Before jumping into the meat of this article it will be necessary to clarify the subject matter a little. When I will refer to ‘graffiti’ throughout, I will mostly not be intending to include ‘street art’ within that definition, though I will take a little look at the role of street art toward the end. These two identities obviously share some ground and overlap each other a little, but there are a few important differences. Firstly, though this isn’t the most precise division, for the most part what we would call graffiti is done illegally, whilst street art is often done with permission or commission. In terms of content, street art tends to have a wider array of potential subject matters, whilst graffiti, for reasons that will become more understandable soon, has a narrower selection of subject matters, which are usually aimed more at serving the easy recognition of the artist, rather than the exploration of a subject matter for its own sake, though of course, the two are never absolutely separate. Graffiti is also usually quite a bit faster in its execution and rough around the edges because of the necessity of covert speed in most situations, leaning more toward expressing the gist of something economically than the patient refinement that may be found in works of street art. If this sounds like a hint at a value judgement between graffiti and street art, let me say here that at no point in this article do I want what I am going to say to be read moralistically, though it may sound so in parts. I wish merely to look at the symbolic structure of the phenomena in question, and whenever I make a comparison such as the previous one, (of the economy of graffiti vs the refinement of street art) we must always remember that things such as economy and refinement are always in a trade-off relationship, and the appropriate amount of each will depend heavily on what stimulus is being responded to. For the record, I prefer looking at graffiti more than most street art, but that may just be due to my history. In the past I have participated in the graffiti culture of Melbourne, Australia, most enthusiastically in my late high school years (2014-2016), and petering off after that for a few years up until around the end of 2019. I was never a titan of the subculture, though I think I have enough experience to have insight into the structures and motivations at play in it. Because I will be drawing from the particular instantiation of graffiti subculture found in Melbourne, there may be some things that aren’t necessarily universal in their particularity, though, as I hope to show, they are more so in their pattern.
MUTANTS AND PROTEST
For the sake of choosing somewhere current to start, I thought we could begin looking at why it is natural to see graffiti emerge as a component of protest, which we have been seeing quite a bit of lately. Of course, here, I would refer the readers to Jonathan Pageau’s video on protest itself 1, to understand in greater depth how “protest always comes from below”, and how it is a pattern which scales ontologically. That is, just as a group may protest against a government, so hunger pangs are your body protesting against your head. In summary, the main takeaway is that protest is always about dissatisfaction with treatment from relatively ‘higher’ identities.
Graffiti, simply through its illegality, but also through its assertion of itself over present structures, is inherently a message of dissatisfaction with those structures. As an act, it signals disregard for both the physical (buildings) and cultural (laws) structures, and plasters over both of them with an assertion of one’s individuality and self-actuated authority. Just as the building now wears the tag, the law is equally stained with a sign of refusal to submit and participate. In the figure of the tagger, we can see an example of what in the past Jonathan Pageau has termed ‘the mutant’.
“The Mutant is the absolute individual, an Übermensch whose very body, dare I say whose very nature is unique, and this uniqueness, (Especially the Marvel Comics version of the mutant) appears as a power and an idiosyncratic appearance. It is even represented as “human avant-garde”, the next step in the evolutionary progress of humanity. The extension of the mutant into society is the rock star, the artist as genius, the self-made millionaire and the indomitable rebel who stands against the “system”.” 2
Unsatisfied with the identity or ‘name’ being provided from above by the city and society, the mutant/ graffiti artist breaks the chain of submission to authority above them and thus enters into a process of cyclical self-naming, which, because it comes from no authority above oneself, must constantly reassert itself to fight against the implicit identification and boxing in of the individual that happens as a result of living in the societal environment. Here we see the impossibility of rest in rebellion.
