The words of the prophets are written on subway walls: metaphor and graffiti

Marianna Bolognesi

An old song from Simon and Garfunkel states that “The words of the prophets are written on subway walls”. But how do street artists specifically represent socio-political crises on the walls and in the corners of big cities? How are socio-political issues framed in the visual messages conveyed by street art? What type of metaphors are used, and which constraints do they present for their interpretation by different types of viewers?

Georgios Stampoulidis is exploring figurative constructions in Athenian street art for his PhD project at Lund University (Sweden). He invited Dr Marianna Bolognesi to Lund to collaborate on the development of a reliable procedure that could be applied to these street artworks to help researchers and analysts to determine whether they contain metaphors or other types of figurative constructions.

Many interesting observations emerged during the meetings and data sessions, the workshop and the seminar organised within this visit. Among these, how language barriers clearly constitute a first big problem: viewers’ interpretations can get easily stuck when the words displayed in these artworks are not understood. In the image below, for example, the halo around the woman reads “40 years”.

Photo of graffiti image taken in Athens

Interestingly, being able to read the words displayed, and understanding how they translate into English, is a necessary condition to understanding the pictorial representation, but that alone is not enough. The viewer must be familiar with the socio-political situation in Greece, and the fact that for the past 40 years the country has accumulated a large public debt, as a consequence of the recent democratization of Greece after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1973. All these elements are crucial to understanding the metaphorical structure of this artwork, which displays a holy woman protecting a bag of euros as if it was her own beloved child.

In other cases, the images do not include words, and therefore, the viewer may think that these artworks are universally recognisable and interpretable. The image below is an example of an artwork that does not include any words. Nonetheless, the viewer who is not familiar with the GREXIT issue and the Greek crisis would struggle to understand that this artwork represents Greece (the little girl) leaving the European Monetary Union (the balloon with the euro sign). Even harder to understand is the fact that the girl’s shoes are ‘Tsarouhi’ (in Greek τσαρούχι from Turkish çarık), a type of footwear that was part of the traditional uniform worn by the Greek guards. Finally, the image references original artwork created by the English street artist Banksy. Although this cross-textual reference may be not necessary to interpret the image, it arguably adds a layer of information, and rewards the viewer who spots this visual citation.

Banksy inspired graffiti artwork in Athens

George and Marianna will continue to collaborate in the coming months, working on the development of a conceptual framework and a procedure that can support the non-expert of visual metaphors within this genre, to understand the metaphorical structures conveyed by street artists in these artworks. The results of these analyses and the materials developed by the two authors will be published in an academic article.

Dr Marianna Bolognesi is a Post-doctoral Researcher on Creative Multilingualism's 1st strand: The Creative Power of Metaphor.

Photographs of graffiti taken by Georgios Stampoulidis.

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