When I was a child, it seemed that graffiti was everywhere – poems (of a sort) on toilet walls, hearts carved into tree trunks in the local park, names scratched into the undersides of desk lids, and rude words scrawled in chalk on footpaths in alleyways. All around, someone was shouting ‘I woz here’ in public places, and then running away before they could be properly identified.
I didn’t see any of this as an act of vandalism. It was rather poignant, being surrounded by strangers wanting just to leave evidence of their existence. There was nothing wrong with it, as far as I could tell. And some of the toilet poems were really quite funny.
These days, I don’t see nearly so much of this sort of graffiti. Perhaps I just don’t visit the right public conveniences (!) or perhaps laws passed since my 1970s childhood mean that town councils invest more money in cleaning up. Graffiti now seems to have matured from the barely articulate yell of everyman-or-woman into a recognised art form – or degenerated into a much more sinister expression of tribal identity.
I wonder, though, if our new digital devices have taken over as the blank space on which all of us (or, rather, those of us privileged enough to be connected) can scrawl a simple ‘I woz here’ and send it around the world with a click. The selfie or photobomb is the quickest and easiest way to do it. Then, the discussion forum, tweet or blog post gives us the chance (which most people, other than published authors and artists, never used to have) to add some substance, to express more than just the basic fact of our existence. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Facebook used to invite us to write on our ‘wall’.
There are so many voices competing for attention in digital spaces, it can be overwhelming. We have to ‘tune out’ most of what we see and hear, to avoid overload. But I wouldn’t want to go back to the days before this explosion of online chatter. I like to hear all the random voices, to be surrounded by evidence of strangers’ lives across the globe – strangers who, sometimes, become friends.
Graffiti lives, online if not on the street, and what’s more, the poetry is much improved!