CfP: Writing the History of Political Graffiti. Graphic rebellion and the appropriation of public space (19th – 21st century)

Call for papers, deadline 15 May 2020

[French version here:]


“We erase them (it’s not easy), we arrest graffiti artists and put them in prison, we ban the sale of markers or spray cans – nothing will do, they make their own and start again every night.”1


Graffiti – understood as a hand-written message inscribed on an exposed wall, in a place that is accessible to a public2 – is the subject of growing interest among the social sciences. Anthropologists, sociologists, art historians and some historians have highlighted the specific issues of this form of communication, expressed through an original medium that has for long remained marginalized.3

Nevertheless, graffiti is still only occasionally studied by historians, often on the fringes of studies devoted to social or political movements. Despite their ephemeral nature, for the effect of time is often accelerated by hasty attempts to remove them, it is still possible to capture graffiti via historical sources (police archives, media). Therefore, one of the first methodological challenges here is to interrogate the rationale behind these collections, as well as the very act of collecting graffiti, alongside the biased reading of police authorities, research and artist collectives. One can notably think of Brassaï and the Surrealists who chased the scripts of the street well before the advent of street art. Graffiti therefore constitutes a specific object whose methodological challenges still need to be clarified through a collective and comparative reflection, to which we aim to contribute. The recent dynamic of “heritagization” of graffiti – put in the spotlight by a number of exhibitions, and by the recent campaign of the Centre des monuments nationaux in 20184 – invites us to take graffiti seriously, since this object of study has gone, within a few years, from being viewed as an act of delinquency, to an infrapolitical act, a sign of dissent, in fact a legitimate artistic expression.

This conference is therefore intended as a forum for reflection, prior to the publication of a thematic journal issue dedicated to political graffiti and its relation to public space.

Through graffiti, one can first investigate the essentially shared nature of public space. It indeed seems necessary to take into account the reality of graffiti by embracing a wider vision focusing on “exposed writing,” a fundamental notion coined by Italian historian Armando Petrucci. This concept refers to “Any type of writing designed to be used in open spaces – but also in confined spaces – to allow group or mass readings and at a distance, the text in question being written on an exposed surface.”5

Graffiti is part of a publicly exposed and historically situated writing scheme. And if we consider that public space is defined as being open and accessible,6 a space that is outside the sphere of appropriation, graffiti – and, more broadly, exposed writing – is able to reveal its incomplete and contested nature. Whether it be the Third Republic in France or the monumental fascist project in Italy, it is about imposing a single writing within public space, exclusive of any other form of writing, that then becomes dubious and contested.7 We will therefore question graffiti as an indicator of the power relations that penetrate the urban space. Graffiti, which has been likened to “poaching on State lands,”8 is to be understood in its dialectic relationship to political power – whose ostensibly exclusive appropriation of public space can indeed be contested.

To refine our analysis of the relation between graffiti and the uses of public space, the organic connection that bonds graffiti and the space in which it is inscribed must be sharpened. In this vein, graffiti often materializes efforts towards territorial control. Graffiti therefore stands at the crossroads of political action and territorial marking, leaving public space with an imprint whose multiple meanings needs to be deciphered.

One of the most interesting perspectives offered by the study of graffiti is the fact that they can be considered not only as traces, but also as actions.9 In the case of protest graffiti, while it remains a clandestine act accomplished secretly, it is intended to leave a visible sign. The uncertainty about the author and the political force he or she is serving – a single person, a small group, the silent majority? – condition the reception of the message, which necessarily varies depending on actors. We will therefore carefully look into the question of the multiple, sometimes opposed, readings of graffiti and into the methodological issues that result from them.

In addition, we will study the very action of inscribing graffiti, graffiti authors, as well as their methods. Reflecting upon the materiality of graffiti thus seems essential – the spots, the surface chosen, and the tools used (chalk, pen, marker, spray-paint can…) evidence a number of dynamics that need to be explored. Furthermore, the dialogic function of graffiti – to which one can respond or that can be crossed out, whether spontaneously or in a more articulate manner (just like the German Social Democratic Party’s Three-Arrows symbol meant to counter the swastika) – highlights the competing territorial rationales at play.

Finally, the various motives of authors must also be investigated. We will therefore study the fate of political slogans that sometimes originate from wall-chalking – e.g. “Here, we drown Algerians”10 – or are borrowed by other authors. If protest, under this specific form of graphic rebellion, appears as the most obvious motive, it is probably not the only one. Does graffiti constitute a message to one’s peers in order to found or consolidate a community? Is it a challenge addressed to authorities? Is it aimed at deconsecrating space, or at drawing attention to a political thinking up to then ignored? Or might it be simply a way to let off steam, so much so that we should avoid overinterpreting its meaning? The multiplicity of political functions of graffiti is echoed through their diverse tones – humoristic, sometimes cryptic or, on the contrary, stereotyped (the rallying slogan), sometimes personalized (threats, celebration), often claiming (through the significance of the deconsecrating gesture, the written form and size, the choice of words) the capacity to convey strong emotions that are not represented by and in traditional media. It is only through a social and plural history of graffiti – one that will take into account its spatial and material configurations, that we will be able to outline a number of answers.

