What I think about when I think about graffiti

One of the issues I confronted very early in the graffiti recording process at Kilmainham Gaol was having to constantly reassess what I considered ‘graffiti’ to be, or not to be.

The academic literature on the subject varies considerably and can interpret graffiti very broadly – including extrapolating methodologies and theories from prehistoric rock art as a comparative to more contemporary graffiti – to extremely narrow sociological-based definitions. The latter has been referenced by Jeff Oliver and Tim Neal in the introduction to their excellent volume Wild Signs who note the claim that graffiti originated as a response to economic downturns in the NYC/Philadelphia areas of the US in the 1970s (2010: 1). Whilst these huge variations in interpretation reveal different interpretations of the link between context, intention and form materialized in ‘graffiti’ few of the definitions engage with the materiality of graffiti: what does graffiti look like?

An 'obvious' example of graffiti at Kilmainham Gaol

An ‘obvious’ example of graffiti at Kilmainham Gaol

Trying to identify graffiti may sound obvious and belonging to the realm of ‘common sense’ but attempting to interpret the link between intention and form can be problematic. This is especially the case in exploring graffiti in more historical contexts and involving interim periods of abandonment. In the case of the West Wing of Kilmainham Gaol we know from Prison Board records that the last ‘great whitewash’ of the gaol was on 18 September 1922. On this occasion a number of male ‘criminal’ prisoners were brought from Mountjoy as: ‘pictures of all sorts and scribbling appeared on the walls of the cells all of which it would be well to obliterate before the prison is again used (by the women) it would be a great improvement if it could be whitewashed’. However, on embarking on recording prison graffiti nearly 100 years after this decision to cover existing graffiti the impacts of time, decay, water infiltration and haphazard whitewashing means that many partial remnants are retrievable with even rudimentary technology.

Calendar in pencil emerging from the whitewash

Calendar in pencil emerging from the whitewash

Moving around Kilmainham Gaol with a digital camera, two stands and two electric lights a whole array of partial portraits, pieces of text, numbers, calendars and even maps appear. Whilst these pieces of intentionally covered graffiti raises the questions of how far we should try to retrieve these layers of graffiti and how partial can they be and still be recorded? Should we be noting what we can see or what we are meant to see? How partial should these retrievals be and still be considered graffiti? Are remnants of paint or glue used to create picture frames or attach paper postcards to cell walls graffiti? Conversely what do we do about pieces of graffiti that were engraved and thereby reveal, at least partially, their form through whitewash? After many attempts to record various forms of graffiti I noted that lightly engraved, large forms were the hardest pieces of graffiti to faithfully record using lighting and a digital camera. If we can see it but can’t record it should it still be included as part of the project?

Large engraving of a full length side profile portrait of a soldier. Face depicted.

Large engraving of a full length side profile portrait of a soldier. Face depicted.

As I moved across the initial cells I was recording I was moved to make the decision to broaden my definitions of graffiti to include any graffiti remnants, regardless of how partial, that could be recorded photographically (even if this took various photographs to piece together) and any piece of graffiti there was any possibility it was deliberately created. The longer I work at Kilmainham Gaol the thinner line appears between an accidental indentation created on a wall and a deliberately engraved line. It can be very difficult to define intention or interpret partial remnants but with time, experience and increasing accumulations of data hopefully I’m getting closer to understanding what is being deliberately created and what we can retrieve from it.


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