P. Graffiti and the Archaeology of the Contemporary

Session organizers: Colleen Morgan, University of California, Berkeley

Saturday, May 7th
1:30 – 3:30
2251 College Building (The Archaeological Research Facility)

Session abstract:

“Graffiti is to the city what colored leaves are to the forest. The changing art on the walls reflects the passing of time, and conveys information about the city’s inhabitants, their lives, and culture” (Curtis and Rodenbeck, 2004:1).  Ancient rock art and cave paintings have long been an area of intense interest and research in archaeology. Scratches on walls and pots are carefully recorded, traced, and published in prestigious academic journals. How does our knowledge of this past emplaced art inform our everyday experience in the contemporary world? While some archaeologists evince an interest in modern street art as part of Shanks’ “archaeological sensibility,” few systematic studies have been performed on the wheat paste, spray paint and stencilling that cover our urban landscape. At the 2011 Theoretical Archaeology Conference at UC Berkeley, archaeologists and members of the Oakland street art community will come together to engage in a dialogue meant to explore the archaeological aspects of graffiti art. This session will consider graffiti and archaeology from multiple perspectives, addressing questions such as: How can we record and document graffiti art? What is important? How can this engagement with unauthorized and highly visible art help us read the modern cityscape? How can we make a site visible? How can we convey the importance of a site? What does this intensive annotation of place tell us about the lived experiences of community in cities?


Authenticity and Sub-Cultural Urban Heritage: Problems of Transience, Illegality and Commercialisation When Protecting Graffiti

Sam Merrill, University College London, samuel.merrill.10@ucl.ac.uk

Unprecedented contemporary urbanisation necessitates that archaeologists and heritage professionals expand their notions of what constitutes heritage within the urban realm. The integration of newly recognised forms of urban heritage into heritage protection frameworks may yield benefits related to cultural diversity and social inclusion in particular for their associated subcultures. Graffiti is exemplary of this situation and yet its successful integration into heritage frameworks may rely on the mitigation of compatibility problems between graffiti’s transience, illegality, and commercialisation and the keystone of heritage conservation: authenticity. This paper explores these problems with reference to examples from a wide geographical and chronological scope.

Representing and Contesting the Past: Decoding Murals and Graffiti in Contemporary Belfast

Laura McAtackney, University College Dublin, laura.mcatackney@ucd.ie

The use of wall murals by social commentators and media outlets as a lazy shorthand for the opinions of deprived communities in Belfast dates back decades. In recent years more nuanced analyses have explored their placement, roles, and meanings but analysis does not often move beyond aesthetics and there is little discussion of context and contestation. This paper aims to explore murals –- in their landscape setting to highlight interaction with other murals and graffiti — in order to understand their role as conveyors of semi-official narratives of memory and identity and to show how these have been materially contested.

deAppropriation Project Archive: Artistic Approaches and Archaeological Methods

Phoebe France, deappropriationproject.net, phoebe.france@gmail.com & Bruce Tomb

deappropriationproject.net archives the Graffiti Wall at 1240 Valencia, home of the former San Francisco Mission Police Station.  Since occupying the building a decade ago, architect and artist Bruce Tomb has taken thousands of pictures of the graffiti and wheat paste posters that have appeared on the street-facing wall of his home.  In collaboration with archaeologist Phoebe France, Tomb’s collected images are being digitally archived in a continually evolving and expanding online database.  This paper discusses our archiving process and current website redesign (Winter 2011).  At TAG we hope to present our approach to the archaeological community for feedback and critique.

Graffiti: An Archaeological Artefact

Jane Fyfe, University of Western Australia, jane.fyfe@uwa.edu.au

Rock art research has been prolific in Australia for a number of decades, and many years have been spent investigating how Indigenous responses to contact and colonialism is expressed through rock art in the landscape. What is often referred to as graffiti reflects some of the European expression of their place, their responses and affiliations in the same landscape.  Europeans were not reticent about making their own marks on the landscape. They painted, engraved; they wrote their names, and named ships and military corps with which they were affiliated. They marked the landscape where there was rock art, and changed it forever.  Using two case studies from remote rock art sites in Australia, a new classification system was developed; Harris Matrices were used to explore the non-chronological aspects of superimposition.  This new approach opened the door to answering research questions about how Europeans interacted with new and challenging landscapes. The study historical inscriptions at remote sites provides a new approach to classification and analysis, so why not a new approach to studying graffiti an archaeological artefact.