Thursday, August 8, 2013

Spraypainting the Walls

American historian and erstwhile ethnographer of things Swiss Henry Trotter asks, "what's the deal with all the graffiti in Switzerland?"

It is true that the Swiss have a yen for spraypainting walls, brightly and often, with an alacrity that surprises those who assume them to be forever preoccupied with tidiness and perfection.  And, to answer Trotter, it is precisely because of this obsession with tidiness that graffiti is the most transgressive thing a young Swiss rebel can do.

With unemployment hovering around 3% and a government keen to spend money on skateboard parks and internships, Swiss youth find relatively few catalysts for angst compared with many in their global cohort.  Just as the original Punks adorned themselves with the detritus of polite society (including, most famously, safety pins) the better to distance themselves from bourgeois nicety, so the unpainted wall presents an absolutely irresistible temptation to the Swiss nihilist: defacing it strikes at the heart of Swissness . 

In their inimitable way, the Swiss mainstream seems to tolerate this form of vandalism with a magnanimity that the non-Anthropologist doesn't expect.  There are two reasons for this.

First, Swiss graffiti artists are still Swiss, after all.  Their work is invariably quite painterly and - in its own tidily rebellious way - respects a street decorum (note that signs and handbills go untouched in the above picture) that makes it easier for everyone to live with.

Second, and perhaps more important, graffiti is a very important social purge valve.  As pragmatic conservatives at heart, the Swiss realize that, when their youth need to rebel, spraypainting is infinitely better than the alternatives.

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