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Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Great Wall of China

9 March 2014

Chinese authorities are attempting to tackle the problem of graffiti on the Great Wall of China by marking off areas where tourists can scribble to their hearts’ content. Tower 14 at Mutianyu, one of the most visited parts of the wall, has apparently been fitted with a plastic-screened drawing area for all those itching to add their signature to one of the world’s great wonders. If it’s successful, more towers will be ‘converted’ along similar lines. There’s even talk of creating a digital graffiti board for everyone’s cultural doodles.

It’s a novel and well-intentioned response to the problem of tourist graffiti. I don’t think it can possibly work, though… There are reasons why so many tourists carve their names onto the actual Wall before posting their holiday snaps on their Facebook one, and none of them are really addressed by the provision of what is essentially an etch-a-sketch area for adults.

People write on old buildings, or fasten padlocks to bridges, or carve hearts onto trees, to fix their mark – in a throwaway world – onto something that’s likely to last. The whole point is that it’s not easy to delete. Or if that sounds over-romanticised, consider another motivation: that idle, childish sense of mischief, too trivial to be truly anarchic, that had half my class surreptitiously drilling holes in their desks with compasses for a term at school. If the teacher had designated one particular desk for hole-boring activities, that particular desk – and only that one – would have become truly boring quite quickly.

I don’t doubt that the new areas will be widely used; in fact I’m sure they will be taken up with enthusiasm. Everybody loves an invitation to doodle without consequence. But there will still be those intent on leaving more permanent, more prominent marks elsewhere – graffiti is rife because it is fun, but also, let’s be honest, because it’s not allowed. Ultimately this proposal sounds a little like pointing to the corner of a field of fresh snow, and asking everybody nicely to make their snow angels on top of each other. Not everyone’s going to listen.

Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-SA 2.5)