Contagious Magic

December 23, 2007 at 5:18 pm (graffiti, Medway, occult, witchcraft)

Graffiti has bemused me for some time – and for a non-practitioner like me, the apparent nuances and layers of competence others see, are invisible to my eyes. I wrongly conflate tagging and graffiti ‘art’ for instance.

My mother would occasionally boil over with rage at the sheer pointlessness of something one of her children would do and spluttering, almost lost for words would come out with my favourite of her sayings “It’s like… like writing ‘shit’ on a wall”. For her this was an act of supreme pointlessness – something so utterly irrelevant as to be almost mystical in its stupidity. I felt some sympathy for this view until recently, but in my walks I think I have a greater understanding of the significance of this act.

I used to commute every day and as the train rolled through South London and into Victoria Station I was always struck by the obsessive tagging – the same name repeated hundreds of times, a contagious script covering everything and meaning nothing to all but a handful. I always believed this to be a visual marker of the violence that city life inflicts upon the psyche of citizens – these clichéd scrawls as some kind of desperate scream for recognition, visibility, a sense of actually existing. In Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders: Diagnosis, Etiology, Treatment by Eric Hollander and Dan J. Stein they describe how “Confinement and isolation… [can cause captive animals to] indulge in behaviours such as continuous rocking, excessive self-grooming and continuous masturbation.” And so I came to believe the simple cod-psychosocial idea that tagging and graffiti was something as drab and horrific as a pacing polar bear or a wanking chimp throwing shit at those staring through the bars… or at least out of a train window.

I have since come to the conclusion however that there is something more profound at work – that we are looking at a form of Contagious Magic. Sir James George Frazer in his magisterial study The Golden Bough describes it thus: Contagious Magic, proceeds upon the notion that things which have once been conjoined must remain ever afterwards, even when quite dissevered from each other, in such a sympathetic relation that whatever is done to the one must similarly affect the other.” By linking one’s name to the environment, one is ‘conjoining’ oneself to it in an unbreakable tie – even if the graffiti itself is removed. This is something more profound than a mere mindless sprainting of the territory – this is a co-opting of the territory, becoming the territory – absorbing and genetically emplacing the writer into the very fabric of the contested zones, the arenas of conventional archive and industry. They are NOT mindless acts – they contain moments of considerable puissance and import, an urban shamanic tradition eschewing hedge-witchery out of pragmatic need and attempting a new way of interacting with the world that is increasingly becoming a private, closed off, restricted, locked-down, no-entried, push-button-opened, security enabled, chain-linked dead-zone.

This meshing with the environment spreading across the landscape like renegade DNA or Japanese Knotweed is not a neutral act, but an aggressive attempt to control, an extension of the human urge to own, co-opt and control space rather than pass through it. This proxy-warfare can also be seen in the building of cairns by walkers. On Ben Nevis (one such cairn-building ritual involved the interring of a piano – almost certainly a propitiation of Apollo – god of music and prophecy.)

Over time the number of man built cairns on Ben Nevis increased to such an extent that they became not only visually intrusive but also a cause of confusion in conditions of poor visibility.”

This asymmetric magickal warfare takes a number of forms – most commonly the possessive and the intrusive. Hometown boys wishing to become one with their own environment as well as infiltrating the fibre of their rivals’ territory – here YRB (Young Rochester Boys) can be seen infecting walls, but also attempting to insinuate themselves into the very path they walk. Paradoxically this echoes the Zen kōan “You cannot tread the Path before you become the Path yourself.”

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These are self-taught practitioners and as occultist, mason and President of the United States, Benjamin Franklin (from under whose London house dissected bodies were disinterred in 1998) liked to say: “Learn of the skilful; for he that teaches himself has a fool for his master”.

The “intrusive form” is to mark other territories in order to absorb them into oneself, to draw the teeth of the lion by ‘becoming’ him – much as Palaeolithic hunters’ cave paintings helped them ‘become the prey’ during ritual, leading to a successful hunt. Much the same as happens with graffit/tagging Prehistoric art was probably associated with hunting magic or ritual, perhaps intended to ensure success in the hunt and fertility of the animals. Drawings sometimes overlie others, suggesting that the act of drawing may have been the essence of the ritual magic and not the picture itself”

rise

Here is the invocation “Rise Gillingham” sprayed on a garage door at the top of St Margaret’s Street – a priapic exhortation with the murderous overtone of a North Kent Charles Manson flecked through it (“Is it a conspiracy that the music is telling the youth to rise up against the establishment because the establishment is rapidly destroying things? Is that a conspiracy? The music speaks to you every day, but you are too deaf, dumb, and blind to even listen to the music. . . It is not my conspiracy. It is not my music. I hear what it relates. It says “Rise,” it says “Kill.” Why blame it on me? I didn’t write the music. . . .” )

Interestingly – as a stifling urbanism spreads like some recrudescence of nineteenth century pollution from the dark, satanic mills of popular culture – this ‘techno-shamanic’ practice is returning to, and melding with the older magic of hawthorn, oak and ash. It is amazing how crude and contrived this new form looks against a backdrop of effortless natural magic. When I took these photographs a pair of jays were fighting in the tree above and a squirrel with the fattest tail imaginable stared at me with it’s head slightly on one side. I continued gathering wood for the stove, thinking to myself as I stacked in and bound it to carry home to heat the house, of the cover of Led Zeppelin IV. Interestingly this is the cover which the occultist/musician Jimmy Page decided would not have a title, but would instead feature four hand-drawn symbols on the inner sleeve and record label, each one chosen by the band member it represents.

We decided that on the fourth album, we would deliberately play down the group name, and there wouldn’t be any information whatsoever on the outer jacket. Names, titles and things like that do not mean a thing.”

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2 Comments

  1. NickP said,

    Do you think there is a link between your reading of grafitti as an attempt to co-opt space and the psychogeographic/deep topographic bloggers’ need to state where they have been, what they have seen? To place their presence at the point of interest and leave a urine-scent in the cyber-space analogue?

    I think of Tox (tox03, tox04 etc). The guy has been all over the region. I’ve seen his mark written in astonishing places. He makes me look like a middle-aged nerdy-man. What does he feel when perched high above barbaric motorways, on bridges of slumbent railways and in the alleys of torpid suburbs?

    Happy Solstice.

  2. hiddenmedway said,

    I agree that there is an element of egotism at the heart of both of these, perhaps there is just a difference of degree, as with the tourist who needs to be photographed in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa compared to the tourist who wants a photograph of the monument alone. Both are merely tourists, one just has a higher opinion of herself!

    If this blog was graffiti, it wouldn’t be painted in 4ft letters across a viaduct, but scribbled in faint pencil on a half brick and dropped down a well.

    “It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.” (Jacob Bar-Salibi cited in “Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries”, Ramsay MacMullen. Yale:1997, p155)

    Brumal best wishes

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