Life Written on Walls: Graffiti Subculture as life Writing

Abstract: This article inquires into the life narrating aspect of graffiti subculture in its reflection of subcultural and countercultural identities, focusing on the scribbles and drawings found along the public surfaces in Kerala, with a cursory probe into the history and salient features of the medium. Given that ‘Life Writing’ is the recording of selves, memories and experiences, whether one’s Own or another’s, graffiti could be brought under the purview of life writing since they are individual responses of human beings to the social, political and cultural life around them. Though a graffito does not record a sizeable portion of one’s life, and may not necessarily reveal the author’s identity, it provides first hand stories and accounts of an individual’s relationship to his/her milieu. While the established modes of Life Writing are written while knowing that they are being recorded and therefore will be remembered by posterity, graffiti are written to disseminate a thought, or to publicise a personal opinion or protest. Born out of an individual’s or group’s urge to publicise the emotions and feelings pertaining to private and public life, graffiti are essentially subaltern expressions that most often strives at subverting the established structures and assertions.

Keywords: memory, identity, counter-memory, counter-hegemony, resistance, protest, subculture, counterculture

‘The writing on the wall’ is an idiom which signifies an imminent Dom or misfortune. The expression originated from the Book of Daniel (The Bible), chapter 5 in which, a supernatural entity inscribes on the palace wall of King Belshazzar that his outrageous rule has turned God against him and the days of his rule have been counted. The inscription was at once a sharp-tongued criticism of the courtly life, and an anticipation of the downfall of Babylon. Not only in the Biblical accounts, but also throughout the history of human social life, walls have been used to communicate home truths which are otherwise hardly communicable. In all societies which have developed a graphical language or signs of communication, walls and other surfaces in public spaces are littered with inscriptions and drawings that form the names, pseudonyms and nicknames of people, rude and outright commentaries about ongoing social happenings, thought-provoking quotations, expletive remarks on someone or something, declarations of love and carnal desire, memorials of someone’s visit to a place, symbols communicating the psyche from which they sprang, off-colour humour, pictures and caricatures, etc. These words, figures, designs, symbols or pictures that have been scribbled, scratched or sprayed illicitly on the surfaces in public spaces are collectively called graffiti. This article inquires into the life narrating aspect of graffiti subculture, focusing on the scribbles and drawings found along the public surfaces in Kerala, with a cursory probe into the history and salient features of the medium.

The term ‘graffiti and its occasional singular form ‘graffito’ are derived from the Greek term ‘graphein’ which means to write, and the Italian term ‘graffiato’ which means something scratched on a surface. Graffiti are ubiquitous, and has been a part of human life since time immemorial. They are usually dismissed as visual noise and are often considered rashes on the skin of a city, since most of us are unaware that the city walls are alive with its social drama. We are clueless about what the tangled mass of names and pictures appearing on pubic surfaces speak of. We do not have ears for the intriguing commentaries they have to offer us about the lives, relationships, and identities of those who wrote them. But, ‘often these names, pictures, commentaries, and the vibrant subculture that lies behind them have a great deal to tell us about the culture we live in and some of the people who share it with us’ (Macdonald 2).

Graffiti have existed since ancient times, with examples dating back to ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire. “Past scholars generally viewed ancient graffiti as made by the members of the lower classes less educated and literate, who comment on their daily lives or express subversive views, or write scatological remarks” (Sebesta 538). Graffiti known as ‘tacherons’ (builder marks) Were scratched on the stone walls of Romanesque churches. Renaissance artists like Raphael, Michelangelo, and Filippino Lippi have carved or painted their names on their works, to assert the creator’s name on the work of art. There are also examples of graffiti occurring in American history, such as the signature rock, a national landmark along the Oregon Trail. Egyptian monuments bear the names of the French soldiers who attacked Egypt during the Napoleonic campaigns of Egypt in the 1790s. The best example of celebrity self-projection in graffiti perhaps is the -deeply engraved name of the British romantic poet Lord Byron, which still survives on one of the columns of the Temple of Poseidon in Greece.