We wish to investigate those issues further, without any geographical limitation and from the end of the 18th century onward. If the practice of graffiti is probably as old as writing itself, European urban spaces have been marked by the increasing presence of public signage from the 18th century on, a period which also corresponds with an increasingly sensitive politicisation of public space.11 The contemporary period has therefore witnessed a growing production of graffiti, whose diversity is precisely the object of our study.

Submission guidelines

This conference is organised as a workshop open to the public, with the aim of writing a special issue of a journal. It will take place on Friday 2nd October 2020 at the Université de Paris. The language of the conference will be French, but English papers are welcome.

In order to encourage exchanges, each participant will be invited to discuss another paper. For that reason, papers should be submitted by September 1st.

Paper proposals (max. 2000 characters) and a short bibliography should be sent to the three following email addresses

by May 15th, 2020: ; ;

Organisers will respond to proposals by late May 2020.

This conference is organised in partnership with the Institut d’histoire du temps présent (Paris 8-CNRS), the Université de Paris, LARCA UMR 8225 and the Iris Scripta-PSL program, “Histoire et pratiques de l’écrit.”

Organizing Committee

  • Virgile Cirefice – École française de Rome – Institut d’histoire du temps présent
  • Grégoire Le Quang – Institut d’histoire du temps présent
  • Ariane Mak – Maîtresse de conférences, Université de Paris (LARCA)

Scientific Committee

  • Philippe Artières – Directeur de recherche CNRS, EHESS (IRIS)
  • Ludivine Bantigny – Maîtresse de conférences, Université de Rouen (GRHis)
  • Catherine Bernard – Professeure, Université de Paris (LARCA)
  • Béatrice Fraenkel – Directrice d’études, EHESS (CMH)
  • Emmanuel Fureix – Professeur, Université Paris-Est Créteil (CRHEC)
  • Charlotte Guichard – Directrice de recherche CNRS, ENS, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne (IHMC)
  • Sara Thornton – Professeure, Université de Paris (LARCA)

Indicative Bibliography

Philippe Artières, La police de l’écriture : l’invention de la délinquance graphique, 1852-1945, Paris, La Découverte, 2013.

Philippe Artières and Pawel Rodak, « Écriture et soulèvement. Résistances graphiques pendant l’état de guerre en Pologne (13 décembre 1981-13 décembre 1985) », Genèses, 2008, n°70, p. 120-139.

Jean Baudrillard, « Kool Killer ou l'insurrection par les signes », L'échange symbolique et la mort, Paris, Gallimard, 1976, p. 128-138.

Céline Braconnier, « Braconnages sur les terres d’État. Les inscriptions politiques séditieuses dans le Paris de l’après-Commune (1872-1885) », Genèses, 1999, n° 35, p. 107-130.

Baptiste Brun, « Réunir une documentation pour l’Art Brut : les prospections de Jean Dubuffet dans l’immédiat après-guerre au regard du modèle ethnographique », Les Cahiers de l’École du Louvre [online], 4, 2014.

Roger Chartier, Inscrire et effacer. Culture écrite et littérature, 11e-18e siècle, Paris, Gallimard/Seuil, 2005.

Francesca Cozzolino, Peindre pour agir : muralisme et politique en Sardaigne, Paris, Éditions Karthala, 2017.

Xavier Crettiez, Pierre Piazza and Églantine Granier, Murs rebelles. Iconographie nationaliste contestataire : Corse, Pays Basque, Irlande du Nord, Paris, Karthala, 2014.

Laurent Cuvelier, La ville captivée. Affichage et économie de l’attention à Paris au XVIIIe siècle, Doctoral thesis, Institut d'études politiques, 2019.

Julien Dieudonné, « Le prince et la bergère : la relation Paulhan/Dubuffet d'après leur correspondance (1944-1968) », Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France, vol. 103, n°1, 2003, p. 153-168.

Ariela Epstein, A ciel ouvert : cultures politiques sur les murs de Montevideo, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015.

Giovanna Fiume, « Soundless Screams: Graffiti and Drawings in the Prisons of the Holy Office in Palermo », Journal of Early Modern History, 2017, 21/3, p. 188-215.

Béatrice Fraenkel, Les écrits de septembre : New-York 2001, Paris, Textuel, 2002.

Béatrice Fraenkel, « Actes d’écriture : quand écrire c’est faire », Langage & Société, 2007, 121-122, p. 101-112.

Béatrice Fraenkel, « Écrire dans l’île : Rétif de la Bretonne, graffitomane parisien (1734-1803) » in Alfred Messerli & Roger Chartier (eds.), Scripta volant, verba manent. Schriftkulturen in Europa zwischen 1500 und 1900/Les cultures de l’écrit en Europe entre 1500 et 1900, Basel, Schwabe, p. 373-388.

Béatrice Fraenkel, « Actes graphiques. Gestes, espaces, postures », L’Homme, 227-228, 2018, p. 7-20.

