Wall Writing

How the writing on the wall spelled the end of graffiti

It took 25 years of digging, but in 1763 workers outside Naples finally found the inscription that gave them an idea what they’d been unearthing. In Capitalis Monumentalis: Rei Publicae Pompeianorum. This was the long-lost Roman city of Pompeii.

A volcanic eruption had buried the Roman city almost 1700 years earlier. When Napoleon—obsessed with Roman antiquity as well as Egyptian—conquered Naples, he set 700 men to the task of unearthing the secrets hidden for centuries under volcanic ash. One secret appeared in plain site, yet nonetheless shocked archaeologists. The inscription that identified Pompeii had company—Pompeians had written on everything.

Scratched into plaster or painted on top, letters comprising everything from poetry to politics, dialogues to love notes, covered walls, inside and out. In 1856, art historian Raffaeile Garrucci released a book called Graffiti de Pompéi (Scratches of Pompeii), documenting his observations in the ancient city. The writing on the walls provided a wealth of information about ancient Pompeii, including examples of vulgar Italian—as opposed to the written Latin that had survived from antiquity—and fascinating details about the day-to-day lives of the city’s people. Not least of which was, they loved writing on walls.

19th century scholars struggled with this. They almost universally agreed that these informal inscriptions were the work of lower-class, uncultured Pompeians. This conclusion ignored the diversity of graffiti found in Pompeii and other ancient archaeological sites—much of it was, in fact, the work of wealthy, educated (obviously, since they were literate), and even politically connected members of the community. Worse, in asking why ancient people wrote on their walls, they missed a question as salient: Why do we not? In a moralist’s version of a Flintstones car, archaeologists had reached an a-historical conclusion that retrospectively applied 19th century values of private property to an ancient culture that hadn’t developed those values.

Leaving our marks on walls is a practice that predates history. From Cave of Beasts in present-day Egypt to Hands Cave in present-day Argentina, the world is rich with examples of prehistoric people altering their surroundings with visual commemorations of their time in place. Letters as we know them wouldn't have developed without writing on walls: four thousand years ago, miners in Ancient Egypt scratched hieroglyphics into the walls of their mine, with each glyph referencing a sound in their spoken language, rather than an object. This started the evolution of hieroglyphics into a phonetic alphabet, which would evolve further into the Latin letters we use now. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that, as people developed cities and written language, they would continue to write on the surfaces around them. The environment and media had changed, but our need to express ourselves had not. 

And it's not as though we stopped. The practice of writing on walls persisted through to the 19th century. The Dutch masters of the 17th century famously incorporated graffiti into their paintings of church interiors, sometimes disguising their own signatures as graffiti on the scenery. In April 1864, two different kinds of painters, G. Thicke and J. Randall, painted the ceiling of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. We know because they left a note in the rafters saying so. The act hadn’t changed, so why did attitudes?

It was all thanks to two printers: Gutenberg and Caxton. More specifically, it was the double-barrel effect of the Reformation and the Early-Modern rise of the merchant class—we can look at the two printers as a catalyst for each, respectively. Through the modern era, legal, political, and economic changes delivered a radical shift, first, in how people thought about property, and second, in the relative value of writing materials.

The explosion of literacy and printed materials that launched the modern era disrupted the distribution of power between monarchs and the church. As the Reformation pushed the Roman church out of its traditional position, monarchies, like that of Louis XIV, slid into the vacuum. To truly make their powers absolute, however, they needed to deal with a powerful aristocracy—the wealthy feudal landowners. Their position was already eroding; increased trade had loosened their stranglehold on local economies, while overseas colonies provided monarchs with revenue streams that made their feudal estates less important. Merchants like William Caxton—the agents of these changes—emerged as a new owner class whose productive property took the form, not of land, but of ships, goods, and machines. Monarchs used their legal power to extend rights similar to what feudal lords held over land to the properties of merchants, colonialists, and manufacturers. The new merchant’s aristocracy, therefore, held property like the old landed aristocracy, but legal power belonged to the King alone. In this division of economic and political powers—capitalism—trade and production supplanted military might and court intrigue as keys to the top.

Trade doesn’t work if people can simply take what they want. Early civilizations quickly learned that a wall and some guards went a long way towards fostering activity in the marketplace—merchants were more likely to trade where raiders couldn’t ride up and take their goods. With that infrastructure in place, it was easy to further smooth out trade by adjudicating who owned and owed what, in the event of disputes. By the Industrial Revolution, the market had ceased to be a place in the city, and had become an abstract umbrella of ownership and trade, covering many functions of the city and society at large. In a city built by capital, the same rules of ownership that lubricated trade in the ancient marketplace applied to the buildings of the city itself. The walls themselves became tradable goods—the whole city wouldn’t work, it seemed to follow, if people could simply take its parts.

This was this a mature ethos in 1850s England. By then the English had also enjoyed 50 years of “endless” paper production thanks to Fourdrinier Machines. Writing materials, in short, were in no short supply. With so much paper available, writing on walls became an activity only the poor needed to resort to. A class division emerged between those who bought paper and those who didn’t. This reality was starkly different from that in ancient Pompeii, where parchment was valuable and rare, and most writing was conducted on tablets or other available surfaces, such as walls. The 19th century Englishman of leisure, rolling in paper, couldn’t have imagined his counterpart in Pompeii writing on walls because—to him—that was the kind of behaviour reserved for the uncouth masses who had nothing to write worth the price of paper—or, at least, lacked the means to buy paper and resorted to writing on available surfaces, such as walls.

Some of us scrawl notes in the margins of books when something in the text inspires us. Marginalized people during the Industrial Revolution wrote around the body of society, expressing themselves where they could with what they had. Displaced by industrialization, many of these people formed a new nomad class. Like always, they left messages on the walls around them. Their stories marked their trails, and opened up new frontiers for letters.