American Graffiti

Sego Canyon (UT) Pictographs and Century Old Graffiti

I took this image of ancient Native American petroglyphs in Utah’s Sego Canyon, not far from Thompson Springs. These petroglyphs were scratched on the rocks of Sego Canyon by Native Americans of the Fremont Culture, who lived in the area between 600 and 1250 of the Common Era. As you will notice, however, just by looking at the top left quarter of the image above, more recent graffiti were also scratched on those very same rocks, right by the Fremont petroglyphs.

When I was framing this image, I wanted to convey the juxtaposition of “ancient graffiti” like the Fremont petroglyphs with relatively speaking more modern graffitis that two different people, seemingly in 1884 and in 1902, felt the need to scratch right next to (if not directly on) those vestiges of the past.

Which begs the question: considering that those “younger” graffiti are by now more than a century old, does age make them more acceptable to us viewers? Do you see them as a “work of art in the work of art” or as the condemnable act of vandals who inexorably defaced that precious Native American rock art?

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24 thoughts on “American Graffiti

  1. the drunken cyclist

    It is hard to say. What if, at the time, the original petroglyphs were not seen as anything “special” and therefore the later graffiti not seen as “harmful” at the time. Would that make the later act any less egregious?

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you for sharing your opinion, Jeff: yours is an interesting viewpoint. I have to say, personally I am bothered by this urge of signing their own names on something that was there already – I mean, if they really wanted to be immortalized, couldn’t they pick a blank rock wall?! 😉

  2. talkavino

    To me, those “additions” from 1884 and 1902 are an act of cruel disrespect – this are not really even graffiti, it is a demonstration of moronic stupidity of the people who actually did that – sorry, I know I’m fuming more than necessary, but I don’t find that appropriate at all and I don’t care if it was done 1 year or 120 years ago…

  3. Karen

    I see the oldest graffiti as art whereas I think the newer graffiti is a total disrespect of ancient history. Just my humble opinion.

  4. Heather (Sweet Precision)

    What a very though provoking question Stefano! While I love the juxtaposition of the two in your photograph, I have to say that it makes me a little sad to see newer additions. But who knows, in another 300 years will these newer additions have more worth?! When I was younger we had a bridge in our neighborhood that was called “graffiti bridge” where it was acceptable to write and draw–it was such an eclectic mix of artwork.

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you very much for your comment, Heather! I am with you: those newer graffiti make me sad too. Interesting comparison with the bridge in your neighborhood (do you have a photograph of it, by any chance?): off the top of my head, assuming the bridge was not an ancient one but rather a modern structure, I would see that more like a nice, spontaneously artistic project. I think it is different when someone sign their name on wall carvings from many centuries ago: I don’t know, going to an extreme, would we like/want graffiti on a Giotto painting or the Mona Lisa? 😉

  5. the winegetter

    I don’t know. While my initial reaction is anger and disgust, I still cannot help but acknowledge that it does something to the motive and photo you took that is intriguing. It speaks of that time, the utter disrespect and superiority that people felt over these “primitive” cultures and drawings. And that in itself is disturbing, but also fascinating to a degree. It does not make the act less barbarous, but it gives us a better glimpse into that period…for better or worse.

    Have you been to Tshodilo Hills in Botswana? I know you would love it there…

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you, Oliver: very interesting and acute thought.
      I think you may really be on to something here, at the very least with regard to the older one of the two graffiti. Since the “Indian Wars” in the US took place roughly between 1850 and 1880, this places our 1884 “signature” very close to them, which may indeed signify that whoever did could have been a resentful pioneer or a soldier that just like you said wanted to deliberately deface the “enemy’s” art to display superiority and dominion.
      The more I think about your theory, the more I like it and the more it sounds plausible to me. Hat’s off to you, my friend.

    2. Stefano Post author

      Oh, and sorry – as to your question, no, unfortunately I did not make it to Tshodilo Hills. I would love to go if/when I make it back to Botswana. I went to the Okavango Delta which immediately became one of my favorite places in Africa.

      1. the winegetter

        Tshodilo Hills is a magical place. I don’t believe in magical places, but those hills have a beauty, magnificence and serenity about them that makes them incredibly unique. The Barsawa wall paintings are spectacular, and there are only a handful of tourists going there each year…I will send you a link to my facebook album via email.

      2. Stefano Post author

        Thank you, Oliver. I miss all the beauty there is in Botswana and hope that I will be able to go back sooner or later. Tshodilo Hills sounds like a place to include on my itinerary if I make it back there. Thanks for the tip!

    3. kbvollmarblog

      Dear Oliver,
      I like the point you make: it`s a document of the zeitgeist and in a way a new piece of art – but I suppose the graffiti “artist” did not reflect it – but the recipients, like us, do.
      Anyway liked your point of view.
      Have a great week

      1. the winegetter

        Thank you very much Klausbernd! I appreciate you taking the time to engage. I agree that the “artist” likely did not consider this aspect. But then again I think it is part of art that the artist cannot anticipate how it will be seen…

      2. kbvollmarblog

        Yes, you are right – well, it`s the recipient who converts the artefact in an esthetical object – at least how I understand it.
        Have a great week

  6. ChgoJohn

    Classless, Stefano. The fact that each is over 100 years old means nothing to me. 500 years from now they will still be classless, only 500 years older.
    Coincidentally, there are petroglyphs not far from Zia’s home in Michigan. Carved into sandstone, these are believed to be between 300 and 1000 years old. They remain free of current day graffiti but, unfortunately, there’s still time …

    1. Stefano Post author

      So very well said, John! I like your style 🙂
      For a very interesting theory of what could have prompted such vandalism, you may want to check put Oliver’s (AKA The Winegetter) comment above.
      Also, very interesting, I did not know there were petroglyphs in Michigan too!

  7. kbvollmarblog

    I think that too, it`s an act of disrespect – but, of course, this is our view nowadays. In a time of fast changes we value historic artefacs very much. Other times had a different standpoint for example the old was something that had to be overcome. In Europe graffiti from the Roman period are now seen as art and I suppose in the far future those graffiti will not be seen as an act of disrespect but as art as well. But we can only judge from a standpoint limited by our zeitgeist.
    Many thanks, dear Stefano, for make us think.
    Have a great weekend.

    1. Stefano Post author

      Dear Klausbernd,
      Thank you for your very interesting and thoughtful comment. Your point regarding the different approach that there was in the past toward previous artwork or art following different moral standards is an excellent one. It makes me think of all the damage that overzealous catholics in the XIX century did retouching ancient paintings to “cover up” nudity or pagan symbols.
      If you have time, ou may also want to check out Oliver’s (AKA The Winegetter) comment above as he also made in my view an excellent point. I think the two of you should make contact, if you are not in touch already.
      Big hugs,

      1. kbvollmarblog

        Dear Stefano,
        what a good idea – I will contact him, when I have done my homework for my editor – oh dear!
        Big hugs from me as well
        Sorry, I am in a hurry

  8. maureenjenner

    I feel a surge of loathing welling up inside me at the sight of graffiti. My response is similar to that I experience when contemplating the remains of magnificent buildings plundered by those, royal or commoner, who so coveted the contents and property of ancient buildings here in UK, they reduced them to ruins.

    When travelling to other lands, and seeing their ancient treasures, graffiti seems such a pathetic attempt by the insignificant to freeze-frame their names into history and my instinctive reaction is to hope they lose the use of the hand that committed the atrocity..


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