Charlotte Guichard, Graffitis : inscrire son nom à Rome, XVIe-XIXe siècle, Paris, Éd. du Seuil, 2014.

Vincent Lemire and Yann Potin, « « Ici on noie les Algériens » Fabriques documentaires, avatars politiques et mémoires partagées d’une icône militante (1961-2001) », Genèses, 2002, n°49, p.140-162.

André Loez, « Mots et culture de l’indiscipline : les graffitis des mutins de 1917 », Genèses, 2005, n°59, p. 25-46.

Guillaume Marche, “Expressivism and Resistance: Graffiti as an Infrapolitical Form of Protest against the War on Terror”, Revue française d’études américaines, 2012, n°131, p. 78-96.

Jon Naar and Norman Mailer, The Faith of Graffiti, New York, Praeger publishers, 1974.

Jeff Oliver and Tim Neal (eds.), Wild Signs: Graffiti in Archeology and History, Oxford, Archeopress, 2010.

Julie Peteet, « The Writing on the Walls: The Graffiti of the Intifada”, Cultural Anthropology, 1996, vol. 11, n°2, p. 139-159.

Armando Petrucci, Jeux de lettres. Formes et usages de l’inscription en Italie, XIe-XXe siècles, trad. fr., Paris, Ed. EHESS, 1993.

Véronique Plesch, « Beyond Art History: Graffiti on Frescoes », Understanding Graffiti: Multidisciplinary Studies from Prehistory to the Present, Walnut Creek, Left Coast Press, 2015, p. 45-57.

Laure Pressac (ed.), Sur les murs. Histoire(s) de graffitis, Paris, Éditions du Patrimoine, 2018.

Chloé Ragazzoli, « Lire, écrire, survivre : les graffiti de scribes au Nouvel Empire », C. Jacob (dir.), Les Lieux de Savoir, vol. 2 « Les mains de l’intellect », Paris, Albin Michel, 2011.

Jeffrey Ian Ross (ed.), Routledge handbook of graffiti and street art, Londres, New York, Routledge, 2015.

Ariberto Segàla, I muri del duce, Gardolo, Ed. Arca, 2001.

Mary Beth Stein, “The Politics of Humor: The Berlin Wall in Jokes and Graffiti”, Western Folklore, vol. 48, n°2, 1989, p. 85-108.

Alberto Vacca, Duce truce. Insulti, barzellette, caricature: l’opposizione popolare al fascismo nei rapporti segreti dei prefetti (1930-1945), Roma, Castelvecchi, 2012.

Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (eds.), High and Low, Modern Art and Popular Culture, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1990.

Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska, Brassaï, Graffiti, Le langage du mur, Éditions Xavier Barral, 2016.


1 Jean Baudrillard, “Kool Killer, ou l'insurrection par les signes,” L'échange symbolique et la mort, Paris, Gallimard, 1976, p. 125.

2 We therefore also include prison graffiti, and those that covered and often still cover the walls of intimate places, such as toilets – for they are, under certain conditions, publicly available spaces. On the latrinalia of public urinals, see notably the recent exhibition of Marc Martin, “Les Tasses – Toilettes publiques, affaires privées.” Point Éphémère, Nov-Dec. 2019.

3 We refer the reader to the indicative bibliography. A number of recent academic events highlight the growing interest of the social sciences in graffiti. See especially the recent interdisciplinary symposium “Écritures urbaines, écritures exposées,” held in Paris and Marseille on 11th and 18th October 2019, and also the forthcoming Scripta workshop, “Écritures exposées : la fabrique des espaces ‘publics’,” 19-20 May 2020.

4 Laure Pressac (ed.), Sur les murs. Histoire(s) de graffitis, Paris, Éditions du Patrimoine, 2018. See also the conference, “Le graffiti : un nouvel objet patrimonial ?” organised by Emmanuel Fureix at the University of Paris-Est Créteil.

5 Armando Petrucci, Jeux de lettres. Formes et usages de l’inscription en Italie, XIe-XXe siècles, Paris, Ed. EHESS, 1993, p. 10.

6 Jacques Lévy, “Espace public,” in Jacques Lévy and Michel Lussault (ed.), Dictionnaire de la géographie, Paris, Belin, 2003, p. 336.

7 Philippe Artières, La police de l’écriture : l’invention de la délinquance graphique, 1852-1945, Paris, La Découverte, 2013.

8 Céline Braconnier, “Braconnages sur les terres d’État. Les inscriptions politiques séditieuses dans le Paris de l’après-Commune, 1872-1885,” Genèses, 1999, n° 35, pp. 107-130.

9 Béatrice Fraenkel, “Actes d’écriture : quand écrire c’est faire,” Langage & Société, 2007, 121-122, pp. 101-112.

10 Vincent Lemire and Yann Potin, « « Ici on noie les Algériens » Fabriques documentaires, avatars politiques et mémoires partagées d’une icône militante (1961-2001) », Genèses, 2002, n°49, pp. 140-162.

11 Cf. Laurent Cuvelier, La ville captivée. Affichage et économie de l’attention à Paris au XVIIIe siècle, Doctoral thesis, Institut d'études politiques, 2019.