re-ordered to suit the project’s grammatical flow and conceptual intentions, possibly misinterpreting Windshuttle’s arguments in order to relate them to graffiti.
Keenan Thornton ©
 Harrison, Carter Henry’s In Defence of graffiti quote “A
race with the sun”
De Keersmaecker, Roger O. Interview on traveller’s graffiti
 Manko, Tristan “Street
Logo’s” Thames and
 This term refers to any graffiti created by a foreign traveller in the area of Egypt to Sudan, this essay has coined the term from De Keersmaecker, Roger O. ‘s “Traveller’s Graffiti from Egypt and the Sudan” articles, and uses it extensively
 Quoted from Curthoys, Ann and Docker, John “Is History Fiction?”
 De Keersmaecker, Roger O. “Traveller’s Graffiti from Egypt and the Sudan” Graffiti-Graffito 2001
 G. Maspero’s “New Light on
 De Keersmaecker, Roger O. Interview on traveller’s graffiti rephrased - “those graffiti brings the travellers closer, the question: what they did there are there some photographs, paintings, books they wrote , that is the thing that is interesting to know”
 De Keersmaecker, Roger O. Interview on traveller’s graffiti rephrased - “when it was wrote by some English writers they wrote that the most of the graffiti they saw were from French travellers, and the French wrote that they saw lot’s of graffiti from English travellers”
 George Melley’s Travel accounts written in 1850’s as sourced from “Traveller’s Graffiti from Egypt and the Sudan” Volume II p.11 - 13, 28 - 29
 G. Maspero’s “New Light on
 De Keersmaecker, Roger O. Interview on traveller’s graffiti
 A Derridean critique meaning to view that anything created by anyone is writing and therefore any evidence contains historical narrative
 Quoted from “Is
 J. Derrida’s “Of Grammatology” sourced in Curthoys, Ann and Docker,
John “Is History Fiction?”
 By “writing” Derrida means the western consideration of textual readable material created by specific historians recording history for posterity
 Maspero’s “New Light on Ancient Egypt” which discusses that graffiti becomes a form of antiquity with age and therefore the narrative it presents will become of historical value near a century from it’s creation, and Keersmaecker’s “Traveller’s Graffiti from Egypt and the Sudan” articles which examine an amazing breadth of graffiti and documentation and emphasises his insights in his Interview on traveller’s graffiti on the importance of studying graffiti from ancient times so long as it can be treated as antiquity and not vandalism (which as has been discussed is reliant on an historian’s personal context)
 Windshuttle, Keith “The Killing of History” Macleay 1994
 “Institution” as quoted from “The Killing of History” means the professional establishment of writing history for the sake of posterity, historians within were writing their history specifically to be preserved and inform generations of historians into the near or far future
Bradley, Pamela “Cities of Vesuvius;
 Seaford, Richard “
 “Write their own history” this description was phrased from
information interpreted within Sharpe, Jim’s “History from Below” Polity press 1991 and “Is History Fiction?”
 Windshuttle, Keith “The Killing of History” Macleay 1994
 Quoted from “Is
 This sentence was interpreted from information on E. P Thompson’s inspiring Marxist approach to history in
27 Quoted from Sharpe, Jim “History from Below” Polity press 1991 although Sharpe’s perspective is more related to the Marxist approach to history and when he talks about history from below he himself is referring to texts written by lower order historians, individuals who were caught in class struggle themselves, Sharpe provided excellent quotes which related specifically to this projects focus on the alternative or different creators of historical evidence who can be percieved in graffiti
28 De Keersmaecker, Roger O. Interview on traveller’s graffiti