Authorities in Rome have levied a hefty fine on a Russian tourist who carved his initial into a brick in the Colosseum. Last year a Chinese teen-aged tourist carved graffiti into a 3,500 year-old temple in Luxor, Egypt. Acts like these are considered to be vandalism and draw a hue and cry from historians and art lovers. However, the Colosseum has been removing grime in other parts of the 2,000-year-old venue and excitedly announced that workers found centuries’ old graffiti in areas that will soon go on display. That raises questions on when preventing graffiti is appropriate at historical sites versus protecting already existing graffiti.
It seems unfair to penalize tourists for adding their names to walls that already have and celebrate graffiti from prior generations. However, carvings clearly cannot continue unabated for centuries and potentially risk structural damage. That said, it is intriguing to see who same before and the cultural behaviors that led visitors to “sign the guest book” in a permanent way.
The Colosseum’s graffiti could be viewed as a tangled historical record of tourists’ visits. The people were aware of being at a historic site and wanted to mark their presence for posterity. Many list names, dates and places of origin. For example, one marking by J. Milber also reports 1892 and the city of Strasbourg.
In some cultures, such as China, graffiti is a cultural norm. Chinese media were highly critical of the teen involved in the Luxor incident. They have decried the failure of society for teaching the boy moral principles. However, reportedly “everything in China has the same kind of carvings. There is a lack of respect for social order and rule of law,” said Liu Kaiming, a Shenzhen-based activist.
The trend toward graffiti markings from Chinese (and visitors to China following suit) has been a big issue at the Great Wall of China. For centuries, visitors to the Great Wall have left their mark. Now, to avoid permanent, irreparable damage, the Chinese authorities have designated a section of the wall in the Huairou district for visitors to add their own graffiti to the wall.
Xu Fan, a tourism expert on the panel of the World Tourism Organization, called the plan to set up a graffiti zone as “acceptable.” He did point out the need to make sure tourists know about it, noting that administrators should use sign to direct tourists to the graffiti area and discourage them adding marks elsewhere on the wall where they made see old graffiti, but should not add new markings.
Similarly, the Colosseum’s officials plan to display the newly restored areas and the centuries old markings they contain. Presumably, though, they too will make it clear that modern graffiti artists should not add their artwork or name alongside the old ones.
The Russian tourist arrested at the Roman site was actually the fifth visitor caught defacing the ancient venue this year. (The others were from Australia, Brazil and Canada.)
There is actually a project under way in Europe to try and coat historical monuments and buildings to thwart graffiti artists (at least those who use paint versus those who carve their niche). The current types of anti-graffiti coating used on more modern surfaces would not work or look out of place so they have been striving to develop options that will blend in and be effective. As has been shown by the centuries’ worth of graffiti found at many historical sites, preventing new signators and protecting those calling cards left over the millennia will take more than official threats and tourist signs.
By Dyanne Weiss