Graffiti have special place in the history of the revolts against Injustice as the art of protest. They have been appearing in the forms of slogans, maxims, poetry, and cartoons, attracting the public to certain ideologies and thoughts and warning the authorities for their misrule. History has many instances of slogans becoming graffiti of a period, and certain graffiti becoming slogans of a period. The best example for this is the slogan of French revolution: ‘Liberty, equality, and fraternity,’ and the slogan propagated by Bolsheviks during the October revolution: ‘All power to the soviets.’

Although graffiti have been a part of social life – commenting on the life around – since time immemorial, they reached the zenith of efflorescence, whenever in history people organised themselves to rage against the injustice and misrule of the authorities which ruled them. ‘It was since 1960 that graffiti began to be a lively presence as the art of protest’ (Sethunadh 8). They arrested world attention during the uprisings against imperialism in Vietnam, Algeria, and the African countries, the student revolts that spread throughout Europe and America, the nationalist fires of Palestine, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, etc. Some of the ever remembered graffiti appeared on the walls of Paris during the student protests in 1968. The student community’s abhorrence for the bourgeoisie class, passion for revolution, and the dissent with authorities found their expression on the walls of Paris. Some of the most famous graffiti of the time are as follows: ‘One pleasure has the bourgeoisie, That of degrading all pleasures,’ Let’s open the gates of nurseries, Universities and other prisons,’ Kiss your love, Without leaving your gun;’ ‘Up against the wall you mother fuckers,’ ‘Professor, you are old,’ We wont ask, We wont demand, We will take and occupy; ‘There are no revolutionary thoughts, Only revolutionary actions;’ ‘To bargain is to capitulate,’ The general will against the will of the general,’ Those who haven’t any power to determine their life, are the workers,’ etc. One of the recent examples of protest graffiti: ‘The government lies, the Bank steals, the rich laughs,’ appeared on the walls of prominent banks, and other surfaces in public space a direct reaction to the financial crisis of 2008.

In modern times the style of graffiti evolved in an unprecedented way alongside with hip hop culture. Modern graffiti is said to have evolved from New York City, and it was initially called ‘New York Style’ graffiti. This novelty in the style of graffiti began in the late 1960’s when teenagers and youths used permanent marker and spray paints to tag or write their names in public spaces. The subcultural trend soon spread outside New York and overseas. Compared with the earlier times that used charcoal, chalk, stones, coal, and other crude graffiti materials, the modern graffitists got access to marker pens, spray paints, aerosol paint, etc. The advent of spray paint facilitated the proliferation of graffiti; it allowed the writings and drawings to augment in size and colour. Graffitists contracted a will to communicate with a sense of aesthetic awareness and soon complicated styles such as ‘throw up,’ top-to-bottom,’ and ‘stencil graffiti’ evolved along the increasing popularity of designs like polka dots, bubbles, crosshatches and checkers.

Assimilation and Commercialisation

By and by, the outlawed practice of graffiti assimilated into the mainstream culture. It has now been commercialised and used for materialistic and profitable ends. For instance, many multinational companies have writing was hired the service of graffiti writers to spray their logos and ad campaigns onto city streets in return for handsome pay packets. Companies that have practiced this include Coca-Cola, Nike, McDonalds, etc. Along with the commercial growth came the rise of video games depicting graffiti. For example, `the Jan Set Radio series(2000-2003) tells the story of a group of teens fighting the oppression of a totalitarian police force that attempts to limit the graffiti artists’ freedom of speech’ (Wikipedia). T-shirt companies have fashioned their products much like wall graffiti, bearing words and illustrations that are less likely to be articulated in the public without incurring ignominy. It is a bitter irony that graffiti – which were the messages of the marginalised to the ruling elite that they were not pawns of the hegemonic agencies—have been appropriated to promote commercial products. The fact that graffiti, today, are being used to encourage people to spend their hard-earned money on products they do not necessarily need, adds insult to injury. Today, graffiti as protest, and graffiti as art and advertising co-exists. Needless to say protest graffiti – tool of the dispossessed -have been eclipsed in public spaces by the flamboyant art form, and commercial graffiti.

