Graffiti has a complex place in the world: sometimes art, sometimes defacement, sometimes territory-marking or social campaigning. Above all, it often speaks of some kind of primal need to leave a mark: a name or identifier that is personal to the individual. More mundanely perhaps, it just speaks of boredom and the idle need to fill some time. So the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Society’s survey to identify and record pre-Reformation graffiti in Medieval churches reveals that in past times the urge has been just a strong, and reveals that many a church-goer had the urge to inflict a lasting mark on their surroundings – whether due to boredom, religious fervour, or some other kind of passion. These marks have a wonderful sense of immediacy – a crack in time showing how our ancestors hands were compelled to do the same things as we do today, similar to the marginalia, doodles and notes that can often be found in contemporary library and school books, as well as historic manuscripts.
When fresh and recently applied, a scribbled name or unwanted comment can be distracting and infuriating. Sometimes, it can be far worse than this – a recent trip to the extraordinary Davit Gareja monastery complex in Eastern Georgia showed copious amounts of 20th century (and maybe more recent) graffiti across the 10-13th century frescos.
However, the same holiday also encompassed a visit to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, where 9th century Viking names carved into a ledge have become an attraction in their own right. It helps that like much of the graffiti recorded by the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Society, at least Halvdan and Are chose a fairly plain surface to inscribe their names on, recording them for posterity to an extent they may have not been able to imagine. Still, it’s worth considering this advice when tempted to leave your mark somewhere: