And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls”
─ Paul Simon, The Sound of Silence 1963-64
BOMBER’S RIGHT about Adam Curtis’s latest offering, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, it is brilliant. You can tell it’s a work of genius by the way it leaves you looking at the world through its maker’s eyes. Just as I can never see at a sunflower without thinking of Vincent Van Gough, or take in a mega-city by night without recalling the first scene of Bladerunner, I will never again be able to see a couple dancing cheek-to-cheek without thinking of Adam Curtis.
And like Adam Curtis. This morning, for example, out with my family for a leisurely Level 3 Lockdown promenade, I encountered an unfamiliar tag, spray-painted on just about every available flat surface between my front door and the park.
What did it mean? Why was it there? Who was its audience?
These questions were certainly not unanswerable. For a start, tags don’t have to “mean” anything. When we see a dog cock his hind leg and urinate on a power pole, we are not inclined to question the meaning of his behaviour. We understand immediately that the animal is simultaneously identifying itself and registering its presence to all the other dogs in the area. It has no more meaning than the nod of recognition I just gave to the couple passing our little group on the footpath. Just a simple mammalian gesture signalling “nothing to fear from us”.
Where does Adam Curtis come into all this? He intrudes by prompting the sort of questions that make his documentaries so riveting. What has led so many mostly young human-beings to mimic the behaviour of dogs? A tag may not have a unique olfactory signature, but its distinctive visual shape and style is intended to convey exactly the same messages: “I was here” and “I am here”.
Now, readers of a certain age will immediately recall the “Kilroy was here” graffito which first began to appear on the walls of European cities during and immediately after World War II. An Anglo-American meme, by all accounts, the image of the lugubrious observer started popping-up wherever American military personnel ventured. From the soon-to-be-vaporised infrastructure of the Bikini Atoll A-Bomb test-site, to the blasted walls of Vietnam, “Kilroy” bore silent witness to the tragedy and absurdity of human conflict.
The difference between the “Kilroy was here” meme and the tagger’s message is, of course, that the latter has absolutely no interest in communicating anything beyond the existence of its creator. Kilroy, by contrast, was a shared identity: one available to everyone who had participated in the overwhelming experiences of combat. For many World War II veterans, talking about what they had seen and done was often extremely difficult. But, Kilroy knew what had happened. He had seen it all. Kilroy had been there.
What, then, is signified by this contemporary retreat from genuine communication? How and why was the mass audience for graffiti shrunk down to these tiny communities of taggers? To handfuls of practitioners who, alone, are capable of recognising the signatures of their fellow scribblers. When did graffiti cease to be a proclamation aimed at anyone who could read, and become instead an arcane collection of secret symbols, intelligible only to the cognoscenti of the spray-can and the magic marker?
In Curtis’s documentary, the older style of graffiti figures prominently. Those who wrote on walls in the decades following World War II were generally communicating messages the “mainstream media” of the day would point-blank refuse to print or broadcast. By slapping up their slogans for all-and-sundry to read they were announcing the existence of alternative interpretations of social, economic and political reality. What their paintbrushes and spray-cans were saying was very simple: the official version is not the only version.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Daft old Boomer. Hasn’t he heard of the Internet? Why would anyone risk being done for wilful damage when they can say everything they want to say on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook without recourse to messy paintbrushes and spray-cans? Who needs “Kilroy” when far more powerful memes are just a few judicious keystrokes and mouse-clicks away? Time and technology have passed these old slogan-daubers by. Wake up Grandpa!”
Fair enough! But questions remain.
Isn’t there a difference between posting and painting? The taggers certainly think so. Risking one’s life and limb (not to mention one’s liberty) to make one’s mark on a surface visible to the whole ‘hood speaks volumes about the courage and resourcefulness of the tagger.
Asserting individual identity by spraying one’s tag all over an inner-city billboard may not carry the political cred’ attached to spray-painting “Stop the Tour” across a motorway overbridge, but it remains an impressive achievement nonetheless. Preaching to the Twitter choir about this, that and the other, just isn’t the same. No one is surprised. No one is challenged. So may posts – my own included – strike me as little more than long-winded tags.
Adam Curtis would introduce a talking head about here: someone to draw out the all-too-obvious moral of the tale. That our world is increasingly driven by an intense hunger for individual recognition and acclaim. In a deeply dispiriting way “speaking truth to power” has become a harmless ritual. Not least because power is, almost certainly, not listening. Tweets, Instagram captions, Facebook posts – all have become mere snowflakes in the “blizzard of the world” that the late Leonard Cohen warned us, way back in 1992, was threatening to cross our thresholds and “overturn the order of the soul”.
Daubing up graffiti was an act of faith in the power of collective understanding. When the old man who lived in the narrow brick house on Dunedin’s Great King Street painted the words “Free Latvia!” on his traffic-facing wall, he was not only appealing for the drivers’ political support, he was also announcing his own faith in his homeland’s future. Back in the 1970s, when I was a student, hardly anyone knew what or where Latvia was. We took in the graffiti with youthful bemusement. But the old man’s faith was not misplaced. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Latvia did indeed become free. And those of us who remembered the old man’s impassioned graffiti, smiled.
The last time I was in Dunedin, I noticed how much the paint had faded. I also noted the crude palimpsest of tags which was crawling up the bricks like so much dayglo ivy.
I had no idea what any of it meant.