Visual flânerie around the city of Braga: A proposal for graffiti semiotic analysis
You delight yourself not with the seven or seventy wonders of a city, but with the answer it gives to your question. (Calvino, 1990, p. 38)
Are cities just a stage in which human life unfolds? Authors like Lefebvre (1991/2008) present interpretations of the city as spaces perceived, conceived and lived, symbolic constructions capable of structuring, conditioning and representing a system of values.
To contextualize, we define cities as a medium that conducts messages and speeches, thus contributing to maintaining/transform the ideological and identity models of the society. City spaces are also understood as key forms of mediation when conveying these speeches to subjects in daily life.
Medium, in this essay, is understood according to Debray’s ideas (1998), as a category of knowledge, never given, but always liable to be developed through the need for detailed knowledge operations:
the museum, for example, can be understood as a medium for the artwork. ‘A’ [in this case, the museum] serves as a medium for ‘B’ when ‘B’ occurs through ‘A’, and in practice, it’s not possible without ‘A’. (Debray, 1998, p. 13)
In this way, it becomes possible to understand the medium as a metaphor for something that conveys a message, or, as we prefer to consider here, a discourse. In other words, Debray (1998) mentions the medium ability to convey through expressions, such as “vehicular device”, “transmission organ”, “invisible support” and, finally, “medium, singular neutral”.
If the medium conducts something, in this case, a discourse, there is another component that can be analysed here: mediation, in a relational dimension, i.e., what connects the experience, which directs the content that the medium conveys.
The mediating support base is, therefore, anchored on the possibility of representing something. Operating with reality(s) in the second presence of reality. Organizing and architecting the meaning of objects in their representation. Thus, communicating an exercise of abstraction carried out on the real, providing it with meaning.
It is known that social reality, everyday life, or rather, history, is a discursive organized (re)construction, practiced, and structured ritually by communities throughout the entire human journey (Barthes, 2004; White, 2006). Social reality is understood, in this sense, not as a social fact in itself, but as a production in a continuum (re)making from individual and social practices – objective and subjective – structured in the double “space-time” (Berger & Luckmann, 1966/2004).
A few questions. How the reality and the social order, as we know it and perform it, were and are objectified? How have institutions, for example, become immemorial social realities throughout history? One possible answer, following the reasoning of the authors summoned above, would be to think of this objectivity through the ability to transform the chaotic experience into a coherent order, using language as an instrument. Berger and Luckmann would say that: “in the establishment of this order, language makes a world, in the double sense of apprehending and producing it” (Berger & Luckmann, 2004, p. 204).
Narrowing our path, we walk forward in a Deleuze and Guattari’s quotation: “language is not life, it gives orders to life; life does not speak, it listens and waits” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1980, quoted by Martins, 2017, p. 96).
In this sense, we reached a stopping point: that of enunciation, language, and, from that, discourse. It is worth emphasizing, before continuing the trajectory proposed here, that language itself does not hold power alone, much less can it be considered a watchword. Only after its contextualization, organization, and authorization, in space/time, by social and asymmetrical forces of power, will this language, this discourse, then, have strength and power (Martins, 2017). It will offer meaning and significance, creation/perpetuation/affirmation of imagined identity models.
As a result, cities are seen as privileged places in this “transmissive” sense. Spaces of symbolic constructions associated with imagined and daily performed identity models.
Thus, it is understood that the discourse, then, is a message. “And not a statement” (Debray, 1998, p. 8). By understanding the message as part of the speech, we identified a gateway to the beginning of a labyrinthine end. The discourse perceived as a social practice of meaning, constitution, and construction of meanings (Fairclough, 2001), of symbolic products and closing off possibilities (Hall, 1996); the discourse as an “orientation”, a staging of truths and an exercise of power (Martins, 2017). The speeches, in turn, can take ideological forms and the meaning produced can direct the subjects to found a feeling of reality in the world and identity of the self.
Guiding the developed thinking path, we return to the starting point, as a summary: we defend a view of cities as privileged vehicle supports, means that lead the discourses of a “real” daily life that contribute to maintaining or transforming the ideological conditions and models identity of a society. Cities are also key forms of mediation, connecting this whirlwind of daily communicative operations and offering meanings to the subjects who walk around, providing a guide for themselves. Thus, they are authorized to live their organized lives away from chaos.