Graffiti in Kerala

Compared with other countries, the stylistics of graffiti has not evolved considerably in India. Most of the public walls in India have been utilised for commercial advertisements and importantly for political sloganeering and propaganda by parties. Only a negligible minority appropriate the surfaces of building walls, boundary walls, fencing walls along railway tracks, walls of bus stations, surfaces of restroom, walls and furniture in colleges and schools etc, to unfold their psyche to the ongoing socio-political, economic, and cultural life around them. Only a few exceptional cities like Calcutta, Bangalore, Kochi, etc bear the artistic imprints of expression and protest.

Akin to elsewhere in the world, the walls of Kerala turned dynamic with graffiti that emitted political dissidence, disregard and opposition for authority, and calls for revolution, at the peak of anti-government movements.

The public spaces in Kerala are usually plentiful with the slogans and emblems of the prominent political parties. It was during the time of the naxalite movement that the walls of Kerala bore the antitheses to these hegemonic slogans and emblems. The Naxalite slogans like, “Naxalbari Zindabad,” (Long live Naxalbari) “Raashtreeyadhikaaram thokkinkuzhaliloode purathuvarunnu,” (Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun) etc, appeared on the walls of Kerala during the time of active naxalism in Kerala. (Sethunadh 12)

The activists, aiming to indoctrinate the public with their ideology, and to disseminate anti-establishment thoughts, appropriated the walls in public places. Civic Chandran, in a telephonic interview told us that the naxalites’ only means of mass dialogue with the public was through graffiti, and once inscribed they became the talk of the town. This ‘rational social action’ involved high risk, because, during the period the police forces, much like witch-hunting, were on the lookout for naxalites. There was also a perilous probability that someone who sees the act would inform the activist to the police. K. Venu, an ex-naxalite, in a telephonic interview said that the task of writing revolutionary thoughts on public walls was mainly entrusted with the college students with naxalite inclination, and the contents were premeditated by the intellectuals who supported the movement. It was a high risk activity, and the graffitists were often surrounded and vaulted by the members of the mainstream political parties. A poem by Satchidanandan: “Peedanakaalam,”( “The suffering Period”) captures the mood of the activity. Here is the English translation of the poem:

Do not laugh at these calls for revolt –

Which like dim curvy veins

Run on the bright wall –

For their want of allure.

The fellow who wrote them

Was not literate fully.

He had nothing but charcoal and stones

To write them.

It was twenty hours

Since he had eaten anything.

His child was deceasing

In the clutches of cholera.

The owner of the wall

Was an enemy of his.

After him were storm, rain,

Nightfall, And a betrayer. (Peedanakaalam 1980)

Another instance of the efflorescence of graffiti in Kerala tory was during the active period of Janakeeya Saamskarika Vedhi mocratic Cultural Forum). It was during this period that graffiti ifted from the overt and diehard revolutionary characteristics; affitists resorted to the famous quotes of world-acknowledged and al litterateurs. Lines of Pablo Neruda: “varu theruvukalile raktham kaanu,”(Come and see the blood in the streets) quote from Bertolt Brecht: “paathakangal perumazha pole peyyurnbol aarurn parayunnilla nirthu ennu,”(when evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out stop!) and the lines of K. G. Shankarapilla: “koottukaraa, bheeruthvam moolam oru pattiyum kurakkaathirikkunnilla,”( Friend, no dog keeps mum due to cowardice) came to be inscribed along the walls during the active days of the forum. But, after the dissolution of the Janakeeya Saamskaarika Vedhi, graffiti, by and by, faded away from the public spheres of Kerala.

Even though the walls and other surfaces in public space of Kerala have not been considerably deployed nowadays to disseminate political dissidence, anti-establishment ideas etc, (thanks to the advent of flex boards and cyber space, appropriating public space to create graffiti has dwindled) a pair of inquisitive eyes can espy scribbles and drawings that are personal responses to the milieu around. These graffiti provide us intriguing account of the lives, identities, and cultures which find mentioned little in the mainstream discourses and records.

