Often mistaken for “vandalism,” street art – aka graffiti or aerosol art – is a recognised ancient art form.
It is now considered a relevant, invaluable, and timely form of social commentary. Or, indeed, simple artistic expression.
Contemporary graffiti has spread globally in the past forty years due to both modern free thought, counter cultures in film and news media, and – we shouldn’t underestimate – the invention of aerosol paint.
Those who have never taken time to appreciate the work and artistry in truly creative graffiti, and outright consider it an urban blight, might also dismiss a glorious sunset as an irritation signalling the end of the day.
Graffiti historically is a significant art form, generally defined as deliberate markings on surfaces – either image or word. When uninvited it is called vandalism, which would have bemused ancient cultures. With no delineator separating surface art from ‘graffiti’ these bedfellows have existed since prehistory surviving in caves and rock faces for tens of thousands of years.
Formal wall art is most famously seen in Pharaohs Egypt, graffiti of colourful intent is preserved in Roman Pompeii. Claims of graffiti on the Great Wall of China are believable. The bored guards would easily have pointed blame westward if sprung by passing commanders. The Taj Mahal is claimed to exhibit centuries-old signings by the original workmen.
The 1979 comedy satire film “Life of Brian” contained an unforgettable and pointed take on graffiti. John Cleese as centurion surprises Graham Chapman as Brian defacing a building with anti-Roman graffiti – as in vandalistic graffiti.
Cleese’s centurion proceeds to miss entirely the act of vandalism and, being no doubt a Latin scholar doing his Dad’s Army spell in Jerusalem, proceeds to lecture Brian on his poor grammar:
Centurion: What’s this, then? “Romanes eunt domus”? People called Romanes, they go, the house?
Brian: It says, “Romans go home. ”
Centurion: No it doesn’t ! What’s the latin for “Roman”? Come on, come on !
Brian: Er, “Romanus” !
Centurion: Vocative plural of “Romanus” is?
Brian: Er, er, “Romani” !
Centurion: [Writes “Romani” over Brian’s graffiti] “Eunt”? What is “eunt”? Conjugate the verb, “to go” !
Brian: Er, “Ire”. Er, “eo”, “is”, “it”, “imus”, “itis”, “eunt”.
Centurion: So, “eunt” is…?
Brian: Third person plural present indicative, “they go”.
Centurion: But, “Romans, go home” is an order. So you must use…?
[He twists Brian’s ear]
Brian: Aaagh ! The imperative !
Centurion: Which is…?
Brian: Aaaagh ! Er, er, “i” !
Centurion: How many Romans?
Brian: Aaaaagh ! Plural, plural, er, “ite” !
Centurion: [Writes “ite”] “Domus”? Nominative? “Go home” is motion towards, isn’t it?
Brian: Dative !
[the Centurion holds a sword to his throat]
Brian: Aaagh ! Not the dative, not the dative ! Er, er, accusative, “Domum” !
Centurion: But “Domus” takes the locative, which is…?
Brian: Er, “Domum” !
Centurion: [Writes “Domum”] Understand? Now, write it out a hundred times.
Brian: Yes sir. Thank you, sir. Hail Caesar, sir.
Centurion: Hail Caesar ! And if it’s not done by sunrise, I’ll cut your balls off.”
And as life imitates art imitates life, several years ago a graffiti vandal defaced the statue of a Roman emperor using grammatically correct Latin from the excerpt above. The inscription “Romani ite domum” had been penned on the concrete plinth of the bronze statue of the Emperor Nerva in Gloucester, UK. It translates, of course, as “Romans go home.”
So, is it defaced or improved?
Perhaps the addition should be enshrined. A bronze statue of a 2000 year old Roman is meaningless to most people –a slab of concrete, a lump of bronze. The ‘defacement’ springs it into focus, ties it to the present, provokes thought, forces questions.
Anyone with curiosity in their blood will, upon having the graffiti explained – and being probably too young to even have heard of Life of Brian – will want to know more! And will chuckle at the mischievousness and irony of it all.