This is also why, in terms of meaning, it is fitting that for the most part graffiti takes the form of a word, which is attributed to each ‘writer’ as a kind of alter ego. In strong contrast to traditional forms of art, iconography for example, where the idea of signing your work did not even emerge as a possibility in the minds of the artists, graffiti, more than just being about signing your work, is literally all about working your sign. For the grand majority of graffiti artists, it is obvious and not even controversial that at the top of their hierarchy of aims is the recognition of their work. This is to the point where quite a few of them do not find it of use to introduce variation into each of their works, but rather aim to cover the city in a repetition of a simple signature. Style, to the degree it is employed, often serves only to further this process of recognisability and as a sub-demographical signalling tool. This is even true for those artists who do venture further into variation and idiosyncrasy with their work, for once one has become familiar with a writer’s work, they can generally easily recognise one of their pieces, even if they have employed another word. In fact, not only are the words once claimed the territory of a particular artist, but if one ventures too close to the style of another writer, they will very interestingly be accused of ‘biting’ their style, and if it persists against the wrong individuals, they will be placing not just their too-similar work in danger of destruction but themselves. This, of course, is again in strong contrast with the icon, where it is actually encouraged that each artist converges and cooperates with the style towards which the tradition emerges. One of the results of this is precisely the quelling of the particular artist’s vanity, which may sound oppressive, but is actually a kind of liberation, for I can tell you from experience, the weight of needing to present a “unique” aesthetic to the world is often a great one.
DON’T BITE MY STYLE – THE HEAD AND THE BODY IN GRAFFITI
This slang use of ‘bite’/’biting’ is employed very intuitively, and if you asked most graffiti writers why it was an appropriate term, they probably wouldn’t know what to say, past perhaps that it suggests an aggressive encroachment into one’s territory. Interestingly enough though, using the symbolic categories of the relationship between the head and the body, we can see how this term is actually extremely apropos. For when one does encroach on another’s work, whether spatially by “capping” it, or metaphysically by approaching its style, it is true that what they are doing is taking in the other’s work as potential and integrating it into a body of work which supports their identity, just as we take in food as potential so it can become a body of flesh which supports our identity. In this way it becomes understandable that when the aim is the glorification of one’s alter ego above the rest, every precaution must be taken so as to not be ‘eaten’ by other artists, whilst also every effort is taken by all artists to ‘eat’ the city, by submitting its walls to becoming supports of one’s identity. Of course, this again is a reversal of the traditional vision, where in its ideal form the individual actually joyfully submits to being ‘eaten’ by the tradition, thus humbly becoming a vehicle of sustenance and growth for the larger body, having their self-seeking desires which lead to fragmentation of the self and community subdued.
With the frame of the head and the body we can also introduce a strange disharmony of symbolic roles present in graffiti, which is as far as I can understand (though I admit to puzzlement) is the result of extremes being pushed so far they start to invert. For although the graffiti artist acts to integrate the city walls under their ‘name’ (symbolic of the identity/ head), they do so by making a body of name, where the name serves only to grow the body, not in the sense where those above are called to serve those below, but by the fact that the name of the graffiti artist really serves no heavenly or qualitative function in a normal way (for no one reads a tag to derive from it any meaning other than the identification of the writer), but only as a kind of placeholder which is used as a means to quantitatively expand the body. For serving those below really has to do with love and the ontologically vertical elevation of things on earth toward heaven, whereas in graffiti the name serves only the ontologically horizontal expansion of the body on earth further into the earth. Of course, we have to be a little careful speaking in absolute metaphysical terms when referring to things within manifestation, seeing as in that case the two opposites of heaven and earth are always joined to some degree, but it should be obvious that the motivation for graffiti has more to do with visible recognition ‘on earth’, than it does with the soul’s ascent to a more patterned state, which may have less immediate or obvious fruit.
