The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

A Mason's mark in Ripon Cathedral. (Copyright ' Ian Stalker)
A Mason's mark in Ripon Cathedral. (Copyright ' Ian Stalker)

We all complain about graffiti. Louts who deface walls by scratching in their names or insults to others, or who use spray paint to leave their often-ugly mark on any accessible flat surface, spoil the environment for others.

Yet historical graffiti can tell us a great deal about the past. Someone who left their mark centuries ago can connect with us perhaps more immediately than some great works of art.

Upper School, Eton College ' the panelled walls are graffitied with names of former scholars.

Upper School, Eton College ' the panelled walls are graffitied with names of former scholars.

We know that prehistoric people scratched images on the walls – we think of animals and perhaps outlines of hands, but it’s estimated that most of these scrawlings were done by adolescent boys whose main interest was sex and consisted of rude images – so little different from today.

Ancient Egyptians liked that sort of graffiti, too, but also went in for scratching prayers to the gods, often on doorways. Doorways – and the walls of lavatories (nothing changes . . . ) were also the chosen location for many Roman examples.

In Pompeii there are some pictures but more messages, ranging from the simple, like ‘Gaius Pumidius Dipilus was here on October 3’ and ‘On April 19, I made bread’ (this, oddly, on the gladiators’ barracks; perhaps it was a euphemism . . .) through the lubricious and scatological to philosophical thoughts like ‘Once you are dead, you are nothing’ and ‘Lovers are like bees in that they live a honeyed life.’

Medieval graffiti is often found in churches. The simplest sort is the mason’s mark – there are examples in Ripon Cathedral.

Sgraffito work at Appleton-le Moors ' approved graffiti. (Copyright ' David Winpenny)

Sgraffito work at Appleton-le Moors ' approved graffiti. (Copyright ' David Winpenny)

Every mason had his own mark, usually a geometrical symbol, with which he identified the work he had done. In some contracts masons were paid by the length of walling they had prepared, so the bosses needed to keep a tally of how much each mason had done. Masons paid by the week rather than being on piecework left fewer examples of their marks.

More interesting, though, are the ‘casual’ examples of graffiti in churches. This is an area that has not been studied very much, although it has become more interesting to researchers since the advent of digital technology, which allows the easier manipulation of images to enhance the often-faint examples.

Recent work has shown that such graffiti are much more common than previously thought.

A study of 50 medieval Norfolk churches, for example, found that 30 of them had pre-Reformation graffiti – and the other 20 may well have done before later restoration removed or covered their examples.

A common type of medieval graffito that can be found all around the country is what’s known as the ‘Daisy Wheel’ – the six-pointed star that all of us made with a pair of compasses at school.

There are plenty of inscriptions, too – mostly names and short prayers like ‘Jesu Help’.

More interesting are cartoon faces and grotesques.

Coastal churches often have images of ships. In the church at Blakeney in Norfolk more than 30 examples of ship graffiti have been identified – and there may be more.

You may think that images of ships would help experts to date such images, but in fact ship design – especially the local fishing boats – tended to change little over the centuries, so a wide date range of between the 14th and 17th centuries has been put forward.

We may think that these graffiti were intended to be secret – but that may be wrong. Medieval churches were often brightly coloured; the columns at Blakeney, where many of the ship images are found, were once washed a deep red, so the scratched vessels would stand out.

As Pompeii showed, people have always liked to leave their mark by inscribing their name on a wall – a liking still with us, not just with the bored and random scratchers but also with the spray-paint ‘taggers’. In some places these names have themselves become historic artefacts.

In Eton College’s Upper School – one of the original teaching spaces – the wooden panelling is incised with the names of generations of Etonians, as are the desks in Lower School, mementoes of many a dull lesson.

Sometimes, graffiti can be useful to show how a building has changed.

Stones that once stood together and were graffitied can be separated in rebuilding, and the graffiti can give architectural historians a clue as to the original state.

At Hoober Stand, one of the follies in the grounds of Wentworth Woodhouse in South Yorkshire, it’s clear that the small lantern on top has been reconstructed, as some of the Victorian graffiti is now upside down.

All these examples are of ‘unofficial’ graffiti, but there is a type that has a proper place in architecture.

This is where a coloured layer of plaster is placed over a white layer, or vice-versa, and the top layer is scraped back to form a pattern or a design.

This technique, known as sgraffito, was often used on building facades in Italy and in Eastern Europe, but it can also be used inside.

In the church of North Yorkshire village of Appleton-le-Moors, an early work by the Victorian architect John Loughborough Pearson, the apse and some of the other walls have a frieze of sgraffito work by the decorating firm of Clayton and Bell.

On one side a procession of figures waving palms greets Jesus as he enters Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday; on the other, Jesus carries his cross. Elsewhere, sailors survive a storm at sea. All the figures are in white against a red background.

The sgraffito technique produces clear, linear, sophisticated artworks – a long way from the amateur scrapings that most graffiti display.

But the underlying idea is just the same, and old graffiti can speak to us across the centuries.

Will our descendants say the same of any sprayed graffiti that survive from today?