5 Jul 2007

Mayan writing and modern graffiti

Call me strange, but I love the artwork of street graffiti. Not garden-variety gang nametags, but the colourful lively art like... like... Well, like the above picture. Why express in words what pictures can a thousand times better?

Strange as it may seem this has more to do with Mayan writing than you might think. We always like to feel smug in our modern world and believe that we've invented the best thing since sliced bread. For example, we like to think that we're the only civilization that has reached such stupendous levels of brilliance that we've invented machines despite the fact that machines were already in existence well before Julius Caesar. Putting away our delusions, we've just been reinventing the wheel over and over again. Of course, each time we end up with an exotic permutation but basically the same basic ideas are used and reused throughout eons.

Mayan writing was a beautifully complex hieroglyphic system that in some respects went much further than, say, Egyptian hieroglyphs, in terms of artistic license. I think it really shows off the creative intelligence of the Maya. One stele in particular really shines through in my mind as a perfect example of the extremes that the Maya went through to display both a robotic mastery of mathematical precision and yet also a divine inspiration in their expression. The stele is located in Quiriguá and has got to be one of the most complex examples of the Mayan writing system discovered so far.

Maybe with this example you can see what I mean now. Here is where ancient writing and image successfully merge together, as we find in modern street graffiti. Is it an image or is it a word? Why choose? It's both. It's meant to express on a far more profound level by displaying not only the nude word but also its personal clothing, a plethora of so many other ideas, related in a kind of artistic form of "hypertext", if I may be permitted to indulge in conceptual pun. Of course ironically, pun is itself a verbal form of hypertext. Mayan writing is seldom inanimate. The hand who carved this monument was intentionally endowing each glyph with the breath of life.

It's interesting how while the Maya believed this art to be sacred, we've by and large come to see the similar, talented creativity in street graffiti as profane. Perhaps in a thousand years, when prints of Warhol's Campbell's Soup become stale and bland, the art of meaning and the meaning of art will be once again respected as divine. Round and round the cultural wheel turns. When she stops, no one knows.

1 comment:

  1. Elsewhere we have been discussing Camunic, which seems to be related to Rhaetic, or is possibly a western dialect of that language (see Zavaroni's website:

    http://www.members.tripod.com/adolfozavaroni/camune.htm) .

    In this context, I would like to mention that before they adopted writing, the inhabitants of Val Camonica had been creating rock carvings (some 300,000) for thousands of years (for examples see these websites:

    http://www.simbolisullaroccia.it/ ;

    http://www.rupestre.net/alps/valcamonica.html ).

    In Val Camonica these carvings did not evolve into a system of writing, but they do open up a window on thousands of years for which elsewhere we have to rely solely on the archaeological record. Here, instead, thanks to the ideal smooth surfaces for rock carving provided by the natural environment, we have an alternative source of information on the life of mesolithic and palaeolithic hunters and gatherers, neolithic agriculturalists, the early uses of metals, the cult of the sun, the emergence of power hierarchies, recognizable maps of the views from the carved rocks, traces of contacts with other peoples, the adoption of writing (using the same Etruscan alphabet as Rhaetian) and the arrival of the Romans.

    Last but not least, as with some graffiti (in the right places, such as factory walls, etc.!), there is the intrinsic aesthetic and artistic values of the carvings themselves, further enhanced by their beautiful Alpine setting.