Here we can see how graffiti is structurally tied to pride and how this leads to the diabolos—“throwing apart” of things into fragmentation, for as was said before, graffiti is a refusal to participate within the larger structures of society, and rather to assert one’s own identity over them. This is why, despite graffiti crews being a thing—because of the inevitability of hierarchy and unity manifesting among multiplicity—those crews tend to stay quite small, usually limited to a group of friends (showing that the unity of the friendship is probably the cause of the unity of the crew, rather than the desire for communion in graffiti being the cause of a coming together of disparate individuals), and won’t often last past a single generation. The fragmentation caused by this desire to assert the individual or small crew can be easily seen in the mere fact that by looking at a wall which has been graffitied, we see an almost literalistic (in many senses of the word) representation of something which has been fractured into multiple identities, which rather than working together to manifest something higher than themselves, all fight for space on the wall so as only to draw attention and glory to themselves. I want to restate that I am not trying to be moralistic here, as in a bit I am actually going to get to why such actions are really the inevitable result/response to a much bigger pattern of the modern city.
GRAFFITI AND TIME
For many on this blog, who have read Matthieu’s book 3, the mythological direction of this mixture on the walls of the city will be easily intuited as the flood, symbolising a state of supreme flux, or as Matthieu calls it, ‘time’. But there are many other interesting ways in which graffiti ends up manifesting flood/time symbolism. One of the most striking is in the mediums employed. Not only is it relevant that paint and ink (liquids) are the most common choice, but we can even see that something like the spray can (it is relevant that spray cans in their inception were referred to as ‘atomisers’) which vomits out a multiplicity of little drops of paint, which form a blurry haze, which if paused in one spot will begin to build up in a puddle or mini-flood and start to rain down in drips, thus placing a pressure on the writer to inhabit time by staying in movement, as he cyclically starts his tag, finishes it, and then begins again, over and over, becoming more accelerated and fluid in his motion, as he continually restarts his identity over the city. The graffiti artist’s various works are rarely in any kind of deliberate or explicit continuity, but are rather episodic, each standing as their own re-creation, which don’t build toward a unified whole, or, in Matthieu’s terminology, a ‘space’. A similar thing is present in the use of markers, most demonstratively in the use of a popular implement especially designed for graffiti called a “mop”, which is basically a small container of ink with a flat, circular fabric nib on the end of it, which can be easily squeezed so that ink will come out in abundance, to produce a flood of drips in the tag.
There are many other things that tie graffiti to ‘time’ symbolism which I won’t go fully into but which should be lucid for those who have read The Language of Creation. For example, the fact that it is done clandestinely at night. That the graffiti though being an identity is rather like a costume which hides the true identity of the writer. That it tries to avoid being ‘caught’ and ‘fixed’ by justice. That it isn’t a very rational activity. That it’s vain in about every sense of the word, and, as I mentioned earlier the cyclicality inherent in the notion of ‘naming yourself’.
However, in relation to ‘time’ there is one anomaly to consider, which is perhaps another sign of the inversion of things at the extreme, and that is the fact that although in many ways we see in the Graffiti artist a kind of nomadic figure, who moves with time through the space of the city, he nonetheless is a spatial artist. Though this may not seem like a big deal to us moderns, we learn from Rene Guenon in The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times 4 that there is a primordial and fundamental distinction between nomadic and sedentary peoples, and that the temporal and spatial forms of art belonged strictly to each one respectively.
“It could be said in a general way that the works of sedentary peoples are works of time: these peoples are fixed in space within a strictly limited domain, and develop their activities in a temporal continuity that appears to them to be indefinite. On the other hand, nomadic and pastoral peoples build nothing durable, and do not work for a future that escapes them; but they have space before them, not facing them with any limitation, but on the contrary always offering them new possibilities… it is in the nature of things that sedentary peoples should tend to the making of visual symbols, images made up of various substances… Nomads, on the other hand, to whom images are forbidden, like everything else that might tend to attach them to some definite place, make sonorous symbols, the only symbols compatible with their state of continual migration… Thus the sedentary peoples create the plastic arts (architecture, sculpture, painting). The arts consisting of forms developed in space; the nomads create the phonetic arts (music, poetry), the arts consisting of forms unfolded in time…”
It would seem then that in the graffiti artist, who becomes a strange mixture of the nomad and the spatial artist, we can perhaps with reason see a sign of the continual solidification of the world discussed by Guenon, which J.P Marceau has summarised here5. Perhaps the phenomenon is even a result of the crystallizing of nomadic peoples into sedentary cultures, who being what they are begin to groan against such a fixing in place, though their rebellion bears the tragic mark of its infection by spatiality, despite its use of words (the tools originally of poets), which hints again at a yearning for temporality. For obviously if nomads could be what they were and properly manifest temporality in their art, then no damage would be done to the city, but it is only in this disharmony that problems occur. So then, let us ask, if graffiti does seem to be a phenomenon that has been pushed so far that it has acquired inverted characteristics, then what is such an extreme reaction reacting to?
