Kilroy was here: the long history of graffiti

Graffiti found at Pompeii (79AD):

[Scribbled in a door at an Inn] We have wet the bed, host.  I confess we have done wrong.  If you want to know why, there was no chamber pot

Cruel Lalagus, why do you not love me?

If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girlfriend.

There are a lot of us humans on earth. We all have something unique to humans: the ego. The stripe-shirted Wally in us needs to stand out among the sea of humans. We have the need to shout “I am here”. If you’re a pharaoh, that’s easy: you can build a pyramid dedicated to your memory. Or if you’re head of an oil-rich state, you can build the tallest building in the world or the biggest indoor ski slope. Or if you have fewer funds, you might build the biggest ball of twine, grow your fingernails 2 meters long, or you might just scratch your name in a pyramid. Or you might have the temerity to scratch “Ramses sucks” on the pyramid.  When we’re travelling, the need becomes greater: instead of “I am here”, the message becomes “I was here”.  This might take the form of planting a flag on the moon or on the south pole, or wearing a “Hard Rock Cafe Prague” t-shirt.

So these are the varieties of graffiti: a simple “I am here” or “I was here” message, or something a bit more creative and subversive. The message tends to get more subversive when the act is more illegal.

Since The Guardian says it better, I’ll copy their article here:

Our urge to scrawl on a wall has been around for pretty much as long as there have been walls around for us to scrawl on. The workmen who built the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza left behind scribbles that may explain how they did it. An ancient Roman scratched what is often interpreted as directions to a nearby brothel into the paving stones at Ephesus, while others were leaving declarations of love, political slogans, rude gossip and scandalous accusations all over Pompeii

Viking graffiti from the 9th century: Halvdan was here
Early graffiti at Ephesus, Turkey
200AD: Possibly the earliest representation of Jesus, with the author mocking Jesus by giving him a donkey head.

In later times, it became customary, if not obligatory, for anyone who visited ancient sites to record the fact upon them. As early as 1240BC, “Hadnakhte, scribe of the treasury” was inscribing an account of his trip: “came to make an excursion and to amuse himself on the west of the Memphis, together with his brother, Panakhti” on a temple wall at Giza. The Romans effectively saw the Great Pyramid as a giant visitor’s book, and generations of European tourists, from Napoleonic soldiers to Lord Byron, left their marks across swathes of Greece, Italy and Egypt well into the 19th century.

Napoleon and his army’s graffiti at Egypt’s Philae Temple began the graffiti craze in Egyptian temples
19th century graffiti on the temple of Abu Simbel

The practice was so common that during a tour of Egypt in 1850, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert expressed his great irritation, in a letter to his uncle, at “the number of imbeciles’ names written everywhere”, declaring himself particularly unamused by the fact that in Alexandria, “a certain Thompson, of Sunderland, has inscribed his name in letters six feet high on Pompeii’s column … It can be read a quarter of a mile off. There is no way of seeing the column without seeing the name of Thompson. This imbecile has become part of the monument and is perpetuated with it.”

From the mid-20th century, though, despite the best efforts of US GIs who left “Kilroy was here” inscriptions everywhere from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to the Marco Polo Bridge in China, the practice was widely condemned – but it still persists, even if, these days, defacing a historic monument can have hefty consequences. In Egypt, the offence carries a fine of more than $20,000 and up to 12 months in prison. In India, where the Taj Mahal and Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens and Purana Qila fort have been badly affected, graffitists risk up to 1 lakh (about £970) in fines and up to two years in jail.

Legal graffiti at the greatest wall of all

Or, like China, you can set aside a whole section of one of the world’s best-known ancient monuments for tourists to carve their names on. Authorities in Beijing recently designated Fighting Tower 14 of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall a “free graffiti zone”, and are considering setting up two similar areas in Fighting Towers 5 and 10. Which is decent of them, because the most recent international graffiti scandal was provoked last year by a 15-year-old from Nanjing who, much like the scribe Hadnakhte 3,500 years ago, cheerfully scratched the words “Ding Jinhao was here” on a 3,500-year-old Luxor Temple carving in Egypt. Scrawling on a – preferably ancient – wall is plainly a habit that will die hard.

[Ed: Fortunately, in 2019, the “I am here” urge can be fulfilled by writing on the virtual wall of the internet. Please, somebody, somewhere, read this article.]

Other links:

7 examples of ancient graffiti

Inscriptions of ancient tourists

To do: Mabel Lang, a professor at Bryn Mawr catalogued ancient Athenian graffiti, but her book is out of print.