Writing on urban stone: the speech of Malta’s walls

The geological composition of the Maltese archipelago is essentially limestone, made up of sedimentary rock that is very susceptible to erosion. The country’s most characteristic buildings – dating from prehistoric times to the present day – are built with this rock, whose shades of yellow vary, albeit subtly. Although in the past some of these buildings were coated or painted, today it is the bare stone that prevails. This results in buildings with a particular appearance, with the erosion of the stone being exposed in all its irregularity and organicity. At dusk, when the buildings receive the last rays of the sun, the stone shines brightly in a golden color that contrasts with the Mediterranean waters.


Malta’s monumental architecture has a very strong presence in several cities, such as Valletta, Vittoriosa, Cospicua, Senglea, Mdina, Rabat or Victoria in Gozo. The military and religious buildings, where the Baroque style prevails, show the marks left by the presence of the Order of Malta in the archipelago. The marks of the Second World War are also there, although they are more discreet. There are several buildings near the ports that preserve in their stone the effects of the shrapnel bombs that Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany dropped on the territory, which was then under British control.

In the residential buildings, the stone contrasts with the colorful wooden enclosed balconies, which vary in color from red, blue, green, yellow, white or purple. The color of the doors matches that of the balcony and very often the entrances have representations of saints in colored glazed ceramics, signaling the religiosity of the Maltese.

The walls of these cities seem silent. But they’re not. There are practically no wall paintings or graffiti, that’s a fact. But writing on the walls has existed in Malta for many centuries. It is on the stone that it is engraved, and there it remains everlasting to the passage of time. It takes a keen eye to see and distinguish the graffiti[1] that accumulate on the walls of buildings in Maltese cities. Discreet, small and anonymous, they contrast precisely with the monumentality of the buildings, most of which are public or religious in nature.

Graffiti is a building decoration technique with a significant artistic history. But as a deliberate carving in stone as a form of communication, it has an ancestral presence in various cultures and societies. Since the Paleolithic, human beings have inscribed visual or written marks on this medium, with a variety of intentions and messages. These inscriptions are often spontaneous, immediate, direct and not always understood or comprehensible, but they have a specific symbolic function[2] and belong to the spectrum of unauthorized interventions made by citizens in various cities around the world. Like murals and graffiti, they are ways of appropriating public space, using it as their own and printing messages for themselves or for others to see.

On the Maltese islands, graffiti dates back several centuries, from prehistoric times to the present day, and there is an abundance of visual representations. It’s extraordinary to go through the country’s history through them. You can recognize different chronologies, different cultures and societies, beliefs and ideologies, and various social and political moments that have marked the population.

The connection to the sea runs through all these times and perhaps this is why visual representations of boats are so abundant. The scientific project The Malta Ship Graffiti Project, which is dedicated to interpreting these visual representations, believes that for centuries the boat was the Maltese’s only means of communication and transportation with the world (Malta Ship Graffiti Project, n.d.). For those who sail on it, it represents that, but it also represents the vehicle that provides sustenance, safety and, often, danger. That’s why these drawings represent different types of boat – from small fishing vessels to large galleons, carracks, galleys or Maltese tartans.

I found dozens of these graffiti on the Maltese islands, knowing that many date back to the 18th, 19th or 20th centuries. It’s not just the level of detail that impresses in the engraved drawings, which rarely exceed 20 cm in length. It’s the aura of time, knowing that 200 years ago someone took the time to draw an object on the wall that represented more than it was in itself. The vast majority of representations of boats are found in places of worship. And there, near the entrance to churches and chapels, they seem to bear witness to acts of faith or gratitude. Even so, they still represent someone’s life, their poetics, their way of thinking and feeling.

Looking at these visual representations is therefore a sensory and poetic experience. Without prior warning, the existence of scripts or any reference to the graffiti, I initially walked around Malta without detecting their presence. As they are very discreet inscriptions – both in terms of scale and the delicacy of the incisions – this encounter was gradual and involved moving from observing the whole to the particular.

At a certain point, this meant abandoning a wandering posture[3] (Breton, 1994, p.86) or drifting (Debord, 1958, p.67) and adopting a conscious search. So I went around various buildings from eye level, the position where these inscriptions most often rest. To record, photograph, observe and interpret them.

The representation of boats is indeed predominant, but it is not exclusive. Crosses – Latin, Maltese, swastika – proliferate. As are stars – four, five, six, seven and eight-pointed – symbols of various meanings. Geometric figures – circles, triangles, squares – also feature regularly.

These simple representations are joined by more complex ones. The National Library of Malta houses many of them. For example, there is a graffito depicting two anthropomorphic figures standing under an axe arranged horizontally. One of these figures is holding a shield and the other a sword in his right hand, and in his left is a decapitated head.

I also found a representation of a flamingo, next to one of the many boats depicted, with the rare signature of its presumed author (Wil 95); of a soccer pitch, marking the position of the players in space; or the representation of a scene made up of three human figures, placed on a kind of podium in perspective, from which the Maltese cross stands out.

Anthropomorphic figures with their arms in the air or engaged in various activities dot the walls, as well as representations of the sun, houses and some objects, all scratched into the stone in a simplified but not inexpressive way.
The softness of the limestone lends itself to this expressiveness, and some of the drawings I found on the walls of other public buildings reveal an expressionist trait, of someone playing on the support with torn lines that add shadow and light, that correct or accentuate the line, that create volume.

