By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

A few days ago, I ran across this classic Calvin and Hobbes cartoon:


I think there could be two interpretations here: One, Calvin always has a bit of the restless genius about him, and he understands that graffiti is an art-form with theory and technique, though the square librarians don’t agree.  Or, two, Calvin loves to break the rules, and he is too young to understand why others don’t help him.  He is the epitome of a destructive kid who has no real respect for other peoples’ mindsets, mores or properties.  His open interest in graffiti, that purportedly most rebellious of destructive activities, proves the point.


Banksy is amazing.

The City of Chicago would likely view Calvin’s interest in graffiti as the first sign of juvenile delinquency. The official website of the city defines graffiti as “vandalism” that “scars the community, hurts property values and diminishes…quality of life.”  Though these are pretty harsh words, I believe that most people would agree with this statement.  The works of Banksy and Basquiat aside, few people see high art in everyday graffiti.  Graffiti is associated with youth; with urban culture; with spray-painting nihilists. Chicago leaders want to punish these kids, and perhaps even punish their parents.  Maybe that will solve the problem.

Maybe not. What ex-Mayor Richard Daley and Mayor Rahm Emanuel ignore is the historical ubiquity of graffiti.  This is not a Chicago problem.  This is not a modern problem.  Tagging is a human tradition, and if anything, it seems to be diminishing.  Look at the Ancient Romans. Their cities had graffiti everywhere.  Nowhere is this more memorable  than in the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Both these Roman towns have been preserved in a time capsule of volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius’ eruption of 79AD.  Under blankets of ash, archaeologists have discovered perfectly preserved physical artifacts: jewelry, statues, money, religious idols, and artwork.  Some of these artifacts are unforgettable for their beauty; some for their lewdness (Pompeiians seemed to have had a bit of an obsession with the male sexual organ.)

Graffiti in Pompeii

Graffiti in Pompeii

X-rated or not, the findings at Pompeii and Herculaneum are incredible windows into the past. Vesuvius entombed first century urban Roman culture, and graffiti was evidently central to that culture. Roman citizens enjoyed recording all sorts of graffiti wherever they saw fit, and much of it did not have any of the artistic intentions of today’s taggers.  Instead, it is closer to a running record of everyday events and average citizens’ thoughts. Some of it is mundane, as when someone simply scrawled in the gladiator barracks, “On April 19th, I made bread“.  Alternatively, some graffiti is poetic, as one message within a tavern proves: “Lovers are like bees in that they live a honeyed life“.  There are some bragging graffiti artists as well. One wrote, “If anyone does not believe in Venus, the should gaze at my girl friend“.  Then there are vulgar scribblings.   My favorite is the simple, “Secundus defecated here. Three times“. 

The vulgar graffiti is not just shocking; it is the most important graffiti for us to pay heed. Why?  Because, it provides 21st century people the opportunity to see Ancient Romans as they really were.  It illuminates that they were not all philosophers, or emperors, or senators.  They were living, breathing, defecating humans.

It may have been the Classical age, but not everything was classy.

  1. Peter Stern says:

    Absolutely fantastic: like the rome and the romans, all roads lead to YOU! Great piece once again. Could this graffiti be like today’s internet? Or twitter? or tweet? Best, Peter

    • MSJ says:

      Peter, that is a great point about it being like Twitter or Facebook. Reading some of the graffiti, it does seem really similar. Interestingly, your Facebook page is called your “wall”, so when you send a message to someone’s page, you write on their ‘wall’. Never really thought about the connection before. Thanks.

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