The Book of Irish Graffiti: Lots of latrinalia and quite an amount of folk epigraphy

Politicians were held in low regard by Irish graffiti writers 40 years ago and that may still be so

Graffiti on a wall in Ballyfermot in 1996. Photograph: David Sleator

Graffiti on a wall in Ballyfermot in 1996. Photograph: David Sleator

 

From Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence comes the sentiment: “The words of the prophets are written on a subway wall, or tenement hall.” Browsing through Sean Kilroy’s The Book of Irish Graffiti brought those song lyrics to mind. They may seem to lend graffiti an undue importance but the subject shouldn’t be dismissed too lightly either.

In The Dictionary of Art, Susan Philips tells us “graffiti” comes from the Greek “graphein” (to write) and originally referred to the drawings or scribblings on a flat surface found on ancient Roman architecture. Although examples have been found at such sites as Pompeii, Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and the Maya site of Tikal in Central America, graffiti (singular, “graffito”) are usually associated with 20th-century urban environments.

One obvious motive for graffiti is what Philips calls “a desire for recognition that is public in nature”. The phrase “Kilroy was here” falls into this category.

Referring to graffiti’s international nature, Philips says: “Individualised or popular graffiti include bathroom wall markings (latrinalia), signatures, proclamations of love, witty comments in response to advertisements, and any number of individual, political or social commentary (folk epigraphy).” Sean Kilroy’s survey of Irish graffiti showed lots of latrinalia and quite an amount of folk epigraphy.

The latter is a vast category and issues such as politics, religion, drinking and sex are common. Politicians were held in low regard by Irish graffiti writers 40 years ago and that may still be so. But it is interesting how relevant some of the comments then in evidence still are. For example: “Leinster House is the original political asylum.” Now “asylum” was obviously being used in a different sense, but refugees seeking political asylum is a very live issue in Ireland today, something which could not have been foreseen 40 years ago.

In the category of sex, some of the 1980 examples have certainly dated. “An Irish letter is a contraceptive for married men only” reflects the limited availability of contraceptives in the Ireland of those days.

There was much about religion in Irish graffiti of 40 years ago. Perhaps profound Nietzschean meditations such as “God is not dead – he just doesn’t want to get involved”, or “God is not dead but he is working on a much less ambitious project”, show that people were more interested in such philosophical issues back then. Other examples such as “Being a Catholic doesn’t stop you from sinning, it just stops you from enjoying it”, belong to a more innocent, bygone era.

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