Global Graffiti Messages

The writing is on the wall, it has been said. From Rome to Mexico City, that writing is evolving into a globally recognizable set of signs and symbols.When I first traveled to Mexico in 1990 at the age of 16, "Hola" was my entire Spanish vocabulary. I was delighted to discover the world of pictorial information. Mayan stone carvings eloquently depicted history, war scenes, mushroom-induced hallucinations and even medical procedures using images and symbols that pierced the language barrier. Diego Rivera's monumental murals visually described Mexican history from a revolutionary perspective.Fast forward to Rome, 1996, where my lack of proficiency in Italian mirrors my former ignorance of Spanish. Yet, thanks to global artistic-political movements, I find myself surrounded by easily-comprehensible information in the form of graffiti.The conflict between left and right is played out across the walls of this ancient city. Proponents of anarchy, communism and equality clash with fascists, who scrawl the international fascist cross-in-a-circle next to messages of racial intolerance, class to power, and avowals of solidarity with fascist movements in Croatia, Russia and Texas.Much of the fascist graffiti pays homage to a native tradition of stone carving that is centuries old. Romans have been writing on their walls and columns as far back as archeology records -- honoring leaders of wars, proclaiming laws, erecting statues of the state's patron god.Modern Roman fascists capitalize on this tradition with images of Roman Centurions, Byzantine-style crosses, spears and axes. Their claims to racial superiority are hotly debated and painted over by other graffiti writers. Visiting Nazis from the Northern European countries chime in with disparaging remarks about Italians' dark complexions and history of conquest by the Moors of Africa. At the other end of the political spectrum, slogans signed with the hammer-and-sickle or red star insignias include "Contro La Guerra Imperialismo," a beautiful "no kapitalism" stencil, "Viva il Che," and "Intifada!"Whether left- or right-wing, Italian graffiti artists seem to be unified by their distaste for government. Calls for "revoluzione" are almost as likely to be followed by the "iron cross" of Italian fascists -- who resent their country's slightly left-leaning government -- as by the hammer-and-sickle of their sworn enemies. Other spray-can wielders express resentment towards American foreign policy. "Iraq-Somalia-Palestina," reads a wall near the U.S. embassy.The global consciousness exhibited by many of the written messages is astounding. "Liberate Mumia Abu-Jamal," one wall near the Coliseum screams in bold red spray paint. How many American graffiti artists are capable of naming a foreign political prisoner, let alone phrasing a plea on his behalf in another language? Equally surprising was the crossed hammer symbol of America's Confederate Hammer Skins on a wall near the ancient Roman Forum.Also widespread in Rome is anarcho-punk graffiti, which calls for freedom from government, religion and social conformity. Although not all Italian punks are anarchists, many punk political and social ideals stem from early European anarchist societies, such as the Spanish anarchist communes of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.Anarcho-punk graffiti often includes the world famous circled A (used in America as a marketing ploy for grungy pop bands). Anti-nuclear sentiments are symbolized by a crossed-out cloud (one had the name "Chirac" on it, indicating the French prime minister responsible for unpopular nuclear testing in the Pacific). Squatting is another common element in anarcho-punk graffiti, represented by an encircled lightning bolt or the word "okupa."Prevalent on the walls of Rome are "tags" -- simple word messages derived from American graffiti and not overtly political. As an urban American, Italian tags strike me as being in the primitive stages -- much less stylistically ambitious, and much more legible to the uninitiated, than their U.S. counterparts. Many Roman tags are in laughable "junk English." Tags like "Everlasting Party," "Tufff," and "Game Over" would earn a tagger no respect on the States side of the Atlantic. The prevalence of tagging is a sign of the infectious nature of American culture -- tagging having been spawned by urban America's hip-hop/breakdance/graffiti scene only a couple of decades ago.One image that warmed my heart was a defaced fascist "iron cross" which had been transformed into the logo for the now-defunct San Francisco hardcore band the Dead Kennedys. Such references to obscure American pop culture flatter a young homesick Californian. Other graffiti was beyond my ability to decipher: a wealth of wall-writing in Arabic, references to illuminati iconography, and a huge "Viva Nixon" wall piece near the Trevi Fountain. But hey, when in Rome...

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