The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Old and New World Graffiti

First, an example of graffiti in the old world. This is from Prague.

prague bench

A bit of paint on a bench, of young gang members tagging in the night? Sure, if you want to believe that. Look at the stonework, though. That’s fine communist period stonework, that is. It’s also not going to last. The park was one of those things a generation did on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain just to survive dehumanization and occupation. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” wrote Milan Kundera. He meant many things, but one was the shallowness of existence, and another was that a life lived for that ultra modern idea, “being” itself —rather than thought or action —was unbearable. It was a form of modernism, based on late 19th century roots, that powered two German world wars. The oak and maple leaves are part of that aesthetic, from a feminine side. Notice how they’re drifting over everything now. Someone has let their dog mark the stone to the left of the bench.This is an image of political resistance many generations deep. Now, compare to some new world graffiti:


This is a graffiti hang-out. A bunch of kids doping up and going crazy with paint cans because their lives are unbearably dull in this town off to the side of the inner cities of their ideals? Sure, but look at the tender domesticity of it all: the coat hanger, the Christian rose up top, the mason canning jars (notice: they’re unbroken) and the great attention to aesthetic balance. This is art made with a view to being seen, not a statement of society squeezed in the middle of a Europe under uncontrollable colonial pressures, but a view from afar. To the artists who did this work, art is the rebellion. The anarchist symbol riding over it all? Pay it no mind. This is a gentle anarchism. It’s not rebellion at all. Look at it. It’s nesting.


Why, there’s a bed, a realty “For Sale” sign, and that love poem to Kathleen on the right.  Quite a difference from Prague. Back to Prague, in the image below we are just a bit further downhill in Prague from the blue bench I showed you above. This installation of benches was one of the ways the communist government tried to create social comrades out of independently-minded Czechs. If the benches were in a semi-circle, no-one could be alone.


Look at them, the ghosts of a past generation, that thousands of people just walk through, on their way up or down the hill. This is the old monastery garden, on the edge of the old fortress and the castle walls. That’s another communist message: this is the people’s paradise now, not one of God and angels and kings and priests. You can see how someone has individualized those benches now. Perhaps you can see why this graffiti doesn’t get painted over? Not so in the new world, in Canada:

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Here, graffiti, which is an aesthetic and not a political, social-marxist expression, is felt to be so dangerous that it is painted over to discourage it. The desire is for totally sanitized order and pure functionality. You can see the obedience with which Canada’s graffitistes take to this suppression. Not so in Germany (below):


In Germany, there are nightly street battles in a kind of underground struggle for political ascendancy of the country. It is a weak counter government to the government, and is fought between communist graffiti gangs, nazi graffiti gangs, anarchist graffiti gangs, anti-faschist community action groups, and grandmothers who get up before dawn to remove the pro-Nazi messages wherever they can find them. The lower image above is from the anti-faschist action group, the Antifa. The slogan “Nazis Auf’s Maul” is not translatable, but is a turkish expression, somewhat like “Nazis, just a sec, you’re interrupting something important here,” or, simpler, “Nazis, shh, listen for a sec,” or, in a Canadian idiom, “Nazis, nobody asked you,” with the subtitle: “Whoever doesn’t listen has to feel.” Sly. The government doesn’t have to remove this stuff. It just has to watch. Here’s some from in behind the old synagogue in Erfurt. The translation of the newest layer, in black, which obscures the others in obvious frustration, is “No power for anyone!”


Others are dangerous, such as the one bashing anti-gentrification, for tourist purposes, of decaying but affordable inner city housing in the old communist east — housing that remained after 1990 reunification with the West as a protest against the regime, suffered for it and which is now being used to erase the real history of the east. That these fierce issues are fought with sexual threats against tourists is preferable to actual violence against travellers, but only scarcely less troubling. It goes to show the complexities of alienation on the streets.

Others are deeply ironic, and less than innocently aware of it, like this Anarchist symbol as a child’s balloon.


The high art values of the one below, in which a traditional motif, a splash of pink paint to signify an ice cream cone, only adds to its twist into a story of hidden child abduction, rife with political messages. This is still the country of the Brothers Grimm.


I find the one below in the recycling centre below Schönburg Castle (now a conservative Right-wing clubhouse) outside of Naumburg to be one of the most startling. Here, as in the two above, irony is doubled and quite self referential. This is a bin for disposing of sorted white glass. The symbol to the right of the bin’s mouth is a swastika, a sure Nazi symbol. The only thing is, it is backwards to the swastika of the Third Reich, and is the ancient sanskrit and buddhist swastika of peace. If this were the Nazi symbol, it would mean “Don’t throw your White Trash in here” or, probably more likely, “Don’t throw out your local neo-Nazi”, but since it’s backwards, it really means “No peace” or “No love” or “Don’t recycle the White symbol of peace” and can be seen as a way of writing the swastika in Germany, for obvious reasons a highly illegal act.

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Or it could be that the writer got it backwards. Here’s one below, for instance, that is obviously the Nazi symbol, just with a line through it. Look at the respect with which this series of images was crafted over time into a cumulative effect in which Anarchism and Nazism, art and graffiti, politics and anti-politics, all blend into the same system.


In the new world, a different game is being played. Here the streets are no less dead than in Europe, but the absence of human territorial marking gives the eerie feeling that the machines, like the gas meter silhouetted in Vernon, British Columbia below, have taken the place of humans.


If I’m right about that, this railroad switching box is a human, too:


Notice how it has been tagged and erased and retagged many times. The street battle in the sanitized streets of Canada is not between differing groups of humans jockeying for power in a mutually-supportive parliament (shall we say) of the street, but of humans furtively passing through spaces that they know, as much as the authorities do, do not belong to them, and with whatever weak, borrowed means are available to them, attempting to invent gravity.


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