Roman graffiti would not be preserved if not for an environmental catastrophe - the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D - when they were covered by the blanket of ash. As visible from the remnants of Pompeii and Herculaneum, scribbling graffiti was not an unusual practice centuries ago. In fact, it was quite common and widespread. Romans liked to scrawl their admonitions, jokes, political opinions, pleas, and existential ramblings on the walls of communal and private buildings. Their scribbles are usually bawdy, lewd, full of profanity, and vulgar defacements, but at the same time they are the testimonies of a life lived in that period, and of the way public and private spheres were negotiated and expressed.
Graffiti have long history reaching several millennia in the past. First scribbles go back to Egypt’s late Middle Kingdom. Homoerotic scribbles were also discovered on Thera at the Sanctuary of Apollo Karneios from 7th to 6th century B.C, and in later periods on the walls of early Christian catacombs and medieval churches. Until the development of the so-called ‘spraycan art’ in New York’s subway in the late 1970s, graffiti did not possess a specific style, but with development of urban cultures scribbles and drawings soon became a part of a broader street art milieu. In what follows, we will chart the characteristics of Roman graffiti, discuss their significance and make links to today’s scene.
“C. IULIUM POLYBIUM AEDILEM PRO VOW FACIATIS. PANEM BONUM FERT”
"I beg you to make C. Julius Polybiua aedile [a magistrate] . He makes good bread."
Ancient Roman wall is a site where different voices in Latin pronounced their ails and problems; confessed love or engaged in advertising. The importance of these graffiti lies in the fact that they served a democratic purpose of allowing different social strata to be present in public spaces and their voices to be heard, or in this case, read. Roman wall, being that of either private dining room or a forum, provided a stage for these voices to be performed. Their imprint is invaluable source for today’s researchers on everyday practices and life in the Empire. As known from history and preserved records, wealthy free men were the ones who wrote literature, created historical records, and participated in public debates. Female, children’s or slave voices are lost, if they were even recorded in the first place. By going through 11,000 scribbles preserved in Pompeii only, we can comprehend the full dynamism of a developed Roman town. Its denizens used graffiti to advertise houses for rent, political campaigns, records of debts, prostitutes would write their adverts, and other everyday businesses were also written in this form. Contrasting today’s attitudes towards similar practices, it was completely acceptable to adorn wall with graffiti. In ancient times they were not observed as acts of vandalism but as a self-expression of citizens and thus graffiti were not prohibited. They were not referred to as graffiti though, but as writings and drawings, showing that they were looked upon as something similar to other forms of expression.
Poems were also often written on the walls, like the following example from Pompeii, which is a unique record of a female poetry done in graffiti in ancient times. Other examples include parts from the opening to Virgil’s Aeneid, a very popular literary piece in that period.
Oh, would that it were permitted to grasp with my neck your little arms
as they entwine [it] and to give kisses to your delicate little lips.
Come now, my little darling, entrust your pleasures to the winds.
(En)trust me, the nature of men is insubstantial.
Often as I have been awake, lovesick, at midnight,
you think on these things with me: many are they whom Fortune lifted high;
these, suddenly thrown down headlong, she now oppresses.
Thus, just as Venus suddenly joined the bodies of lovers,
daylight divides them and if…
"Phileros is a eunuch."
One motif that has been repeated constantly in the history of graffiti, both ancient and contemporary, is that of a penis. However, while today penis imagery is restricted to specific contexts, and its representation is often deemed unacceptable and vulgar, ancient Romans “held back no penis punches.” Penis drawings, frescoes, pendants, and other objects made in the shape of phallus were commonly seen on streets and citizens of ancient Rome. Some signs on the streets of Pompeii were made in the phallus shape, and it is assumed that they showed the way to brothels. Penis was also a symbol that carried a specific meaning beyond the immediate sexualized context. It was considered a good-luck charm, symbol of fertility, and a protector against the evil eye, which explains its presence on many private houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Today, penis is still a much scribbled image. Perhaps the most famous examples are Wanksy’s penises appearing near potholes in the Manchester area. Following the fall of the artist’s friend from a bicycle due to one of the holes, Wanksy draw penis images around the area to alert authorities about this problem. Soon this form of activism grew, and more artists and groups around the world started to use penis images in social activism, such as an artist from Pakistan and a radical art group Voina from Russia.
“ADMIROR, O PARIES, TE NON CECIDISSE, QUI TOT SCRIPTORIUM TAEDIA SUSTINEAS.”
"I wonder, O wall, that you have not yet collapsed, so many writers’ clichés do you bear."
Moving to present moment, graffiti represent still a somewhat uncharted terrain when it comes to general acceptance and valuation. While for some graffiti are an art form, others see them as acts of vandalism. History of street art seems to be long and turbulent, but while in ancient Rome and its Empire graffiti represented an accepted addition to public and private spaces, today the situation is less straightforward. However, we can still make some links between ancient and contemporary graffiti. Most of them relate to social and political situation of the times when they were made. Social activism is part of many street artists’ agendas today, and while ancient Roman graffiti were often more focused on lewdly topics, some also actively protested against social circumstances and served as propaganda for political ideas.
From New York subway to streets and beyond, more elaborate and aesthetically pleasing forms of graffiti developed that are today a part of urban street culture. Although debates on whether they should be allowed to exist or not are continuing, street artists similarly continue to do their work in adorning our walls, in provoking ideas and opinions, and in criticizing the existing situation. Although tagging and textual graffiti seem to recede a bit in art, visual statements of different stances seem to substitute them properly. We don’t need to go too far to discover them. Some of the most famous street artists such as Eclair Bandersnatch, Miss Van, Eddie Colla or Banksy, are well-known for their graffiti where criticism, activism and humor mingle. Their artistic output is a continuation of the humorous and provocative elements present in Roman graffiti, and a worldwide frenzy about their work shows that this art form has not lost it allure and significance in contemporary times. On the contrary, it seems to be more relevant than ever.
Editors’ Tip: The Popular History of Graffiti: From the Ancient World to the Present
What is graffiti? And why have we, as a culture, had the urge to do it since 30,000 BCE? Artist Fiona McDonald explores the ways in which graffiti works to forever compel and simultaneously repel us as a society. Throughout history, graffiti has served as an innately individualistic expression, but it has also evolved into a visual and narrative expression of a collective group. Graffiti brings to mind not only hip-hop culture and urban landscapes, but petroglyphs, tree trunks strewn with carved hearts, and million-dollar works of art. Illustrated with stunning full-color photos of graffiti, The Popular History of Graffiti promises to be an important and dynamic addition to graffiti literature.
Featured images: Election slogans on a wall in Pompeii. Image via ancientworldlives.wordpress.com; Graffito in Pompeii of popular gladiators M. Attilius and L. Raecius Felix. Image via httpancientolympics.arts.kuleuven.be; Eclair Bandersnatch - Seat the Rich. Image via theculturetrip.com; Banksy - Kissing Coppers, Brighton, United Kingdom, 2004. Image via Widewalls archive. All images used for illustrative purposes only.