Favorite Political Graffiti Facts and Anecdotes

1. In the Republic of Ireland, where abortion and abortion counseling are illegal, women found numbers to secret hotlines scribbled in public rest room stalls.

2. In Japanese-occupied Korea (1910-1945), the country’s native tongue was banned, but wall graffiti kept the language alive and public.

3. Throughout Latin America, groups have used graffiti/posters to single out individuals to issue death threats before actually carrying them out. Targets have included academics, human rights workers, and journalists.

4. In Chile, under Salvador Allende (1970-1973), murals with slogans were thought to pique semi-illiterates’ interest in learning how to read.

5. During the Palestinian Intifada (Dec. 1987), Palestinian youth painted the national flag on building after building to symbolically mark the territory as belonging to their country.

6. In the Democracy Wall Movement (1987-1979) in China, students pasted posters listing their grievances, acts that stirred public debate. And when the student democratic movement reemerged in 1986 after a government crackdown, posters again became their medium of protest. It also allowed the movement’s leaders to propose solutions. The government tried to counteract these posters by ordering building managers to put up their own pro-government banners. And as the government began another period of extreme repression, it continued to use that form of mass communication. Most notably, the Party used posters to announce executions; a red check was then added at the bottom after they had been carried out.

20080219-democracy wall in 1978 democracywall_300

7. In Romanian President Nicolae Ceauşescu’s penultimate speech, he said that Soviet-style reform would come when pears began to grow on apple trees, and student activists at the University of Bucharest hung lots of pears on the barren trees that lined the main street in the capital. Ceauşescu was so enraged by the political taunt that he ordered the Securitate (secret police) to identify the offenders. The students were all attacked in their dorms, and some were killed.

8. In 1978, a group of exiled South Africans living just across the border in Botswana formed the Medu Art Ensemble. They produced over fifty posters and then sent them into South Africa to be illegally posted. A few years later, Medu organized a conference to train South Africans to make their own silkscreened posters; over 5000 people crossed the border to attend. Immediately following the event, the South African government banned Medu posters. In 1985, South African army units went into Bostwana, killed twelve Medu members, and destroyed the homes of others. But by that point, South Africans had already set up their own domestic silkscreen workshops and studios—and despite government attempts to destroy the groups’ equipment, detain the employees, or bomb workshops, the posters only became more popular.

South-Africa-04 South-Africa-02
Alongside the poster movement was the political (scrawled) graffiti movement. Right-wing graffiti writers, who converted anti-apartheid slogans like “Free all Detainees” into “Freeze all Detainees,” had the support of the police and could therefore work in broad daylight. But even so, the anti-apartheid graffiti tended to be much more prolific. Lastly, around the same time, a political t-shirt trend emerged. Especially during funerals for important activists, thousands would show up with commemorative t-shirts. This practice became so widespread that the state began banning such t-shirts, and even arrested people for wearing them.



And in Argentina:

9. The Church knew that graffiti was the communication method of the masses. Consequently, it launched an anti-Peron street campaign in 1946, which included slogans like “Christ or Perón.” Again in 1986, when a bill that would legalize divorce was introduced, the Church stepped in, mounting another extensive campaign to stop the bill. My favorite graffiti responses? “In order to defend the family what is necessary is more housing, better salaries, more jobs, more schools, [and] more hospitals. You do not protect divorce by opposing a law but by improving the living conditions of the people.” Also: “Divorce for everyone except the Catholics.”

10. A more spectacular human rights stunt:
April 22 1985: The night before the trials of the nine ruling junta members who governed during the dirty war, an anonymous group painstakingly wrote on the famous obelisk in Buenos Aires the names of each of the 1200 individuals identified in the human rights commission’s report, Nuncas Más. Accompanying graffiti read, “All should be tried and none granted amnesty.”

**And, of course, there’s the most famous French May of 1968. In fact, the South African anti-apartheid posters often borrowed heavily from, even copied, the posters from French May. (But that political graffiti story isn’t one of my favorites.)

Some more topical reading:

Josh MacPhee (Justseeds) article about 4 different political graff interventions by French May art students, Nicaraguan Sandanistas, South African anti-apartheidists, and Argentine post-2001 economic crisis protesters.

Julie Peteet article in Cultural Anthropology on Palestinian Intifada graffiti

Lyman Chaffee’s book: Political Protest and Street Art: Popular Tools for Democratization in Hispanic Countries (available at Green library

Claudia Kozak’s book (in Spanish): Contra la pared (probably not available in the states, so ask me to borrow it if you’re interested)

Julio Cortázar’s fictional short story “Graffiti,” in the anthology We Love Glenda So Much and Other Tales (available at Green library; also handed out in classes… ask me for a copy if you missed class and are interested)


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