I’ve left the messages written on these walls until last. Not because I consider them less important, nor because they are less present in Malta. There are plenty of hearts with names on them. Some have dates. I lingered for a while next to a heart, dated 1969, with the inscription “Norman love Sina”. More than fifty years later, I couldn’t help but wonder if Norman still loves Sina? Are the two of them even alive? Did they go to Malta together as tourists, or did they live there?

Political messages are less present. The Asian Boyz, a Southern California gang created at the end of the 1980s and made up of Southeast Asian immigrants, left no messages, but several signatures. The acronym ‘ABZ MP’, engraved in stone, denounces the passage of the ‘Monterey Park Asian Boyz’ through Malta. Inscriptions of support and repudiation of the Nationalist Party (P.N./N.P.) are also frequent.

The P.N., founded in 1926, with a history associated with fascism and a conservative, right-wing ideology, has alternated power in Malta with the Labor Party since independence in 1964. Although the visual representations are more striking due to their unusualness, this writing is also inscribed in the speech of the urban space which, after all, is “the place where discourse can become wild and, escaping rules and institutions, inscribe itself on walls.” as Henri Lefebvre considered (2003, p. 19).

In Malta, the words of E.M. de Melo e Castro, about the inscriptions in the Portuguese public space after the revolution of April 25, 1974, resonated with me several times. The poet and artist considered that “The writing on the walls is (…) a highly revealing fact of the freedom of a PEOPLE (…)” (1977). How can we interpret them here, in wall inscriptions that accumulate various times and contexts? What was the freedom of those who, in the 18th or 19th century, drew those boats in the presence of Napoleonic forces or the British Empire? What is the freedom of those who carved messages of support or repudiation of one of the parties in the Maltese democratic alternation into the stone? What does freedom mean to someone who draws swastikas in a country massacred by the Nazis? How free was Norman to love Sina in 1969?

What is the freedom of a people in contexts as disparate as those in which Malta’s graffiti inscriptions were created? Can freedom be thought of in the abstract?
Without definitive answers, I’m trying out hypotheses. It is possible to force freedom in moments of agony. It’s possible to feed it by discussing party positions. It’s possible to defraud it by praising the aggressor in the very place that has been attacked. Or anywhere else. You can love and be loved under any circumstances. Freedom is not thought of in the abstract. It is defined and takes on meaning in relation to the concrete conditions of each moment. Nevertheless, the fact that Malta doesn’t erase its inscriptions – because it’s difficult to erase graffiti, because they’re so discreet as to go unnoticed, because they don’t bother the powers that be over the centuries or because this way of living in the city has been incorporated, among other possibilities – means that these Maltese cities have their history inscribed not only on the macro-urban scale but also on a micro-scale, the scale within the reach of each individual. This testifies to a performativity that is not only historical, but also sensorial, aesthetic and experiential on the scale of each and everyone of us, as socialized communities.

[1] Considering that the term graffito varies in meaning according to the context and chronological time to which it refers, it is important to clarify the meaning adopted in this essay. As a mode of expression, graffito implies an inscription on a wall. In Portuguese, this term has been generically replaced by the term ‘graffiti’, although in the field of art history studies the term ‘grafito’ continues to be used. The decision to use the term ‘graffito’ is due to its etymological meaning. In this regard, Sofia Salema and José Aguiar explain that:
“The word graffito derives from the Greek name “graphos” which means to write, draw, inscribe, incision (in Latin “graffitum”, in the singular, and “graffitti”, in the plural). Graffito is associated with spelling, as a technique of engraving with a stylus, such as incised spelling on wax tablets, or the inscription engraved on a surface.” (2009, p.14).
This association with spelling is one of the important components for the meaning that the term adopts in the essay, referring to the specific technique of engraving, which differs from the broader term of ‘inscribing’ (where various techniques can be used).
To complement this meaning, Torres Júnior adds that it is an action that implies a desire to communicate spontaneously with the world. In this respect, the author states:”Grafito – B.Art. from it.Graffito, (…) Generally speaking, it is the drawing or verbal inscription, engraved with a hard point on less hard surfaces.An obvious and spontaneous technique, it corresponds to one of the first manifestations of the will to power in man, who wishes to impose himself on the world by engraving his ideas, images or experiences on it (…)” (n.d., p.892).

[2] The use of the sign as a form of communication is reflected by Umberto Eco, who considers that “It is used to transmit information, to indicate to someone something that another knows and that others also know. It is therefore part of a communication process of this type: source – sender – channel – message – recipient.”(2004, p.25).The author also adds that, from a historical perspective, “All philosophical discussion about ideas is born because we articulate signs.” (2004, p.100).

[3] For the Surrealists, wandering implied a lack of purpose in walking. The Situationist International moved away from this conception with the method of drifting, which has the objective of mapping and recognizing urban space. Even so, they are both mechanisms for spatially recognizing the city and discovering one’s place in it (Cruzeiro, 2014, pp.166-168).

Text and photos: Cristina Pratas Cruzeiro

Published on: 06/10/2023


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Melo e Castro, E. M. de (1977). Pode-se escrever com isto. Colóquio Artes nº 32 (pp. 48-61). Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian.

Malta Ship Graffiti Project [online], (n.d.). Malta Ship Graffiti Project – Discover Malta’s Maritime History Etched In Stone. [Consultado em 3 de outubro de 2023]. Disponível em: https://maltashipgraffiti.org

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