“I was here but now I’m gone
I left my name to carry on
Those who liked me
Liked me well
Those who didn’t can go to hell'”
― E.M. Crane, Skin Deep (the bathroom wall)
“Everyone has to scratch on walls somewhere or they go crazy” ― Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion
“I wonder, O wall, that you have not fallen in ruins from supporting the stupidities of so many scribblers.” – Pompeii 79AD (CE)
I like graffiti, in the same way I enjoy old cemeteries. Each gives us a little insight into a life; whether defining a span of years or with a fleeting moment’s scrawl on a bathroom wall, a message is left which says, simply, I was here, or we were here, or I loved someone, or this is what I think. And it seems we’ve been doing this for as long as we’ve been people. Perhaps, subconsciously, even the young are inherently (and always) aware of mortality, thus, we record our moments to trap time. Surely we do so excessively with photographs but long before the camera, we made monuments to ourselves and others with words or pictures scratched or painted on whatever surface begged our stamp.
The delicate lines of prehistoric cave paintings, those beautiful renderings of animals we’re all familiar with, allow us to glimpse how lives once were, yet, those that most deeply move me are the stencils of hands. Place our hand beside them and there is no difference. Those hands had fingerprints, they felt cold and heat, they knew the sensations of rough and smooth, they spoke with gestures, they touched others, they fought and killed and held, as well, the slipperiness of newborns. I was here, they say. Or, we were here together.
Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands), Santa Cruz, Argentina, Age: 9,000 – 13,000 years
And then there came words…
Some of the most famous and infamous writings on walls are found in Pompeii, the ancient Roman city near Naples, destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79AD (CE). Buried beneath ash, the forms of its people were immaculately preserved but even were they not, the words they wrote would call them to life:
“Aufidius was here.”
“Marcus loves Spendusa.”
“I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you. – Severus”
“I have screwed many girls here.” (a brothel)
“Apollinaris, physician of the Emperor Titus, had a good shit here!” (bathroom wall)
“Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog.”
“Let everyone in love come and see. I want to break Venus’ ribs with clubs and cripple the goddess’ loins. If she can strike through my soft chest, then why can’t I smash her head with a club?”
“To the one defecating here. Beware of the curse. If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy.”
(Note : I’ve been known to echo words of this genre in discovering lumps of dog-poop on my front lawn.)
“Traveler, you eat bread in Pompeii but you go to Nuceria to drink. At Nuceria, the drinking is better.”
“The late drinkers ask you to elect Marcus Cerrinius Vatia eadile. Florus ad Fructus wrote this.”
“Albanus is a bugger.”
“Lovers are like bees in that they live a honeyed life.”
“Whoever loves, let him flourish. Let him perish who knows not love. Let him perish twice over whoever forbids love.”
Just as we see today, the graffiti of Pompeii took many forms. From political propaganda to declarations of love, and bitter words, too, of love lost — Who, even now, would not wish to clobber Venus now and then? Of course, then as now, the gorilla-minded pounded their chests while scribbling their conquests. Yet, of all the Pompeii words that have survived, perhaps the most poignant is (on the surface, at least) the most banal: “On April 19th, I made bread.” — A euphemism? Perhaps – but as the scribes of Pompeii were not known for their discretion, I like to take it as it is. … Perhaps it was his or her first time making bread. I made bread for the first time last winter, and although I didn’t run about noting it on the walls of the city, it was, nevertheless, absurdly exciting.
I did once carve a heart into a tree while a “he” of long ago looked on. It took a lot longer than expected … wood is hard and we both grew bored as I tediously scratched away with my new Swiss Army knife. But once begun, you can’t stop – you can’t just say, well, I’m tired of this now, and leave a heart half done. … So, I finished the heart. … But I did leave it empty. Setting down my knife, my fingers aching, I suggested we imagine our initials – for that matter, wasn’t it more interesting that way? “Sure,” he said, and we got on with our picnic. But something had shifted; our glorious autumn-day-balloon deflated over stinky egg salad sandwiches and flat ginger ale.
Perhaps others have passed that tree in the woods and wondered what that was about. Why, after all, would someone carve an empty heart? — Perhaps they had nothing to fill it with? Perhaps their love was imaginary. Or perhaps, like the Pompeian who made bread, the idea was more significant than the fact.
I like to think another couple has filled it by now, adding their initials and even a cupid’s arrow. And maybe they brought a marker rather than a knife and, thus, enjoyed a glass of whatever bubbly they were drinking – that was still bubbly — when they sat down upon a blanket to enjoy their autumn day.