Hidden Messages: From Cave Art to Graffiti

hidden messages (2)

Hidden Messages: the writing on the wall

Since the beginning of humankind, people have expressed their thoughts symbolically by making marks.  However, the meaning of such expressions is commonly elusive and leaves us to wonder whether there are hidden messages that can be deciphered by those who were/are not part of the culture or time of their origination. Spanning a timescale of about 2000 years, the audience was captivated by a tour of the rock art of the San hunter-gatherer tribes in South Africa and by the modern-day graffiti or mural art of the West.

Aron Mazel (Reader in Heritage Studies at Newcastle University), who has excavated and studied many of the rock shelters in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa, persuaded us that artistic innovations seen in the representations of animals in particular were directly related to the San people’s environmental changes of the time. How did they deal with the arrival of farming communities who brought with them societal uncertainties and potential threats? We saw examples of beautifully shaded polychrome paintings of native animals such as antelopes. The shadings, lighter at the stomachs rather than backs, create the illusion of three-dimensional depictions of the animals suggesting a light source coming from below. Thus, our imagination took us back in time where Shamans were dancing around a flickering fire in a trance-like state, receiving power from the animals now appearing to them in motion like 3D light. It seems then that the polychrome rock paintings of the Drakensberg Mountains, in addition to their aesthetic beauty, give testimony to ritualistic behaviours that were triggered by worries of changing times.

Robert Hutchinson (experienced graffiti and mural artist who can be found under the pseudonym of Rup-Art) gave a fascinating account of the history of graffiti art and its changing signatures since the 1960ies and little bit of insight into the working mind of a contemporary graffiti artist. We learned about the dangerous craft of Tracy 168, Blade or Dondi who risk(ed) their freedom to make their marks on trains or walls perhaps for the prime reason to get noted, claim a space, or gain the esteem of fellow graffiti artists. Looking at many examples of past and current graffiti art, there was a clear progression of styles and it seems odd that the intention of many artists was/is not to appeal (we saw some beautiful examples), but to create an in-group language that is understood by other peer artists. We were told of the war of styles and the war between acclaimed graffiti and street artists like Robbo or Banksy who took it in their stride to show who the real king of the scene is. Recent changes in the attitude by corporates is leading to a reframing of graffiti art and to its creative use in the marketing. Commissioned examples include the painted subway train to promote the Thanksgiving Day parade, the luxury label of Coach in its handbag designs, or the Regent street shop front.  No matter whether we think of vandalism, brandalism or simply mark making, Rob left no doubt that graffiti as an art form is complex, has evolved in time (and with the quality of spray cans), and has gained its right to be recorded and recognised.

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