THE CITY AND THE ORNAMENT
Whenever one sees an extreme being manifested it is pretty much always because it is the equal and opposite reaction to the other side of the pendulum. Graffiti itself has been around for a long time, the earliest known artwork depicting Jesus is a mocking piece of graffiti from Rome, estimated c.200AD (pictured at the beginning of the article), and then of course there’s the catacomb paintings of the persecuted early Christians, and then, even more, it’s arguable that cave paintings are a kind of graffiti. The differences between these examples and what we would recognise as graffiti today, which took off mainly with TAKI183 and the Hip Hop movement in New York in the 80’s, has a lot to do with the machine such things are raging against, which we must look at if we are to understand the reason for the extremes we find present in graffiti. And seeing as the craze that this type of graffiti has become quite clearly seeks to fragment the structures of the city through vandalising it, we then have grounds to begin looking at how the city is that machine.
It is no great secret that architecture has changed quite a lot since the industrial revolution, by which time we had begun to become ever more concerned with quantity over quality, and the efficiency with which we could manufacture vehicles of profit. Once profit and progress had become our telos, rather than the sustained harmony of the human soul nested within a hierarchical society, a “de-incarnation” (a splitting apart of meaning and matter) happened with pretty much everything in the West. In the case of architecture, this looked like a general and gradual shift away from hieratically patterned structures toward sprawling, equitable stacks of boxes, which are often really just a kind of fractal of the completely uniform bricks from which they are constructed, though, by now, even bricks seem nostalgically old-school, as we find ourselves dwarfed by monoliths of steel, concrete and glass. The de-incarnation caused architecture to fall into the worship of efficiency, which is why the concern is now for creating as many passable living/working spaces as possible for as little a cost as justifiable.
When pondering traditional buildings, it is quite common to wonder why people who had so much less technical power than we have now were able to build things that were so much more complex and beautiful. Not only that, but there is a lot in traditional buildings which doesn’t seem to serve any immediate function other than decoration. It also would have been a lot more dangerous and time consuming for the ancients than it would be for us to build such things. So we find ourselves facing a question, why is that with all our progress of material power, we seem unable to hold an architectural candle to our ancestors? But again, the answers become clear when we understand how our telos differ. For when we do that, we see that ornamentation is a vital participation in the pattern of reality itself, understood by the ancients and ignored by us.
As Matthieu tells us, the ornamentation found in the traditional arts was a natural expression of the ontological structure of all things 6. Just as any categorical identity has an essence, so too it has things on its edges which are much less relevant to that centre, but act as a kind of apotropaic protection from the much larger number of irrelevant things outside the identity. For example, if you were to encounter a really strange suit, that was nonetheless still identifiable as a suit, it would serve both to remind you of what a more normal suit is and should be. It also hints at what, if brought too much into the suit, would cause it to no longer be recognisable as a suit. Thus, “the exception proves the rule” and sets a kind of boundary.
