The art of expressive graffiti
It’s nearly impossible to walk through an urban space without coming across some form of graffiti sprawled across brick walls, under bridges or in how-in-heavens-did-they-even-get-up-there? locations. Many view graffiti as an art form—an open canvas for artists who need space to express their worldviews freely. Others perceive it as an eyesore, adding visual noise to already cacophonic cityscapes. Whatever your stance, there’s no denying that graffiti shapes and informs our cities and those living within them.
From political to straight up comical, graffiti holds power and meaning. As long as there have been walls to write on, there has been graffiti, as evidenced by the countless missives speaking from the buildings of Pompeii. Declarations of love, political proclamations, even advertisements can all be found on the surfaces of ancient cities. The motives behind modern graffiti may have changed little but the form has evolved considerably, elevated to art, often inciting change like non-digital hashtags.
In the small town of Leiden, Netherlands, a new form of graffiti expression has taken hold: poetry-covered buildings. From 1992 to 2005, the walls of the city were deliberately adorned with poems from authors ranging from Shakespeare and Pablo Neruda to local Dutch poets Jan Halo and J.C Bloems. During the decade-long creation, exterior facades were sketched with a total of 110 poems by the independent TEGEN-BEELD Foundation. Most of the poetry is written in slightly faded lettering, almost hidden-in-plain-sight. All poems are in their original languages, spanning from Japanese and Arabic to Creek (Muskogean) and Spanish.
Since then, many cities have followed suit and prose-filled walls can be found in Paris, Sofia and Berlin. Prior to the advent of poetry above ground, London enacted Poems of the Underground to spark interest in the literary form. The project continues to run, with new poems appearing seasonally on the Underground of England’s capital. Each set of poems reflects a different theme. This summer, the writings in the Tube deal with climate change and human beings and their natural world.
Whether it’s confrontational on the face of a building or inspirational in a secluded moment above or below ground, poetic graffiti is decidedly here to stay. Spanning history and filled with insight, the unassuming verses lining buildings and transportation hubs could easily convert both graffiti and poetry sceptics. Instead of demanding your attention like old-school graffiti, wall poems fade into the scenery and act as a respite from the hurly-burly of city life. Allowing us to get lost in a thought or feeling, wall poetry honours all cultures and languages. In a divisive world, cities that incorporate a broad range of poetic expression have taken a step to ensure different voices are heard and offer a glimpse into each other’s cultures.
If you want to foster connection, literally start by writing on the walls.
Learn more about Leiden's poetry-covered buildings here