I came across graffiti while working at two very different Parisian universities. They gave me pause to think about how graffiti, as a sensory tool, is a powerful mechanism that engages – or maybe even ‘politicizes’ our sense of sight.
Graffiti can challenge the beholder on several levels – as a critique and legitimator of the existing social order, as a historical tool and a gauge of the present – all through the sense of sight.
Graffiti proves just how much our senses are subjective and conditioned – our judgement of graffiti as ‘ugly’, ‘beautiful’,’offensive’ etc.. – are all ideas that we receive or that we decide to hold as true.
Left, Right: Graffiti at University A
This university has become a home of conservative student politics but was at the forefront of radical left activism in May 1968. Thanks to online archives, one can explore how graffiti has changed/remained the same since.
It was all about justice, solidarity with the weak, an inclusive social and economic order. Graffiti offended the eye as a means of offending on other levels: it sought to destabilize an unjust order through visual discontinuity. The visual aggression of graffiti in May 1968 was much more than a visual effect but a violent act of protest.
At the university that used visual assault to protest in May 1968, a neat set of smug, passive-aggressive stickers attack immigration, support far right politics, and calls for the dismissal of the centre-left French president. It is still a challenge to power, yes, but it comes from a right leaning student body. The visual is now deployed to call for a more exclusive social and economic order.
University B: Oh So Very Gauche
The second university was also at the core of the student protests of May 68. Here is student graffiti and posters then and now:
Graffiti was used to declare support for causes belonging to the left – solidarity with those excluded from the socioeconomic order.
The picture above is of one of several academic scribblings written onto various walls throughout this university. A lot of it was a commentary on the state of left wing politics in Paris of 2014. It was clear that the general tendency was toward the left. Graffiti is still an optical tool for social critique. Sight as a sense was still used here to provoke other levels of questioning and critique.