Graffiti: A Good Rat or Bad Rat?

We are all familiar with the concept of art ‘not being in style until long after the artist is dead’. I had the thought of revisiting graffiti and its historical and archeological importance this week after I decided to do a series of posts for my Lapidary Club’s Facebook page themed around ‘rock art’, using the famous Lascaux Caves in France as a case study. I had found an interesting introductory article about rock art on a web site I follow to find interesting articles to share with the club page. Over the week, I shared geologically related facts about the caves, as many usually think that their relation is exclusively to archaeology. I have pulled a few to share with you below. Shameless plug, but if you are interested, please go ahead and ‘like’ our page by clicking here. I share new content daily.

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Let’s face it, if you have spent any time living in or visiting an urban city, you are familiar with graffiti. In many ways it has so many negative connotations, relating to teenagers or criminals who are tagging their territory or defacing someone else’s property. Before we progress, I just want to state that in no way am I in favor of putting graffiti on someone else’s private property illegally. Regardless, the debate remains: is graffiti art, or a crime?

Let’s look at this a different way. People have been etching their initials into trees, and their names into stone since the dawn of time. The caves in Lascaux are a stunning example of where we began. Graffiti reflects what is occurring around us as a society, and as a culture. What is important to us. Is it the hunt, like the Paleolithic caves in Lascaux? Is it trying to instill a sense of permanence for our names, like the sailors in the Middle Ages who carved their names in stone pillars at churches? Or is it to allocate territory with our group’s initials in a bustling inner city. Presently we seem to be perfectly fine with the concept of “ancient graffiti”, and even enjoy seeing it.

This whole concept reminds me of an article I read in a book (Wild Signs: Graffiti in Archaeology) recommended by a professor of mine who helped edit the book, titled In London You’re Never More than 10 Feet From a Rat (Stencil): The Rat and Urban Folklore by Paul Cowdell. Cowdell reminds us that graffiti can tell us a lot about the attitudes of people to a city and their life there. In the context of the article, this is displayed trough the ambiguous image of the rat and the hosts of meanings it has had through time in society, and graffiti. Like graffiti itself, rats can be praised as being good: clever, sly, and superior to other rodents. But just the same rats can be judged as being bad: disease carrying, dirty, and destructive.

Rock art in the Paleolithic context is simply an older form of graffiti, or art. Whatever you want to call it. It helps to define a sense of place in the landscape through the eyes of an observer (ie. Me or you, waling down the street), be it a ‘good’ place or a ‘bad’ place- everyone will see things differently based on their own personal beliefs and interpretations. Is the rat clever and sly, or dirty and destructive?

It is a shame that graffiti have such a temporality about it- buildings are destroyed, caves collapse, paint washes away, trees are felled for lumber, and people paint over it. These etchings or paintings that seem so meaningless in the present, will become important in the future as evidence of our presence as humans. Think of the Caves in Lascaux, and what a mecca or meaning and importance they are. Did the artist of the time think that they would last or provide us with an amazing context for Paleolithic life in the South of France? Likely not. We have no idea now, what will have meaning and importance tomorrow. The times when I have been traveling in Europe and seen etchings or carvings that are hundreds of years old, I feel like I have some kind of secret insight or connection into a personal moment in time.

So what do we think, good rat or bad rat? I usually pretty opinionated so I will go with good rat for now! Thanks for reading, and if you are interested in reading more about the geological context of the Lascaux caves and ‘rock art’, please check out the blog post I wrote for my club’s word press page by clicking here.


Peace and long life.


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