James Lello finds where the politics of graffiti are relevant to Cambridge
by James Lello
Thursday 7th June 2012, 17:19 BST
Despite Teresa May’s alleged desire to ‘move beyond the ASBO’, there is a consistency between her attitude to anti-social behaviour and David Miliband’s. Just over three weeks ago, he pledged a war on society’s criminals, saying that they should ‘make good on the damage they have caused, help rebuild the community project, clean up the graffiti, fix a wrecked garden.’ He went on to say, “of course, [making good] won’t be appropriate in all circumstances and should only happen if the victim wants it to.’ Ignoring for a second the incongruous placement of graffiti next to ‘a wrecked garden’, there is something important implicit in what Miliband said: there are circumstances in which it is inappropriate to clean up graffiti. The question, then, is what are these circumstances?
Graffiti is both one of the oldest (cave drawings) and one of the newest (tagging) forms of writing we have. As something that is simultaneously outlawed and venerated, it is a rich way through which to read the cultural landscape of location. Bearing this in mind, it seems that Cambridge’s cultural landscape is rather lacking.
At first glance there is little, if any, wall inscription in Cambridge. Yet like many first glances, this is only superficial - Cambridge has a century-old graffiti tradition dating back to the Civil War in which Kings College Chapel was used by Oliver Cromwell's troops. Whilst the chapel escaped major damage, Graffiti left by Parliament soldiers is still visible on the north and south walls near the altar.
This is not the only example of an old graffiti heritage in Cambridge. Above the fireplace in the Old Treasury in St John’s College, for example, there are several signature inscriptions. The dates of these signatures range from 1542-77 – some legible, some not. Yet this wall-writing would not be considered “graffiti”. As far as town councils are concerned, they are not violations against the community because over time they have become appropriated by the community – Montaigne’s vandalism of the rafters a crucial characteristic of his library.
Montaigne’s inscriptions draw attention to the distinction between public and private writing – his vandalism was on private property, and thus was not really vandalism. Without the excitement and immediacy of a risk taken and a rule transgressed, wall drawings become significantly less interesting. The transgression of space is central to the practice of graffiti. The labels “public” and “private” depend not on the content of what is being written, but on the surface upon which it is being written – who owns a park? At what point are graffiti artists allowed to use a wall?
The word ‘graffiti’ is associated with all kinds of extraneous baggage, which is why a drawing on a wall can be deemed a politically charged violation of a community. Graffiti is seen as a way of treating a city as though it were ‘your living room’ (the Cambridge council states that it is not illegal to write graffiti on ‘interior space of any property’).
Rather than gently blurring the distinction between authorized and non-authorized writing spaces, graffiti emerges as a statement of conflict between one class and another, seeking to engage or clash with the environment it inhabits. Local historian and tour guide Allan Brigham recalled how "When I came to Cambridge in the 70s I will never forget seeing graffiti saying: 'Bash a grad’. Graffiti gives people a kind of fame and ownership via the anonymity that emancipates them allowing them to be present where their social status does not allow them. Put simply, graffiti represents the struggle for space in a metropolitan environment.
On cycling around Cambridge hunting for graffiti hotspots the best I found were in Kings Hedges and Long Road. The most prolific Cantabrigian tagger is ‘Bamby 89’ whose presence one can trace all across the town. The ‘tag’, a kind of unique signature, is a mark of local style, and rarely has to do with legibility. In what is known as ‘wilde style’ graffiti becomes not so much about arranging letters as about making a picture, or leaving a mark. In order to maintain a sense of authorship, ‘Bamby’ includes what seems to be his date of birth in his tag. This ownership that graffiti artists have over their tags is categorically respected. To ‘bite’ or steal the mark of another artist is a cardinal sin.
It is a tired commonplace that graffiti is criticised for obscenity when it is normally not even obscene. It is often described in the same way as pornography: as violent, parasitic. Perhaps it is the instinct of civilized society to condemn as profanity any writing that obeys a different set of rules – the grammar of the city is threatened by the illegibility of graffiti.
The law provided by the Corporation of the City of Cambridge states that they seek ‘to prevent unsightliness of property by prohibiting graffiti on property and requiring that property be kept free of graffiti.’ As with many things, its legal prohibition only raises the stakes.
Graffiti in Cambridge – as everywhere – has only an ephemeral existence. The practice is constantly threatened by erasure. The graffiti-writer is admired for his or her ability to place the mark somewhere out of reach, or place it in so many places that all cannot be undone. In this sense, graffiti becomes the triumph of the anonymous writer, inseparable from questions about politics, class, ownership, and art.