Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Is there more power in English-language graffiti?

A few weeks ago when I took the photograph of the sign at Palomar, I got to thinking about signs that are put up for public viewing but which are considered both artistic and criminal. Though there are some lengthy deconstructions of graffiti, such as "Graffiti and Language", here I'm pondering why so much graffiti is in English in non-English-speaking countries.

Here's one in Vienna, Austria, for example, The Mad Realness. Is that the name of some rock band? Perhaps. What is 'mad realness'? Is it a literal translation of something German? I'm clueless.

Language is very central to who we are as people, and putting writing on walls (like ancient hieroglyphics) is something very human, too. I think we have always aspired to leave messages or words behind and played with language, and probably command of a language has always been associated with power.

As for English-language power, I used to remark to my Japanese colleagues (I don't think they ever took me seriously, however) that if they wanted to make the Japanese language more 'powerful', they needed to publish their most important work in Japanese, not English. In this way, the public would have to seek out translators or learn Japanese themselves in order to follow the latest achievements of these non-English speakers.

Instead, (though I haven't done a statistical study to support this hypothesis) it seems that the Japanese who are most recognized for their achievements are often those that have superior English skills and/or are fearless about using their English in public forums. In other words, we may be aware of only a small cross-section of outstanding scholars because here in the USA, we don't pay too much attention to publications in languages other than English. What we must be missing!

For more information about graffiti, in general, you can click on an older version of graffiti terms, which contains some history of this communicative form.

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