This is the same thing, just on a different scale, as how a suit or any piece of clothing acts as an adornment to our body, which isn’t connected to our strictly physical body, but has taken on some of its pattern so as to be integrated into it, whilst taking from what is outside us to give us power to protect us from foreign dangers. The problem in the modern consciousness is that we tend not to see how adornment is in this way a participation in the metaphysical structure of every identity. We therefore see adornment as something arbitrary since its function is not always an obvious and practical one. The metaphysician and philosopher of traditional arts Ananda Coomaraswamy has put it:
“Our use of the word “decorative” would have been abusive, as if we spoke of a mere millinery or upholstery : for all the words purporting decoration in many languages, Mediaeval Latin included, referred originally not to anything that could be added to an already finished and effective product merely to please the eye or ear, but to the completion of anything with whatever might be necessary to its functioning, whether with respect to the mind or the body : a sword, for example, would “ornament” a knight, as virtue “ornaments” the soul or knowledge the mind.”7
Likely it is obvious where this is all leading, for in modern architecture we have a perfect example of why it is important to participate in these patterns of reality and what happens when we don’t. Modern architecture, with its disharmonious focus on hyper-efficiency and its failure to integrate enough of a dose of vain ornamentation, has both created the desire for, and failed to protect itself against the attack of the multiplicity of outside identities, which have manifested a hyper-ornamentation in the form of graffiti. In this way graffiti actually becomes the inevitable conclusion of modern architecture, its equally disharmonious bride. Resentful a couple though they may be, they are nonetheless destined for each other. For if in Graffiti we see the ‘mutant’, in the city we see the ‘robot’.
“The Robot is an artificial copy of a human person, a copy without personhood, without individuality, an infinitely reproducible being who is absolutely subservient, a slave without moral responsibility whose existence is pure utility. Its extension into society is the human as number, the anonymous mass of statistical beings, the factory worker and the bureaucratic system of the modern state.”8
Obviously in that quote Jonathan is speaking on the level of human persons, but the description of the robot should be analogised easily enough to its architectural equivalent, for if in the robot person we see the factory worker, then obviously this presupposes the factory itself. But whether it be a factory, a prefab house, apartments, or any other of the general projects of modern architecture, we see in almost everything a trend toward all these buildings of working and living coming ever more to resemble prisons, and this is not limited merely to the aesthetic. As we learn from Matthieu, it is always the role and function of what is relatively above to provide identity to what is relatively below. Therefore it is not hard to imagine how the architecture of such societies –which is certainly the physical testament to the character of the higher ontological pattern of the society—is providing the individuals of modern society with an ever restricted and quantified identity, just as a prison turns its prisoners into mere numbers fit for hyper-management.
It is here where we can see yet another manifestation of the strange “upside-down-ness” that results from the disharmony of opposites in the reign of quantity, for where those above should be providing unity and direction to those below, instead unity has been confused with uniformity, which instead of causing communion between the essentially different, causes as much as it can the reduction of its members to separated sameness. In other words; mere quantity, prompting a violent outburst from those below in a desperate attempt to qualify the city with names, colours and images, though, because of the manner in which this revolutionary action sacrifices procreation with those above for an endless recreation, the result is more fragmentation and quantity.
Those of us familiar with Jonathan Pageau’s work likely will have heard him speak about an example of how traditional Gothic architecture in the west achieved a harmonious answer to this problem, firstly in its quite obvious desire to incorporate practically unnecessary patterning and ornamentation into its structure, but more than this in the strange phenomenon of gargoyles. The phenomenon can appear quite puzzling until looked at through this patterned lens, for why would a sacred building desire to put monstrous beings on itself? The pattern at play of course is the one mentioned throughout this article, where the integration of a little bit of the wildness and danger of that which is outside the inner identity can serve as a guard against all the other things of that nature.
Interestingly, we can actually see and attempted application of the pattern of the gargoyle applied by property owners to the problem of graffiti in the advent of “street-art”, which takes some of the character of graffiti but is, as said at the beginning, usually a little more refined, thus being a middle ground between what is familiar and what is foreign to the identity of the building and its owner, so that it may protect against a full onslaught of the foreign taggers. However, at least in Melbourne, the problem is that this often doesn’t work, and a tagger will have no problem taking a minute or two out of their night to deface the street art, usually with the sense that a point is being made about what you can expect when you try to steal the sub-culture’s technique of expression and use it against it. It is only ever pulled off when the street artist has a strong reputation as at least having once upon a time been a formidable character in the realm of illegal graffiti, only then does the gargoyle truly have enough menace to work.