A visual flânerie by some graffiti in Braga
If cities are seen as a medium and key forms of mediation, it is understood that communication, discourses, and every day “realities” need decoding, careful and attentive interpretation. For this, the figure of the flâneur/flâneuse, the “painter of the circumstantial”, is requested: the one who, with a specific way of exploring and carrying out a passionate semiotic reading of space, transforms the city into a landscape. In an unreasonable wander through the streets, sensory baits guide these steps, “invisible” daily beauties, subtle texts become an object of interest and, through small epiphanies, new knowledge and answers to questions that are usually asked in/around cities emerge.
Against the “transmissive” issue of the city, the figure of this urban wanderer is more interested in the ritualistic component. After all, the subjects who inhabit these cities ritualistically perform power relations through roles, gestures and tastes, exchange and conflict of symbols, meanings, and cultural forms (Carey, 1989/2009). Some authors, mainly Benjamin (1982/2009), have looked at the flâneur/flâneuse – and their flânerie – to understand it. They interpreted this figure not only as a man/woman who observes what surrounds them, but as a subject of their time, capable of collecting, describing, and cataloguing observations.
In this social labyrinth, the daily “realities”, shaped and perpetuated discursively and culturally, need decoding. Life in the city becomes a sentient text to be captured and interpreted. Communicative subtleties that, through this optimum observation point, become visible. Thus, it is through flânerie, between attentive looks and willing feet, that the city and its inhabitants are understood as a complete medium of communication in their own right.
It is in this city-landscape, understood in an eternal dialectical movement between “the natural and the cultural, the space and the social, the objective and the subjective” (Pires, 2007, p. 18), an ephemeral gallery that is daily perceived, felt, and lived, that graffiti stand out.
This phenomenon, as it has become global, can be understood as graffiti of American tradition. With its appearance in the ’60s, the objective of this artistic expression is to be a scream for visibility (Campos, 2010). The subjects – writers – when leaving their mark in the city space, either through a signature – known as a tag, usually illegal – or through various symbols – semi-legal or legal “art” works -, achieve visibility and can be seen as a manifestation of subjectivities, loaded with symbolic charges, an example, in Heidegger’s philosophy, of being-there-in-the-world.
In this essay, graffiti is understood as a name for the most different visual manifestations of street art – legal, semi-legal, and illegal – namely tags, stencil, sticker, graffiti… Usually occupying a place that should not occupy in urban “skin”, graffiti paint/attack walls, corners and alleys. With an ephemeral and unconventional essence, this artistic expression intends to mark the landscape, here and now.
These polyphonic squiggles, scattered throughout the city, can be a mark on the ground, a criticism, denunciation, a thought, perhaps even a declaration of love. It’s a spontaneous manifestation of visual art, street art at its best. As Silveira and Silva explain:
the place of aesthetics, as a language that provides knowledge through Art, is not understood as something that is restricted to the contemplation or apprehension of the beautiful, but rather, as an important element in the process of building knowledge, which occurs through bodily senses, subjectivity, apprehension of the symbolic expressiveness of the artistic object and reflection. (Silveira & Silva, 2019, p. 771)
Graffiti, made by and for people, uses cities as a medium, causing, regardless of the writer’s objective, an encounter with the Other, the plural, which usually has no space in the current discourse. In other words, it is through urban art, in the open-air gallery city, that passers-by are taken to a movement of discomfort, restlessness, questioning, and philosophical reflection.
From this idea, graffiti manifestation are understood as sensitive artistic forms that constitute the texture of culture. In the Simmelian way, there is a need in this essay for the understanding of this artistic manifestation and not for its judgment. This moves forward on the idea that the supports used by graffiti automatically become an expressive canvas, a vehicle for messages that subtly start to populate the minds of those who passes-by.
Further, the city can be understood in itself, in the role of mediation between these subjects and everyday life. Mediator, thereby, of territorialities, culture, meanings, existences, and experiences. By understanding the city in a screen metaphor, we can observe graffiti throughout the city of Braga as visual and linguistic codes capable of transforming walls and buildings into a kind of canvas where the most varied (in)visible communities project their existences and expressive forms. They would be, as in La Rocca’s words, “the symbolization of a Dasein as an identity signal” (2018, p. 203).
To have the experience of a structure is not to receive it passively: it is to live it, retake it, assume it, rediscovering the immanent meaning. (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, quoted by Silveira & Silva, 2019, p. 771)
Authors such as Martins (2011) and La Rocca (2018) – and others – argue that the city’s sensory experience is increasingly contaminated by visual stimuli. Undeniably, we are in a century of images, in a period of ocular hypertrophy. From this contextualization, in a non-linear tour, in a visual flânerie, some graffiti were observed by the city of Braga.
