A couple of years back, archeologists undertook to examine decades-old graffiti on the walls of a London flat once rented by the punk-rock band the Sex Pistols.
The vandalism comprises eight scrawling cartoons. Most were created by John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, and feature himself, his fellow band members and other Pistols associates.
The archeologists later intoned in the journal Antiquities that the drawings, like the cave paintings at Lascaux, France, are pieces of art and deserve archeological investigation.
They said: “The tabloid press once claimed that early Beatles recordings discovered at the BBC were the most important archeological find since Tutankhamen’s tomb. The Sex Pistols’ graffiti in Denmark Street surely ranks alongside this and — to our minds — usurps it.” Really?
The archeologists did refrain from recommending the punk vandalism be preserved or commemorated. I’m sure U.K. heritage interpreters are disappointed they’ll never get to say to hypothetical Johnny Rotten Graffiti Museum visitors, “Would you like to go upstairs to see some Rotten art?”
Rotten, rude, crude, self-indulgent and apparently obscene — like some graffiti that shows up around here.
To be fair, works with originality, vision and real artistic talent also appear on occasion. The Capital Regional District and its municipalities define graffiti as “an act of vandalism involving painting, drawing, scribbling or tagging on any surface without the permission of the property owner.”
Its illicit nature and deliberate defiance of property rights and laws transform the techniques and materials into vandalism.
Some people’s insistence on expressing themselves unbidden on fences, walls, trees, rocks and other features costs local businesses, residents and municipalities hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
However, if archeologists compare Rotten’s graffiti with the paleolithic paintings at Lascaux, let’s consider other possible similarities.
Were the cave paintings at Lascaux considered vandalism when they were first painted 17,300 years ago? Alas, we’ll never know. Were any of this region’s petroglyphs ever — even briefly — created as graffiti? Were any of them — even just one of them — created as illicit, defiant acts to impress peers and annoy elders?
Such questions presume attitudes and cultural values similar to ours.
First Nations’ traditions and discourses differed, and still differ in some ways, from those of European-descended North Americans. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a peek at the process by which counter-cultures become mainstream and revered.
For instance, Impressionist art was radical counter-culture in the 1870s. Impressionists violated accepted rules of academic painting and outraged traditional artists, collectors and the public. Now, the few paintings of Manet, Cézanne, Monet and their buddies that come up for auction are affordable to only the unspeakably wealthy or to museums sponsored by the unspeakably wealthy.
A 21st-century version of that story is how murals and installations by British graffiti artist Banksy now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. Although, in the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy and his cohort maintain their illegal pursuits have little to do with money — and more to do with the thrill of a forbidden activity and recognition by one’s peers.
If financial success fails to bring counter-culture into the mainstream, what hope does adoption by a conservative religion offer? After failing to find an affordable traditional artist to paint the dome of his medieval church, the priest of Santa Eulalia church in l’Hospitalet, Spain, invited Spanish graffiti artists House and Rudi to have a go.
With the priest’s (literal and figurative) blessing, the artists rendered their Romanesque-style work in brilliantly coloured spray paint.
As for me, my graffiti career began and ended within a six-hour period when I was five years old. Made to scrub away the stick figures pencilled on my bedroom wall, I also scrubbed away any desire to express creativity in that form.
Thanks, mom. I could have been a Cézanne — or a Banksy. But never a Rotten.