Do Graffiti Narrate Lives?

Given that ‘Life Writing’ is the recording of selves, memories and experiences, whether one’s own or another s, graffiti could be brought under the purview of life writing since they are individual responses of human beings to the social, political and cultural life around them. Though graffiti do not record a sizeable portion of one’s life, and may not necessarily reveal the author’s identity, they provide first hand stories and accounts of an individual’s relationship to his/her milieu. While the established modes of Life Writing are written while knowing that they are being recorded and therefore will be remembered by posterity, graffiti are written to disseminate a thought, or to publicise a personal opinion or protest. Born out of an individual’s or group’s craving to publicise the emotions and feelings pertaining to private and public life, graffiti are essentially a subaltern expression that most often strives at resisting and subverting the established structures. The lives and memories recorded in graffiti are the ones that are mentioned negligibly little, or totally missed out, in the dominant discourses and records. The point is succinct in the words of Reisner and Wechsler:

Graffiti are the voice of the common man. We are used to taking our history from aristocrats and statesmen and their paid scribes. But through graffiti we discover evidence for another version of history, characterised by oppression and opposition to the official point of view. Topics too sensitive, too bigoted, too outrageous for the official versions are the natural province. (27)

Graffiti, viewed as a form of life writing, stands alone in its implicit connection to the subconscious and identity. It is a sensory experience of inscribing one’s individuality, or idiosyncrasy, in an extreme manner. Being a medium free from censorship, they often provide uncensored personal insights and responses of individuals or groups to their milieu. Unlike other established forms of life writing, graffiti stands out in its production as it needs no capital or less capital comparatively. It is a medium accessible to anyone regardless of money, artistic knowledge, and class.

Anonymity is a peculiar feature of graffiti that marks a distinction between it and other forms of life writing. While most other established modes are published with the author’s identity revealed, the author runs the risk of being questioned and assaulted on moral and political grounds if any sensitive issues that are considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by government, media or other controlling bodies are enunciated in the work. But, a graffitist is not at a Hobson’s choice to reveal his/her identity; it is entirely up to him whether to reveal or withhold his/ her identity. This aspect of graffiti facilitates the free articulation of anything and everything—provided the graffitist is not caught during the act—without the risk of being caught and questioned. This should be seen against the backdrop of the ill-treatments and threats faced by artists, owing to their identity being revealed, for stirring up the bile of the power structures and fundamentalist elements. There are umpteen such incidents in the recent past of India; one of such incidents is that of Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist who was charged with sedition for publishing a cartoon satirising the corruption in India. The case against him was the alleged misinterpretation of the national symbols. The many users of Facebook, and Twitter, whose opinions posted in the sites turned out to be the nail in their coffin, are also worth recalling. Graffitists are insulated from the risk as their identities could be concealed.

Whose Lives are Narrated?

An obvious question arises when graffiti subculture is viewed as life narrative: whose life is narrated? The answer is simple and obvious: graffiti does not sizably narrate the life of a single author; rather it narrates the collective life of a group of people or a society. The inscriptions on public surfaces represent minutiae of the life of an individual. These minutiae are to be collectively perceived to represent an alternative collective memory of a group of people. In viewing graffiti as a form of life narrative, the individual identity of the inscriber is not paramount, his/her inscription is to be seen to constitute the narrative of the life of a larger group or society.

The writings and drawings found along the public places in Kerala could roughly be pigeonholed into those generated by the disenfranchised that collectively narrate the pitiful life they live, those generated by countercultures which narrate their lives of resistance and rejection of the hegemonic culture, and those commonplace graffiti—inscriptions of names, declarations of love, and records of visits, etc.

