Orkney07 3 Unstan

I’ve chosen these images from Orkney and Bolsover Castle to illustrate carved graffiti. If this is old enough does it stop being vandalism and start being epigraphy? If wise enough does painted graffiti start being philosophy? I once saw an amusing piece in a Yorkshire gents toilet. Someone had written ‘Geoff Boycott walks on water’ underneath a second hand had added ‘I wish he’d try’. To be absolutely frank I rather like the urban wit that the best graffiti sometimes exemplifies. When I was up at Cambridge one of the university buildings was adorned with ‘The tygers of war are wiser than the horses of instruction’; this being William Blake, the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In the toilets of public houses ‘you don’t buy your beer here, you only rent it’ was ubiquitous. Someone in Bradford, with feet firmly on the ground apparently, famously wrote ‘it’s a mean old scene’ on a stone wall. But then all those who in the 1970s painted ‘Free Mandela now’ did get their way in the end, even if (sadly) George Davis wasn’t all that innocent. I’ve heard it said that Roman legionaries have scratched their names on the pyramids but the oldest graffiti I have actually seen for myself is on Orkney in the Neolithic chambered tomb called Maeshowe. It was broken into by Viking crusaders in the twelfth century who were either treasure-seeking or escaping from the snow. They adorned the inside of the tomb with runic inscriptions together with a carving of a wild looking creature which might be a dragon, or possibly the wolf Fenrir. I’d love to be able to report that these runic messages are replete with Viking wit and wisdom but the truth is more prosaic: ‘Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes’ or ‘Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women’ is about the average standard. Sadly if you give average people a unique historical opportunity they can aspire to nothing higher than ‘Kilroy was here’. In Holland I once saw a telling inscription painted on a motorway bridge (in both Dutch and English) this was: ‘it is spring but concrete does not bloom’. I was in Amsterdam for the European Society for Dermatological Research meeting in 1978. One of my favourite memories of the event was attending an evening reception at the museum with all the Rembrandts surveying the pictures with a smoked salmon sandwich in one hand and a glass of Dutch gin in the other. Naturally I was looking for a place where I could scratch my name on the panelling unobserved.


One thought on “Graffiti

  1. My father, with friends, was the author of “it’s a mean old scene”, sad that the wall has now gone although they did clean it once and someone put back “it’s still a mean old scene”. They did other bits around Leeds and Bradford, my mum used to tell the story of the one time they got caught all because the tin of paint fell over in the van and left a trail all the way back to the house.


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