Archaeology and Graffiti

For those of you interested in my ongoing book project, here’s a bit more about the archaeology of contemporary graffiti. It’s part of a chapter on industrial ruins and cities which I’ve posted about here, here, and here

Below is the most recent chunk. More on this later in the week.

A similar interest in the archaeology of 21st century protests has emerged surrounding the protests that occurred in the wake of George Floyds murder in the 2020 and the related efforts to remove or destroy monuments associated with racist figures in urban areas. As Simms and Riel-Salvatore (2016) noted in their efforts to document the material signature of the Occupy Denver movement, the speed at which many of these protest occurred, their diverse and widespread nature , and the ephemeral character of some of the transformations have required innovative approaches to documenting the protests and their changing manifestations in the urban fabric. The Philadelphia-based Monument Lab project, for example, is developing performing a National Monument Audit n an effort to document and understand the changing monumental landscape of American cities ( The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is collecting artifacts associated with the 2020 protests against police brutality in Washington, DC’s Lafayette Square ( Artists Terry Kilby used drone photography in July of 2020 to produce 3D model of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia and posted it to the 3D viewing site Sketchfab ( Kilby’s model preserved the spray painted sentiments expressed by protestors which ranged from expressions of anger, love, unity, and racial solidarity to calls to “tear it down,” revolution, and anarchism. The sheer volume and variety of messages jostling with each for attention on the monument embodied the diversity of the protestors, their motivations, and goal. Absent, of course, were the equally dramatic messages projected on the statue at night which left no material trace. The techniques employed by Kilby and any number of other historians, journalists, archaeologists, and community members to document the protest were both similar to those used during archaeological field work (e.g. Murray and Sapirstein 2017) and also reflect the need and opportunities for ad hoc approaches to recording the often ephemeral remains of protests. While there is no doubt that the protests against racism and policy brutality and the removal of racist monuments marked a significant moment in the history of both race and urbanism in the United States, the traces of these protests particularly in the urban fabric continue a tradition of practices, including graffiti, tagging, and street art, that is fundamental to modern, global urban experience.

Oliver and Neal (2010), for example, locate the origins of contemporary interest in graffiti in the economic and racial turmoil in major urban areas in the US in the 1970s — New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. In this context, graffiti represented a challenge to the urban order for whom it represented vandalism and an assault on private and public property. Since that time, archaeologists, anthropologists, and a wide range of urban explorers and photographers have documented graffiti and street art as windows into the communities, identities, rituals, and tensions that define urban life. Schiffer and Gould’s seminal 1981 book, Modern Material Culture, includes a C. Fred Baker’s chapter analyzing graffiti in bathrooms in and around the University of Hawaii. He notes that the use of racial and ethnic insults directed toward white, Japanese, and native Hawaiians, confirms the role of liminal places as spaces for the public expression of transgressive language that, ironically, reinforces social norms. In other contexts, however, archaeologists have argued that graffiti play a role in place making activities that challenge hegemonic views of what constitutes liminal or marginal places. Gabriel Soto, for example, argued that the presence of graffiti in box culverts along roads in the Sonoran desert is a form of place-making along in an otherwise sterile and indistinct landscape. Similar practices appear to have characterized the graffiti found on a bridge over the Ilissos river in Athens, Greece, where migrants transformed an otherwise marginal space in a place to mark their ethnic identity, commemorated their journeys and place of origin, and perhaps even created a place for worship (Lenakis 2019). In effect, the shared experiences communicated through the graffiti transformed a marginal space into a place made familiar offering comfort to individuals encountering an intense form of displacement in an unsympathetic and often hostile urban landscape. On the one hand, the use of graffiti to create a sense of places at the margins of the city echoes its place in classic works in Teun Voeten’s Tunnel People (1996,2010) which explores the life of residents of New York City’s abandoned railroad tunnels. The use of graffiti as part of the 21st-century protests, then, represented a varied and well-established strategy to stake claim to urban spaces. By challenging the social and political order’s control over public spaces, graffiti represents a significant form of resistance to hegemonic forces that use violence and other forms of social, economic, and institutional power to marginalize groups, suppress dissent, and appropriate public space.

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