Voice of the Dispossessed

Graffiti could be considered a tool of existential comprehension. A good many visual statements appearing on our public spaces throw light on the marginal lives existent here. Graffiti is one of the few autonomous media for the oppressed individuals and groups to “register their political dissidence, express social alienation, propagate anti-establishment ideas, and establish an alternative collective memory” ( Many of our established institutions such as yours civil stations, hospitals, government offices, etc, bear impressions against bureaucratic sloth, and callousness of the officials. We find walls becoming a free -space for the dispossessed to crystallise and propagate the oppositional consciousness to e hegemonic structures.

Picture 4, photographed from a public wall at Ernakulam, sheds light on the sorry state of the migrant labourers in Kerala who work for comparatively low wages, and are often abused, and exploited by the native people. This graffito expresses the author’s desire to communicate his grief to the native audience, and to that end it has been written in a lingua franca (though he is not competent enough), and not in his mother-tongue. Picture 5 is a graffito photographed from the elevator of a prominent hospital in Kerala. The graffito gives evidence to the poor nursing—for which the hospital is notorious—in the hospital, and the way bystanders are treated in there. The writer, it seems, had no other means to ventilate his grievance and indignation in the hospital’s premises where armed securities are on the watch. A number of photographs of this kind, if interpreted judiciously, can give account of the lives of the people who get the short end of the stick in terms of power.

Picture 5. A graffito on the wall of the elevator of a hospital. The inscription reads: “Nurses eat their young.” Below the inscription are written “salary” followed by a tick mark, and “service” followed by an into mark.

Picture 6 and 7. Protest graffiti against the inaction of the authorities to the perilous condition of Mattancherry boat jetty. The graffito in picture 5 could be translated into: “Mattancherry boat jetty bridge in dangerous condition.” Graffiti in picture 6 is the addition of “towards death” along with the signage, denoting the perilous condition of the jetty.

The less powerful use the medium to protest against the callousness and injustice of those in authority. Graffiti of this kind, often found placed on conspicuous surfaces on the offices of authority, are effective ways of protest, and are emblematic of the living conditions of the people in a locality.

Counterhegemonic Tropes

Every society has its share of countercultures or subcultures whose values and norms of behaviour deviate from those of the hegemonic culture, often in opposition to the mainstream cultural norms and mores. Countercultures appropriate the public spaces often to manifest their opposition and disregard for the mainstream culture. Graffiti writing is an effective means for them to mark their presence in a society. A cursory probe through our public landscapes can bring to light the counter- hegemonic inscriptions of youth and gang subcultures, and sexual minorities.

Youth and teenage subcultures are ubiquitous, and they often appropriate the environments in which they live to resist the dominant culture symbolically. Disregard for the dominant culture’s norms are often manifested through subversions. Most of our schools, colleges, and other places occupied or frequented by the youth are thus arrogated using inscriptions and symbols. The writer derives the pleasure of desecrating the cultural sanctity of a pristine white or blank wall in order that he/ she may symbolically communicate certain unique subjectivities to all who those pass by, and “the tendency to appropriate the environment stresses the motive to gain power over” (Plesch 170).

Picture 8 is the photograph of a graffito in the wall of a men’s hostel. The poem, which was rejected by the mainstream culture for

Picture 8. A college graffito which is the inscription of a controversial Malayalam poem “lingavishappu.”

its frank and confessional disclosure of libido, has been taken up and Celebrated by the youth subculture in this graffito.

Adding counter statements to the regulatory symbols and slogans in public places is another viral trend of the countercultures. Often warnings against alcohol consumption and smoking are usurped to counter the mainstream mores.

Picture 9. Graffito made by adding “smoke till you die” to a ‘No Smoking’ warning

Subverting the dominant religious symbols and icons is another widespread practice of countering the hegemony of dominant religions and beliefs.

Picture 10 and 11. Graffiti that subverts the crucifix, and declares Judas, the betrayer of Christ, to be a saint.