Given the large volume of visual artistic manifestations, it was decided to analyse, in the light of Peircean semiotics, fundamentally, two graffiti that are critical to the Portuguese state of “yesterday” and “today” (figures 4 and 5 on the side).
The two images are located in Braga city centre, where a large number of people daily passes-by. The both graffiti activate different ways of thinking. In that first contact, general characteristics are captured. Advancing at the second level proposed by Peirce, perceptions are more refined. As an observation, the exercise performed is to try to see the “real” , what the sign refers to. Thus, in a third level, graffiti begin to interact with the receiver/observer. What would be the idea behind the representation?
See and describe what is in front of the eyes: in figure 4, in addition to the urban artist Ferol Mola’s  brand on the right, a female face on the left, painted on the wall in black ink, at a slightly higher level. Below the text message “Catarina Eufémia (black), Alentejo peasant woman murdered (red)”. The colours, black and red, appear to have been carefully selected. The black referring to mourning, the red, the blood is drawn from that human life . The image and the writings seem to be the result of a brief intervention, due to the possible illegal character of the work. We may say, by the format, that it would be the result of paint over a stencil.
In figure 5, in the middle of other messages, such as “loves me” and “poetry me”, the sentence also written in black – “terrorist is the State” – stands out in this analysis. This intervention, in clear and precise letters with no drained ink, denotes a certain experience on the part of those who performed it. There is no signature, nor any other type of identification more evident of the author. In addition to the signs, what would be the passers’ reaction when faced with these messages? Would he/she also be “murdered” by this “terrorist state”? Most likely, these observations can be registered in a personal conscious-unconscious, a subtle idea that, in everyday cognitive processes, begins to show up.
Despite the validity of the analysis of the first and second signs of a sign, the work of the flâneur/flâneuse, however, cannot be reduced to this. There is here a triadic interdependence in the logic of this process in which the observer goes further and understands the very essence of the category under examination. It chases traces, clues, investigates, unfolds itself in another sign that is intimately involved in the whole process. From the circumstance of the moment, it creates a narrative. Interprets sensitive text, decodes it. Open it (and open him/herself) to the world. From this observation and the relationship built with the observer, we move on to outsourcing. What are the effects that the sign can produce in any interpreting mind? (Santaella, 1999, 2000). Santaella would say that: “this effect can be of the order of a thought, a mere reaction, sensation or a simple quality of feeling” (Santaella, 1999, p. 89). Who would be Catarina Eufémia and why is her figure summoned here together with the graffiti of “terrorist is the State”?
Plunging into contemporary Portuguese history, in a quick search for the name of the peasant woman to which graffiti refers, countless Internet pages explain her journey. In this context, going back to Salazarism, this farm worker, from Beja, was shot dead by the National Republican Guard (GNR), on May 19, 1954, when she demanded an increase in the daily remuneration – from 16 to 23 “escudos”.
The death that touched the country was, in fact, the elimination of the contestation, of the Other. Catarina, the “rebel” worker affiliated to the PCP (Portuguese Communist Party), was not the “good housewife” that Martins (2016) deals with in O Olho de Deus in Salazar’s Speech. Wouldn’t that be an act of terrorism?
Between past – “Alentejo peasant woman murdered” – and present – “terrorist is the State” – is there any significant change in the symbolic regime?
In figure 5 there is no clear mention of the past. Here, the conveyed message is: the state is a terrorist. End of the period. The inscription is done in black. There is no space for different shades, except the one that symbolizes the “absence of light”. In a recent context, at the labour level – to match the economic issue raised in the Catarina Eufémia’s graffiti -, there are precarious contractual and working conditions in Portugal when compared to the rest of the EU member countries (Cantante, 2018). And not only. Is this not a type of terror that generates intense fear in the subject?
These messages and many others find, daily, in communicating cities – medium and mediators – the possibility of making themselves seen, felt, and reflected. City dialectical landscape, the city as an open-air art gallery, polygon of signs and codes. What are the possibilities of making these and other reflections visible if not in cities and from urban art?
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 Lúcia Santaella in As três categorias peircianas e os três registros lacanianos (1999) attests the validity of correlating the categories of first, second and third of Peirce’s semiotics with the three conceptual categories of human reality understood from Lacan’s theory: imaginary, the real and the symbolic.
 Another interpretation of these graffiti would be to use multimodal socio-semiotic analysis. I recognize all the complexity that colours present and a well-defined grammar presented by Kress & van Leeuwen in Colour as a Semiotic Mode: Notes for a Grammar of Colour (2002) that could have been used as an asset in the analysis.