The Archaeology of Spray Cans

Is the graffiti that blankets our  backalleys and freeway ramps an urban blight or a street-wise data set for some future archaeologist?  I have to say I was firmly in the former camp until very recently,  when I came across Cassidy Curtis’s superb website,  Graffiti Archaeology. Curtis is a PDI/Dreamworks animator who has worked on such wonderful films as The Bee Movie,  Shrek the Third, and Madagascar.  And he clearly loves what he calls “the chameleon skin of the urban landscape.”

Curtis sees tag-covered city walls as a highly ephemeral art form.   Grafitti artists,  as we  all know,  are constantly overwriting old images with their spray cans, creating a palimpsest of tags–and this makes these images particularly interesting to the archaeologically minded.  How does this uber-urban art change and evolve over time?  How often do artists revisit and rewrite graffiti sites?  Do the same artists return again and again?  Or do different artists add their tags to a site,  creating a kind of graffiti dialogue?  I think these are all intriguing questions,  but to get at them,  one clearly needs data.

Curtis offers it up in spades.  To document ever-evolving urban graffiti,  he began taking photos of urban walls in 15 different locations in 1999,  returning regularly–sometimes daily–to update his data bank. Sometimes he caught tag artists in the act with spray cans in hand;  other times he caught images of the street life that these walls attracted.

Curtis has posted the results on his website Graffiti Archaeology in a clear and beautiful way,  creating a timeline for each wall.  Click on the timeline,  and you can see what the wall looked like on a specific date and then how it changed over time.   The site is really a web masterpiece,  and after spending time there, I began to see urban graffiti as an organic, breathing, living urban artifact.  If you haven’t visited Curtis’s site,  I highly recommend that you check it out.

I’d love to see  archaeologists take a serious look at this street-life art.   Researchers have been poring over ancient graffiti at sites like Pompeii for years,  and it seems to me that future archaeologists could learn something intriguing about street culture from poring over our painted concrete walls.

2 Comments

  1. Sven Ouzman in particular and rock art specialists in general have looked at modern and ancient graffiti in the archaeological record. Many archaeologists have at least a side interest in it, and I have integrated it into presentations and the experience of place in my own work, for example, here:

    http://archaeography.com/photoblog/archives/2008/12/red_and_hands.shtml

  2. Thanks for this info, Colleen! I found a few more details about Sven Ouzman’s project in an article he wrote in the Berkeley Daily Planet:

    http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2004-03-23/article/18530?headline=Letters-on-the-Sidewalk-Are-Today-s-Artifacts

    I will look into this a bit further and perhaps post on this subject again in the future.

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