Another vibrant category seen along the city walls, bus stations and other public places are the ones that testimony the presence gangs. “Graffiti can give evidence of groups that are otherwise hard to detect in the literary or way of living through various archaeological record” (Sebesta 537) The gang subculture resists mark their presence on walls. Often these graffiti appear as markers to the territory of gang counter-culture. Territorial graffiti serves as marking ground to display tags and logos that differentiate certain groups from others. These markers are meant to warn the outsider about whose turf is whose. Much like the canine marking of territory by urination, gangs place their graffiti on the surfaces within the bounds of their territory. Countermarking and over-marking are commonly found.

Picture 12. A territorial graffito

An intriguing variety of graffiti which subverts the consumerist and capitalist culture, through the process of culture jamming, by subverting the claims made by the agents of the dominant consumerist culture is called ‘subvertisement’ These graffiti are used by counter-cultures to overturn the flamboyant advertisements made by government agencies, corporate companies, and MNCs. A popular practice of subvertisement is to alter the logos and taglines of the companies or agencies.

Picture 13. A graffito that subvertises the Picture

14. A graffito that subverts the Emerging Kerala mission of Kerala logo of the Identity Authority of Government India

Picture 15. latrinalia in the looking glass of a restroom, which could be translated into, ‘Don’t forget! Condom is for good, in a relationship between men too’

Walls of public latrines, waiting sheds etc, unfold before us the suppressed psyche of homosexuals who resist the hegemonic conception of ‘heterocentrism? Majority of latrinalias—graffiti made on the walls of latrines, and a good number of inscriptions in other public places are articulations of suppressed same-sex love, and resistance against a heterocentric society.

The graffiti created by countercultures are a threat to the artificially imposed order, and the rigid aesthetic dictate that grants the right of public symbolic expression only to those can generate sufficient revenue.

Crystallised Memories

Most of the places frequented by people for refreshment and pastime are peppered with inscriptions of names, declarations of love, and memorials of first visit. These are organic manifestations of the human impulse to personalise their environment through symbolism. Be it a hostel room, bus stop, park, prison cell, etc, all these places bear the names of people, and their crystallised memories. We write names on surfaces, because:

The first word almost any child learns to write is their own name; we are programmed from an early age to associate the act of writing with the self. A name inscribed on a surface is nothing but a boisterous signature, a symbol that purports to serve as evidence of the author’s presence. It implies the signer’s non-presence in the now, and serves as reminder for a former presence in the past. (Plesch 167)

Leaving a tangible mark of the memories of one’s familiar scenes in life is a commonly found phenomenon. Alike the prehistoric man’s act of drawing the familiar scenes of his life on the caves, sometimes the very familiar scenes of our life find their way to the walls.

Picture 16 and 17. Names carved on a wall, and on the leaves of a cactus.

Picture 18. Figures of ships drawn in the walls of Fort Cochin – a costal region where ships and boats are a familiar scene

A mark made on an object in a durable way maintains the memory of those who marks it. The impulse to leave a tangible mark on a wall is at the core a necessity “born out of the desire to create and maintain places of memory, resulting from the awareness that there is no such thing as spontaneous memory” (Whitehead 204). Therefore, by writing one’s name on a wall or by recording a visit or an event on a surface, an individual is actively resisting his personal memory and identity being sucked into the whirlpool of oblivion.

Traumatic experiences and panic situations in the life of a person, group or society are sometimes crystallised on the walls. Thus, graffiti at times narrate the collective agony of a society. The recent artistic protest graffiti that appeared on the wall of Kerala Lalithakala Academy, questioning the pro-endosulfan stand of the central government, and artist Jalaja’s protest graffiti in Cochi-Muziris Siennale rape incident are ideal examples of graffiti narrating the collective trauma of a society.

Picture 19. Graffito on a public wall at Fort Cochin against the feverish Delhi reflecting the Mullapperiyar Panic.

