There was once a man named Nigel Rees who made a living for himself compiling books of graffiti. These were filled with cracker-barrel epigrams (“If you want to complain about graffiti, sign this partition”) that were more akin to WC Fields than bog-standard WC walls. The profanities that have characterised the writing on the wall for 2,000 years (the inscriptions found at Pompeii – “Myrtis bene felas” and the like – are every bit as rude as today’s) were largely absent; Rees sanitised scrawling for the bookshop humour section.

But in the beginning there was not the word. More than four decades before Rees’s name became synonymous with graffiti, a far superior anthology – almost entirely pictorial – was being assembled. From 1933 on, that great chronicler of Parisian life, Brassaï, expended many rolls of film recording the marks carved into the walls of the French capital. The motivation behind such drawings is little different to any other graffiti – frustration, disregard for property, self-promotion and, above all, incredible boredom (surely a prerequisite if one is going to spend a long period carving a simplistic figure into the side of a building). But in these images Brassaï saw artistic parallels: not just with the Primitivist work of modern artists like Klee and Miró, but also with the cave art of the Palaeolothic era. The techniques, it seems, had barely changed in 18,000 years, and through the Hungarian’s lens the pockmarked, cracked walls of Paris became contemporary versions of the painted rock faces at Altamira.

Like an archaeologist, Brassaï categorised these photographs by type – demons, animals, faces, images of love both romantic and venal – and wrote analytical essays on his finds. He also pulled off something of a coup in the back-cover photograph, that of capturing a child in the act of carving a wall: part of graffiti’s appeal is that its execution is unseen. 

This is certainly the case with modern stencil artists. If, for example, someone had spotted the elusive Banksy in the midst of spraying “I want out, this place is too cold” on the inaccessible penguin pool at London Zoo, its Situationist impact would have been somewhat diminished. Stencil Graffiti is a catalogue of this new form of graphic graffiti, which brings the vocabulary of Warhol screen-prints to the city street. As well as the obvious stylistic similarities, the Pop Art tactic of citing an image out of all context is particularly prevalent – who expects to encounter a giant banana on a museum in Cologne, a portrait of William Burroughs on a car bonnet, or the lightbulb from Guernica on a Brighton wall?

These two books remind us that long before man could write (let alone write quotable jokes) he was drawing on walls. Brassaï saw the graffiti of the 20th century as a throwback to that primal urge to deface or decorate, as “archaic sparks” escaping from the civilised mind. In his words: “a wall gives a voice to that part of man that would otherwise be condemned to silence.”.


First published in World of Interiors issue 240. Reproduced with permission.


Graffiti

by Brassaï  (Flammarion)

Stencil Graffiti

by Tristan Manco  (Thames & Hudson)

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