5 Thoughts About Graffiti – Messages on the Landscape

Graffiti or art on the streets of Athens.
Graffiti or art on the streets of Athens?

Graffiti – is it vandalism or a message on the landscape, something that transcends time to bring a view of the past into the present? At what point does graffiti stop being a problem and become a valued artifact, and who gets to make that judgment? Here are some random thoughts generated by graffiti around the world.


  1.  1. If graffiti is old enough, it is called pictographs or petroglyphs and we not only interpret it, we go to great lengths to protect it. Turkeys and waterfowl painted on the walls of shelter caves in Tsegi Canyon in Navajo National Monument tell a story of how the landscape changed due to drought. People who occupied the canyon before 1,000 A.D. enjoyed a more lush and verdant landscape with lots of wildlife. They kept what amounts to a library and art collection on the walls of the cave and I enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the culture of their times from what was left behind.
  2. Much modern graffiti on the streets of major cities like New York or Athens is either offensive or incredibly artistic and sometimes it’s both. It makes me wonder why art programs in schools have declined. I wonder if there would be as much tagging of trains, walls and city streets if young people had less anger and frustration and more opportunities to be successful artists in school and daily life. Some parks and museums in the U.S. have limited tagging by encouraging young people to create murals for public spaces or painting electrical boxes. How do we engage these highly motivated and talented individuals to keep graffiti in the realm of public art?
  3. Graffiti carved on living trees is the most objectionable for me. A tree is another living entity on our planet and should not have to endure the indignity of tattoos given by a human. It may not care, but I hate to see it. I don’t know how you stop it in remote settings but it is especially offensive in parks and natural areas. It’s usually a very temporary message about “John and Marsha,” not a broader cultural statement about profound events. Trees are thicker skinned than me, and eventually new growth may cover the offensive scars.
  4. I am both amused and mildly offended by the temporary graffiti made from chunks of bleached white coral arranged over black lava on the Big Island of Hawaii. As you drive north from Kona up the Kohala coast, you see silly messages, messages of love and other symbols meaningful only to the maker and few others. Tourists and locals often stop to dismantle another person’s art to create their own in this constantly changing mosaic of messages made from natural materials.
  5. There are other ways to use the landscape as a temporary canvas with sensibilities about not changing things forever. I rather enjoy cornfields turned into mazes or messages seen only by planes. Andrew Amador has made a career of decorating beaches with amazing patterns and pictures, knowing that wind, weather and water will erase his work on a regular basis.
Guides in the Serengeti of Tanzania show cave art where Maasai recorded their sighting of someone on a bicycle.
Guides in the Serengeti of Tanzania show cave art where Maasai recorded their sighting of someone on a bicycle.



As a manager I was always aware that graffiti must be obliterated the same day or next day after occurrence. If it stands for even a short time it attracts more and more. When management doesn’t react quickly, we send the message, “We’re not paying very close attention so do what you will.” Graffiti is a magnet for additional self-expression. But at some point, it becomes a message from the past . . . we seem to be telling those in the future that nothing can stay unmarked by the hand of humankind.


-Tim Merriman



Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

2 thoughts on “5 Thoughts About Graffiti – Messages on the Landscape

  1. Tim
    Couldn’t agree more about the ‘offence’ of carving graffiti into a tree, or indeed any living thing – (personally I include tattoos as graffiti as I think they constitute an ‘assault’ on what, after the brain, is perhaps the most complex and wondrous of the human organs. But that’s just a personal prejudice….). During my time dealing with access to forests here in the UK one of the recurring irritations was the practice of some managers to insist on painting or carving waymarkers (and more) onto trees or anything in the landscape that did not move! The results were usually aesthetically hideous, sometimes damaging, and often not fit for purpose as moss and lichens – ie. nature – fought back.

    You talk of graffiti “at some point becoming a message from the past”… but it can also be of the ‘now’. Your blog reminded me that several months back I wrote a piece for AHI’s newsletter that is perhaps pertinent:

    Interpretation fights marginalization:
    “Argentina’s prostitutes – mothers first, sex workers second” – so ran a recent headline about a unique ‘Banksy’ style graffiti-mural campaign on the street corners of Buenos Aires. Through this hard-hitting programme the Argentinean Prostitutes Association are deploying interpretation techniques to show the reality of prostitution and to fight for the rights and protection of that countries sex workers. Whilst we may find the topic unpalatable or possibly embarrassing in our comfortable interpretative heritage-centric society, we must recognize that other societies have different ‘norms’. What crosses the divide and binds is the use of interpretation to explain the meaning of things and aid understanding, as here where a marginalized section of society has found a clever (?) way to make a point and get noticed. Look at the images, a more apposite and precise take on the mantra of ‘provoke, relate, reveal’ is hard to imagine.

    Bob Jones
    (formally Head of Design & Interpretation, GB Forestry Commission)

    1. Hi Bob, Thanks for sharing the story about the mural in Argentina. I know some graffiti is put up for petty or mean reasons but often people find ways to express frustration, memories, and outrage in these public ways. You’re right to point out that some of these are “now.” It’s also interesting that unauthorized public messaging is “graffiti,” but commercial messaging (billboards, banners, wall murals, and the like) are okay if they are trying to sell us cars, soft drinks and bling. Tim

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