Subconscious Diarrhoea

The public latrine walls littered with scribbles and drawings, attest that latrines are one of the places where people exercise an extreme freedom of expression. Rarely do we come across pristine white latrine walls which are free of inscriptions that range from expletive and abusive terms to political and ruminative commentaries, and drawings that range from artistic to pornographic. These inscriptions and drawings found in the latrine walls are called latrinalia (derived from the compounding of latrine and the suffix alia, which means a

Pictures 20 and 21. Pornographic drawing photographed from a public toilet, and misogynist writings on a train toilet.

worthless collection of something). Most of the public latrine walls are vibrant with the impressions of human subconscious; they are places where a person is temporarily free from all kinds of bindings and precincts, and therefore are appropriated to have uninhibited reign to the concealed thoughts and proclivities. A lion’s share of atrinalias is the impressions of human psyche’s free ventilation of suppressed sexuality.

Taboo – breaking is at the core of most of latrinalias. Off-colour humour dealing with defecation, urination, flatulence, scatological references, penis and vagina jokes, and exaggerated illustrations of sex organs are predominantly found on the walls of public latrines. Another widespread practice, that turns a latrine wall into a dating site, is the seeking of sex partners. It is done by inscribing one’s sexual orientation on the wall along with contact details (refer to picture 13). A detailed probe into the latrinalias provides us the fragments of private persona and subconscious of a people, and their attitude to the cultural taboos.

Graffiti and Gender

Graffiti writing is generally conceived as a masculine act. It is more attractive to men owing to the machismo with regard to risk and adventure. Most of the subcultures seem to be dominated by men, and the infiltration of women into graffiti subculture is rarely found (save for the art form which is not illegal). ‘Majority of the graffitists are young males around their teenage and youth. Most of what they write is illegal, dangerous, and celebrated for being so’ (Macdonald 126). No wonder, women do not take to graffiti writing in a male-dominated environment. Many factors such as greater parental control, domestic apprenticeship within the houses, threats from a male-centred society, ‘the organisation of women’s life as an alternative to the kinds of risks and qualifications involved in entering into the mainstream of male subcultural life (Macdonald 127), the imposed feminine identity, as opposed to masculine identity, etc. cause the paucity of female graffitists. The doubly marginalised status of women in a phallocentric society is reflected in the graffiti subculture. The only public places which bear the scribbles and drawings of the female of the species, in a patriarchal environment, is perhaps the ladies’ restrooms-places ideally free from the disciplinary surveillance of patriarchy.

Pictures 22 and 23. Figures and writings photographed from a ladies’ restroom

The conspicuous absence of women’s graffiti narrates the subservient life of women in a patriarchal society; their status as ‘the other’ of the privileged males is reflected in the graffiti subculture.

A World Standing on its Head

Majority of graffiti unveil before us the vision of a world in which all rules, inhibitions, restrictions and regulations set by the regulatory and authoritative forces are suspended. This „aspect of graffiti fits it perfectly into the Bakthinian concept of carnivalesque. Graffiti reveals human nature’s hidden sides. It, especially those inscribed by the countercultures, subverts all forms of hierarchy, and connects the sacred with the profane and the high with thew. Rejection of the cultural ‘Woo, blasphemy, profanity and parody of things that are considered acred by the mainstream culture, are often found predominant in the practice.

Picture 24. Phallic diagram and expletive scribbles surrounding it, on a public bus waiting shed

Graffitists often use unconventional style of language. They reject the insistence for decent language in public spheres. Conventional language has often been subverted to fit the oppositional attitude of resistance, regional slangs, expletive words, and pornographic illustrations are employed in a good number of graffiti to facilitate a carnivalesque effect. A viral trend is the usage of the four-letter word ‘fuck,’ to express carnal desire, disagreement, and despair.

In the case of all graffiti, the surfaces they are placed in are not originally meant to receive them, and thus are turned by graffitists into surfaces for self-expression. Therefore, questions pertaining to the placement and presentation of graffiti are complex and controversial. The issue of whether graffiti are illegal or legal comes into question. The line demarcating the two is vague and is determined by various factors. In a technical definition of graffiti under the law, majority of its forms are illegal. Graffiti always have the negative connotation of vandalism which acquires a symbolic dimension, ‘for the appropriation of a public wall’s surface is a synecdoche for the reappropriation of the city, manifesting the presence of the people with oppositional consciousness’ ( Plesch 175 ). This aspect is celebrated by most of the graffitists. On the other hand, some graffiti artists have moved away from the negative connotations associated with vandalism. Putting their art on canvasses or legally commissioned walls give them more legitimacy and helps them to gain respect in the art world. Today, graffitists who are more interested in creating art that is generally aesthetically pleasing and generating revenue, and graffitists who are interested in mass communication of ideas to people, coexist. The latter use the medium effectively as an alternative channel of dialogue and human creative release.

