CATHERINE MOUSDALE AND MAX FAYERS took to Cambridge’s streets and toilet cubicles – not in a weird way – in order to find some of the town’s most creative and bewildering graffiti.
This has been a week of seemingly odd behaviour on my part.
I have spent a lot of time standing in the path of late lecture attendees in order to take photos of apparently insignificant objects; I have spent unnatural amounts of time in toilet cubicles, emerging to the incredulous looks of those who heard my camera taking photos whilst in there. On the plus side, no one has taken out a restraining order and there is an explanation: I have been investigating the Cambridge graffiti ‘scene’.
There are many different definitions of graffiti. To some it is an expressive art form that can give a voice to various social groups; to others it is a form of vandalism and anti-social behaviour. I have pulled out a few suggested functions of graffiti and looked for their presence or absence in this University.
1) Graffiti is used by gangs to mark out territory with an image that is a recognisable as definitive and symbolic of that gang.
The Arts’ Gang
Arts’ students have definitely marked their territory on the Sidgwick site with a variety of images and words. Aforesaid territory is designated as a hub of deep thinking and self expression even before one enters it: on the side of the Silver Street crossing closest to Sidgwick is a heart in a circle followed by the words ‘check your back pocket’, all marked out in a chalk-like substance. Quirky, quotable, ambiguous, potentially profound and with connotations of free love and free spirit, this sets the tone for how this group is defining itself and its territory through its graffiti. In the toilets of the common lecture block we get such deep ambiguities as these:
· “Down with rock paper + scissors forever!”
· “Who controls the future controls the past; Who controls the past controls the present.”
· “The fish knows everything.” (see below)
· Official sign: “PLEASE DISPOSE OF ALL TOILET WASTE IN THE CORRECT MANNER.” Written underneath:…”the manner of the JEDI!” (see picture above)
· “Well so long as they don’t touch me/stop me, they can watch all they like.”
These comments are certainly open to interpretation; probably intentional. These are artsy authors. One observant loo-goer offers the suggestion that all these comments are about sex, but I think you have to stretch the imagination in unpleasant ways to reach this conclusion. Despite the possibility of profundity, perhaps the more natural response to ‘check your back pocket’ is to suddenly feel that there is a camera hidden in the surrounding bushes and that you are being followed by somebody with a comb-over.
The Science Gang
It would seem that the scientists are not so desperate to metaphorically pee identity all over their territory. I could not find any graffiti in the faculties on the Downing or New Museum sites, although I must confess that my exploration of these was rather hurried as I was a bit intimidated by all the security codes/CCTV/hissing receptionists. There is however the equation E = mc2 written on a wall near Sainsbury’s, so perhaps science students with their practical mentality have chosen to stake their claim to territory that is strictly necessary in the case of a gang war breaking out.
The Law Gang
“The fish knows everything”: a suitably esoteric offering from the arts crowd
The lawyers are in a category on their own because they are not scientists but nor do they conform to the arts pattern…and they really stick together and speak a language that nobody else understands. Their gang symbol would seem to be a weird sticky cat and it has been drawn on a significant number of desks in their lecture theatres. What does this say about their gang? Perhaps it is a warning to non-gang members about the fierce and predatory nature of the lawyer; perhaps the stickiness represents strings and we can divine from this that theirs is a highly strung gang; or perhaps it just means that they get so bored in lectures that they draw the same weird animal over and over to keep themselves awake.
2) Graffiti is a way to put over a political message.
There used to be some evidence of the political activism of yonder days in the History Faculty: for example, ‘fuck police brutality’ scrawled across the back of a toilet door with ‘fuck hippy simplicity’ etched underneath as a response. However there was a refurbishment over the summer so the remnants of 1970s rebellion are now gone.
3) Graffiti is one of the four elements of Hip Hop. Graffiti is the visual element and joins breakdance (the physical), MCing (the verbal) and turntablism (the rhythmic).
Seeing as the favourite haunt of Cambridge is Cindies with its repertoire of cheesy pop, I didn’t hold out much hope of finding evidence of this. Fez is about the closest we have and there is some graffiti in the archway to the left of its entrance. And this is proper graffiti: done in spray paint rather than easily removable rubbish like chalk; looking like it may be comprised of letters but totally illegible rather than spelling out some deeply prophetic message.
4) Graffiti is vandalism.
The most notable thing in a survey of graffiti in Cambridge is the lack of it. The previous three definitions were all drawn from the urban dictionary and it would seem that Cambridge (predictably) conforms to the OED definition of ‘graffito’, which is technically the noun: ‘Words or images marked (illegally) in a public place, esp. using aerosol paint’. In a university where most colleges fine up of £75 for vomiting, which is an involuntary act of vandalism, I think most people are too protective of their bank balance to risk being caught out in a voluntary act of ‘property damage’.
Graffiti outside Fez
Catherine would like to thank Max Fayers for venturing into the vista of the men’s loos in order to take the relevant photos.