Tag Archives: Graffiti

The Writing on the Wall

By Amber Parrington, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

Walking in and around the buildings of the Royal Derwent Hospital, the oldest continuously used mental hospital in Australia, is an experience all to itself. Just by entering the site, one can feel the history, the presence of people long since gone, shifting and settling like a cloak on your shoulders. It pulls you in, invites you to walk the halls so many walked before, to share in their story.

Willow Court Barracks, Royal Derwent Hospital complex. View from right hand veranda.

Willow Court Barracks, Royal Derwent Hospital complex. View from right hand veranda.

Their story is visible too in the scattered remains of beds, doors, objects of various shapes and sizes all telling us something of this place. Objects large and small, broken and whole, all contributing in their own way.

Ward C hallway of doors

Ward C hallway of doors.

The Willow Court Barracks too, compel you to look and think back to what it must have been like during its operational years. In the right hand corner of the veranda that frames the Barracks lies the writing on the wall, which intrigued me as soon as I saw it.

Numbers on the wall of the right hand corner of the Willow Court Barracks veranda

Numbers on the wall of the right hand corner of the Willow Court Barracks veranda.

Hundreds of numbers and scratches resembling writing flow across the walls, overlapping and surrounding each other. Some written in pencil, others carved into the very walls of the building. Questions filter through my mind, who wrote these? What were they trying to say? Why numbers? Was it an attempt to copy the way builders do their calculations all over the walls? A form of expression or art? One after the other the questions come, leaving my mind swirling.

Writing on the wall of the right hand corner of the Barracks veranda

Writing on the wall of the right hand corner of the Barracks veranda.

The preservation of these numbers really hit home the fact that this site has history that isn’t just nearly 200 years old, but it also has a recent history which is just as important and significant. Archaeology looks to the past, be that 14 years ago or 1400 years, and all it can take for that journey to begin is something seemingly unimportant or uninteresting as some writing on the wall.

Writing on the wall right hand corner barracks veranda

Writing on the wall right hand corner barracks veranda.

Uncommissioned, Commissioned and Official: a different approach to contemporary graffiti

Distinguishing ‘legal’ public art from ‘illegal’ urban art, or ‘graffiti’, was a major theme that I addressed in my Honours thesis, Convenient Canvasses: an archaeology of social identity and contemporary graffiti in Jawoyn country, Northern Territory, Australia, which I submitted a few weeks ago. I have noticed a recent increase in the number of posts on this blog, including those of fellow students Susan Arthure and Daniel Petraccaro, which discuss ‘graffiti’ and its place in heritage and archaeology. I thought I would join in.

Throughout my research I approached graffiti as a vital artefact in the understanding of social identity and its capacity as a vehicle for protest against governmental policy, such as the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007. Essentially, I treated the contemporary graffiti of Jawoyn country as ancient landscape-markings, and the graffiti supports as though they were rock shelters. I did not want to approach the graffiti as though they were a manifestation of anti-social behaviour.

I treated these corrugated iron shelters, which featured between 52 and 205 uncommissioned graffiti motifs, as though they were ancient landscape-marking shelters.

My research took place in Jawoyn country in the Northern Territory, where landscape-marking, or ‘rock-art’ has been practiced as a form of communication for thousands of years*. This landscape-marking tradition continues today in Jawoyn country, however we refer to it as ‘graffiti’. My research focused on a particular type of graffiti: the seemingly illegal, opportunistic markings that individuals scribbled, scratched, sprayed, or wrote on surfaces in the natural and built landscapes; however I encountered several other graffiti types as well.

The superimposition of discriminatory uncommissioned graffiti over commissioned graffiti.

During the data collection, while examining a mural in the Barunga community, I began to think about the definition of graffiti and I asked myself: is this really a commissioned mural, or has someone painted it there without permission? Is it graffiti? My understanding of the term ‘graffiti’ evolved over the next few months to include ‘street art’, public art and regulatory signage, such as the example above. There is a whole section in my thesis dedicated to defining graffiti and the justification of that definition, which you can find by downloading a copy here. In the context of my research, graffiti is defined as a form of visual communication and intended human-made marking that occurs publicly on any fixed surface in the natural and built landscapes. Regardless of form, material, technique, legality and social and cultural acceptances, graffiti is communication through landscape-marking be it ‘uncommissioned’, ‘commissioned’ or ‘official’ graffiti.  The difference between these graffiti categories is in the authorship.

Uncommissioned graffiti: markings that do not have appropriate permissions. These are the uncensored and uninstitutionalised markings made by individuals as intra-group (within a group) and inter-group (between groups) messages, often in the form of, but in no way limited to, the ‘tags’ one would find spray-painted on a wall or train. Much of the graffiti in this classification can be construed as vandalism. Practitioners of this landscape-marking behaviour do so to associate and communicate with other members of a group, to propagate personal ideals or even to demarcate boundaries and eternalise their presence.

Commissioned graffiti: public art and advertising such as authorised murals, sculptures, statues, billboards and posters. This is a negotiated community action involving intra-group and inter-group messaging. Prior permission is sought for commissioned graffiti in the form of verbal or written contracts, often with an exchange of capital. There is a fine line between what constitutes commissioned and uncommissioned graffiti. The two classifications are so closely linked that authors, styles, forms, materials, techniques and messages of commissioned graffiti are frequently interchangeable with those of uncommissioned graffiti.

Commissioned graffiti: a mural in Barunga

Official graffiti: markings made to govern, inform, instruct and control. Institutions including businesses, local councils, government departments and other organisations predominantly author these inter-group messages in the form of official graffiti. Official graffiti includes everything from the white lines and arrows painted on road surfaces to geodetic survey markers to traffic signs.

Official graffiti, featuring uncommissioned graffiti

These classifications are based on authorship of contemporary landscape-markings as well as the permissions, or lack thereof, that legalise, or indeed criminalise the practice, rather than the core social attitudes that are attached to it. The diagram below shows that these categories are separate, yet they overlap in some instances.

Graffiti categories according to authorship

My research demonstrates that all communication through landscape-marking can be referred to as graffiti. My definition, which is less concerned with any legal and social issues, situates uncommissioned graffiti as being of equal importance in a network of visual cultures that includes murals and regulatory signs.

Jordan Ralph

This is the first of a series of blogs about my graffiti research. You can also find out more about my research via my blog or by following me on twitter: @JordsRalph

*I prefer to use the term landscape-marking over rock-art because I want to emphasise the relationship that these visual cultures have with the landscape and while I realise that rock-art is the conventional term, I believe that it relies too heavily on a single method and surface type.

Naracoorte Caves Internship

Hi all,

Today is the first day of my internship at Naracoorte Caves. I’m down here to do some work on the conservation of the caves themselves. I’ll be down here for about a week before coming back to Adelaide to work on the report (though I may yet find myself back down here in the new year).

So far its been fantastic, and just a bit full on. I arrived lunch time yesterday, and jumped straight into looking around Victoria Fossil Cave. I’ve spent this morning crawling around on my hands and knees while getting acquainted with Wet Cave, before heading to Blanche Cave where there is some amazing historic graffiti.

This afternoon I’ve been investigating Alexandra Cave, and will soon head back to Wet Cave to see if I can find any historic graffiti there, as well as taking another look at some of its conservation issues…