Graffiti in the global level has engendered a natural heir by the name street art. ‘It is rooted in the creativity of the dislocated and alienated urban communities of America in the second half of twentieth century. The movement is inspiring people in similar circumstances in a world increasingly urbanised, and divided by a growing gulf between the rich and the poor’ (Cedar 9). The communities which feel ruled over, with amazing creative potential and deep need to express themselves, own the walls that surround them. Street art is evolving and flourishing with its anti-authoritarian, irreverent, irresponsible, and ironic voice of the powerless and the have-nots. Street art, today, has artists of international renown such as Banksy, who go a long way with the autonomous subculture which is not for sale, free of directions from any force of society or government, and free from the dictates of the market. It is all about artists taking control over their lives to own the walls surrounding them. The trend is spreading to almost all countries with the growing impact of globalisation. India too is catching up the street art of stylistically evolved designs. A few metropolitan cities in Kerala such Kochi bears the imprints of street art.

The prominence of graffiti has faded considerably with the advent of cyberspace, and flexes. Cyberspaces like Blogs and social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter, are considered the digital reincarnations of graffiti. Social networking sites provide virtual walls for individuals to mark their opinions and rebellion, with or without revealing one’s identity. But, the disadvantage of cyberspace, as against public walls, is that online anonymity is prone to exposure, and internet persona can be easily traced by authoritative forces. Also, they do not involve the machismo attached to risk and adventure in marking an individual’s belligerence and resistance on public walls. Therefore, graffiti shall continue to be a means of dialogue for the disenfranchised, and shall flourish as the circumstance demands.

Little attention is paid and almost no research is carried on with regards the scribbles and drawings that constitute the narrative of the lives of the marginalised and ‘others’ of the mainstream culture. Nevertheless, our public spaces are peppered with personal reflections representing the minutiae of such lives. With the advent of virtual memory, these minutiae could be captured and stored for good so as to facilitate researches into the uncensored responses of human beings that constitute a parallel collective memory.

The walls on which graffiti are inscribed are much like a palimpsest. Time, weather, and regulatory and authoritative forces efface them for another individual’s turn to mark his personal reflections. Graffiti seems to be the most transient mode of life writing, which needs to be photographed to be recorded for good. Whatsoever, they appear frequently on newly painted and blank walls, commenting on the life around.


Chandran, Civic. Telephonic interview. 6 pm. 26-5-2012.

Lewisohn, Cedar. Street Art: The Graffiti revolution. China: C & C Offset, 2010. Print.

Macdonald, Nancy. The Graffiti Subculture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Print.

Plesch, Veronique. Memory on the Wall. US: Duke UP, 2013. Print.

Reisner, Robert George. Encyclopaedia of Graffiti. New York: Macmillan, 1974. Print.

Sebesta, Judith Lynn. Ancient Graffiti in context. Maryland: John Hopkins UP, 2013. Print.

Sethunadh, K. P. Chuvarezhuthu. Kozhikode: Maathruboomi, 2011. Issue 16. Print.

Venu, K. Telephonic interview. 5.30 pm. 26-5-2012.

Whitefield, Ann. Memory. Oxon: Routledge, 2008. Print.


PHILIP JOSE. Is M.Phil student at the Sanskrit University, Kalady.

E.A. IBRAHIM. Has just completed his graduation in English Literature from Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam.

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PHILIP JOSE. Is M.Phil student at the Sanskrit University, Kalady.E.A. IBRAHIM. Has just completed his graduation in English Literature from Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam.

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