But in my estimation, there is still something insufficient in street art as gargoyle, for it seems to me to be more of a band aid than a cure. Although the wildfire of graffiti has definitely gathered enough momentum to now be less discriminatory about its targets, there have always been some informal rules about what you can tag. Cars, the front of someone’s house, (if it isn’t already defaced) and for the most part more beautiful buildings (all of which are traditional, for even if something modern has tried to really make a show of itself it is usually scrawled upon as soon as possible) such as heritage sites or churches and the likes are all generally off the table as potential canvases. The refrainment from tagging cars and the fronts of houses probably has to do with these things being symbolically too close to individuality, and since individuality is what the graffiti artist is really fighting for, they intuitively see such an act as friendly fire. But this does not so obviously apply to the traditional buildings, except that in some strange way it does, for what a traditional building speaks of is a hierarchy that actually cares about fostering the full humanity of those within it. Such is achieved through architecture when it properly enacts its role as a provider and reminder to its members of the qualitative identity of the cosmos to which they are a microcosm. These buildings bind their inhabitants together in worship of the transcendent source of that same cosmos whilst respecting and valuing their particularity within it.
My contention is that the modern building with some street art slapped on the side does not achieve this, for the street art often serves to point only toward the artist or their subject matter, which in these days doesn’t even have a chance of being a content which is integrated into the collective worship of the society. Unless of course (and this is actually probably the case) the street-art participates in the worship of one of the shadow-gods of modern civilisation; entertainment. Of course street art should not be seen as bad in itself, with no hope of a more profound integration and application. Obviously murals have been around since before modernity, and now that we have powerful devices for creating them such as the spray can, it is more about addressing the question of content. For those interested, some interesting stuff in this regard can be found here 9. Nonetheless, a truly curative solution to the war between graffiti and modern architecture would require that the architects, as we see in the example of Gothic architecture and gargoyles, from the very beginning of their work remember and honour the necessity to ornament and acknowledge the irrational. It would also require the cessation of the worship of that other shadow-god of modernity, namely efficiency of profit, which is the whole reason for the hive-like “living machines” 10 that we see being built by the number. It would require that once again, we become able to see—and willing to submit ourselves to—participation in the patterns of reality.
- Pageau, Jonathan, The Meaning of Protest, YouTube, June 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzGqea4pSgA&ab_channel=JonathanPageau
- Pageau, Jonathan, “The Robot, The Mutant and the Artist”, March 2016, https://orthodoxartsjournal.org/the-robot-the-mutant-and-the-artist/
- Pageau, Matthieu, The Language of Creation, May, 2018
- Guénon, René. The Reign of Quantity and the Sign of the Times, at p.147,148,149, Translated by Lord Northbourne. Sophia Perrenis, Hillsdale, 2004 
- Marceau, J.P, “Guenon and the Solidification of the World”, December 2020, https://thesymbolicworld.com/articles/guenon-and-the-solidification-of-the-world/
- Pageau, The Language of Creation, at p.193
- Coomaraswamy, Ananda, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, at p.112, Dover publications, 1956
- Pageau, The Robot, The Mutant and the Artist
- Fr. Justiniano, Silouan, “Contemporary Byzantine Painting: An Interview With Fikos”, Orthodox Arts Journal, August, 2016 https://orthodoxartsjournal.org/contemporary-byzantine-painting/
- Kohlstedt, Kurt, “Machines for living in, Le Corbuiser’s “Five Points of Architecture””, 99% invisible, February 2018 https://99percentinvisible.org/article/machines-living-le-cobusiers-pivotal-five-points-architecture/