Collidoscope: Of Graffiti, Cars and Political Collages

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

Credit: Trina Shankar

Credit: Trina Shankar

Collidoscope is The Wire’s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society from across the world. You can subscribe to the Collidoscope newsletter here. If you missed the previous editions and would like to catch up, you can find them here.


Writing on the walls in Athens

A cat walks past a wall covered in graffiti in Athens, Greece. Credit: Gavriil Papadiotis/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

A cat walks past a wall covered in graffiti in Athens, Greece. Credit: Gavriil Papadiotis/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Why do people paint on public walls?

I’ve heard from several people who grew up in cities with graffiti that moving somewhere that doesn’t have any is disorienting – like an essential element of urban culture is missing. It’s seen as an expression of the times, a youthful, creative voice that can be a form of dissent, a way to spread a message or sometimes simply a work of art. There’s also a divergent view, that looks at graffiti as an eyesore, even vandalism. In most cities it’s illegal, unless you’re specifically commissioned to do it (if you’ve been watching the Netflix show The Get Down, like I have, you know just how much of an issue it’s been made in the past). But how does street art play out times of crisis?

In an article in the Journal of Language Works, Georgios Stampoulidis analyses graffiti found in post-economic crisis Athens, looking at what it’s trying to say and whether it represents public sentiment. He met with graffiti artists, asking why they do what they do:

“Athens is characterised by a sweet chaos that makes it so vivid! I love this kind of chaos because it gives me unexpectable inspiration.” – Graffiti artist WD

“Wall-fever has become apocalyptic, reflecting the heartbeat of a boiling city.” – Graffiti artist EXIT

According to the author, Athenian street art is a window into how a society responds to crisis and how people in Greece are thinking. It can help policymakers and researchers understand how people are viewing sociopolitical processes and changes:

“…it seems to me that the content and the meanings of these wall writings are connected with visual vocabulary and semantic symbols. In this light, the linguistic context of Athenian graffiti could provide evidence that it is not only the symptom of the crisis in contemporary Greece, but also a collective expression of an emerging urban subculture, which endeavours to metamorphose the image of the city…”

Stampoulidis then goes on to break down specific graffiti pieces that highlight issues ranging from the Eurovision song contest to a possible ‘Grexit’. These works, Stampoulidis argues, break down how young, urban people are engaging with a socio-political context that is changing, and not necessarily for the better. It’s a form of protest and an expression of frustration, but also a form of dialogue. They make their point through a mix of visual art and words, serious messages that are propagated through bright colours. One of the works the author looks at, for instance, says, “Then they used tanks, now they use banks”, and has a bright blue painting of a tank underneath.

The author accepts that his is a limited analysis, using five works of street art and interviews with graffiti artists. What’s left undocumented is how people interact with these paintings on a daily basis – those who agree with their message and those who don’t – and whether graffiti has the same political or social impact as conventional forms of urban messaging like commercial hoardings, for example.


Vehicle graffiti on the roads of Egypt

An Egyptian licence plate. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An Egyptian licence plate. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What do you want your car to say?

Street art isn’t very big in Delhi, though it is becoming more popular – there was even a whole festival that brings together international artists to paint on the city’s walls. But what’s always been accepted is writing on your vehicles – from trucks to autos. If you’re on the road, you probably don’t even notice the number of times you come across “Horn Okay Please” on the back of buses and trucks, or names and religious motifs on cars and autos.

Apparently that’s also the case in Egypt, according to a paper by Mohamed El-Nashar and Heba Nayef in Advances in Language and Literary Studies. Writing on cars is a very popular way for people to express themselves, though it isn’t often studied, they write. But why analyse it? According to the authors, “Whether viewed as egalitarian or authoritarian in nature, graffiti in general and vehicle graffiti in particular is a means of communication that gives voice to the marginalised groups of society.”

The authors divided 614 instances of verbal graffiti they found on cars over six months into four broad categories –  religious expressions, political expressions, identity expressions and social and philosophical expressions –and further sub-categories. A majority of the graffiti they found fell into the religious category. “The sweeping majority of Islamic expressions and rare occurrences of Christian expressions,” the authors write, “show how such discourse genre reflects social and religious power relations in Egyptian society.”

While the authors’ premise is interesting, what is missing is a look at what makes people write on their cars in the first place. It is also self-selective, it doesn’t say what proportion of people do choose to write on their cars or try to understand why those who haven’t done so prefer not to. Therefor, messages may be overwhelmingly religious because only the very religious feel the need to ‘spread the word’ by using their motor vehicles.

Given that, it may not always work to compare vehicle graffiti to wall graffiti, as a voice of the “marginalised”. There is at least one important distinction: while wall graffiti is public and done on public spaces, usually asserting a collective – and therefore, anonymous – rather than individual identity, vehicle graffiti is limited to private vehicles and done by owners themselves, usually to assert their personal identity and beliefs. Since vehicle graffiti is almost never anonymous, and unpopular messages can expose the owner to vandalism or worse, the range of views on display would automatically tend towards the ‘acceptable’ rather than the contrarian or unpopular.


A war of images

A collage by Hannah Höch. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A collage by Hannah Höch. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When the world doesn’t make sense, should art?

“An image war is taking place on the walls of Vienna: to gain territorial control of the space, political factions paint and paste up slogans and posters with their demands and exhortations. I’ve been visiting the city every few months for two years now, and I take note of the changes. My boyfriend lives in a working class district just outside the Gürtel, the beltway that straps central Vienna in place. It homes large Turkish and Serbian communities. On one visit there’ll be a new piece of anarchist sloganeering painted on his street; the next time, fascists will have sprayed a thick line through it, the circle A becoming a sun cross.”

In an article in the Verso books blog, Huw Lemmey looks at the art of Hannah Höch, John Heartfield and Bertolt Brecht, who used collage images to represent a world that they thought had stopped making sense:

“Artists such as Hannah Höch and John Heartfield took the optic of commerce and capitalism as the raw material of their art; not as neutral stuff (content, perhaps), but as a target. Their collages were intended to undermine the commercial image; to split, divide, recombine, and merge its meaning in order to fracture its ideological power.”

By cutting up bright, coloured commercials and breaking them up into collages that talked back to exactly the powers the ads were trying to promote, Höch and Heartfield, and their other Dadaist contemporaries, were attempting to reveal a political fragmentation. Heartfield’s work later became smoother, Lemmey writes, which was “not about creating an unsettling discordance with the detritus of capitalist life, but a dialectical statement, with the shock coming from the way the visual metaphor, the joke, the poke-in-the-eye of the capitalist, intersected with the strapline, the fact, the written command.” But it was more than satire – “Heartfield’s art is a tool, a weapon; the dialectical image, a red image.”

In his War Primer, Brecht’s work went back to what Höch and Heartfield used to do in their early days, commercial press images were cut and paste into his own. “He’s playing with paper and playing with time, using the newspaper photo and the poem as a bond between the throwaway and the carved.”

From the way Lemmey describes it, the methods Höch, Heartfield and Brecht used are not dissimilar from what well known street artists do today:

“The power of the work lies in that dynamic relationship between text and image. These are not illustrations. The text reveals the material nature of the image, cast in sorrow, rage, cruelty and pity. Like Heartfield, Brecht leads the reader to draw an unavoidable political conclusion: the rich and the brutal can only realise themselves in barbarism and death, with their senseless fist-fights conducted on the mounting bodies of the poor.”

That’s it for this week! If you liked what you read, please consider subscribing to this weekly newsletter.

If you have any comments or suggestions on what could be carried in this column, write to me at [email protected]

Liked the story? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.