Methods: Graffiti

Any exploration of a methodology of graffiti recording must start with an attempt to define exactly what graffiti is. Such a definition cannot be definitive or cover all projects that use graffiti as a central sources as ‘graffiti’ can change depending on the forms being recorded and why they are being studied. In the context of Kilmainham Gaol, where the interest of graffiti is focused on the final period of its functional use, the graffiti can be extremely partial and even significantly altered due to deliberate covering by whitewash, attempts to deface, decay and post-closure interactions (be they by human, animal or nature). Whilst the graffiti is of interest in keeping with wider concerns in historical archaeology with the everyday experiences of place it is most important in revealing something of the people who created it and in particular how they were interacting and experiencing the place they create it. In a carceral environment graffiti has a heightened importance. It is clear from the early records of Kilmainham that graffiti was being created and those who did so were punished for marking the walls as they were perceived as defacing public property. However, as the criminal prison closed in 1910 and the building was used alternatively to barrack British soldiers and house political prisoners graffiti became much more acceptable and utilized by both sets of inhabitants. From this period the crumbling walls were covered in large, elaborate and even decorative examples as well as smaller, more discrete interactions.

Cell 6, Top Floor, West Wing Kilmainham Gaol

Located in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Top Floor.

Graffiti can include any deliberate interactions made by human hand on the walls to include text, pictures, patterns created by pencil, pen, paint and even glue over whitewash or various depths of engraving that continue to peer through whitewash or are placed through the last layer. Graffiti was defined as any material traces meaningfully constituted in creating, reflecting and negotiating significant relationships between people and place at a specific time. However, even evidence of birds perching and animal prints scouring around walls when the prison was abandoned were partially recorded during the fieldwork. As this study was not just about recording graffiti but understanding how it related to time and place it was decided that even animal interactions had a small, if important, role to play to indicate the physical impacts on the prison as an abandoned place.

Located in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Middle Floor.

Located in a cell on Corridor 1 of the Middle Floor.

Alongside post-closure graffiti from 1924 to the early 1960s they reveal that Kilmainham Gaol did not sit as an empty shell but continued to be interacted with, be used and be meaningful despite no organized attempt to articulate the site as a public place of memory until the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society started to restore the prison in the early 1960s.

Recent graffiti 'I hate people who write on walls' located on Corridor 2 of the Bottom Floor.

Recent graffiti ‘I hate people who write on walls’ located on Corridor 2 of the Bottom Floor.

Archaeological studies of graffiti have a lineage that can be traced back to the early years of archaeological studies as a discipline, particularly its attempts to record and understand different forms of rock art around the world. From the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux, with its paintings estimated to be c17000 years old, the need for protection and restoration has always been an issue when graffiti has been considered something worthy of study (a value judgement that has affected Kilmainham throughout its many years). However, archaeologists have increasingly turned their attention to more recent manifestations of graffiti including small-scale projects that have resulted in journal papers such as David Robinson and H Orengo’s study of contemporary graffiti in a Barcelona street off Las Ramblas called St Rock Street  and Jeff Oliver and Tim Neal’s edited volume on recent historical and contemporary graffiti in varying contexts, from trees in Nevada to the streets of Bristol. A partial graffiti study of the prison was undertaken by Niamh O’Sullivan, who worked at the site, over a number of years that resulted in a book (2009), which revealed some examples that remained on the walls. This publication was hugely interesting in revealing the number of graffiti forms but also in providing a point of references for assessing deterioration of some of the graffiti forms.

In the Irish context recording of graffiti can borrow from well-established mural studies, particularly employed in exploring and understanding manifestations of identity, protest and articulating community opinion in the Northern Irish Troubles and peace process (a particularly archaeology methodology is evident in Neil Jarman’s work). What archaeologists bring to these studies is to explore graffiti in a wider context – not just as text but as situated materializations of individual and group intentions to record their presence in a particular time and place. They allow recognition that graffiti can take varying forms with multiple intentions that are interacting with place and pre-existing graffiti in their vicinity. Archaeologists bring their abilities to explore graffiti on multiple levels – as situated artefacts, integral parts of buildings and set within a wider landscape setting – to add many degrees of nuance in exploring this materialized writing.

Recording Graffiti

Plan of Middle Floor West Wing Kilmainham Gaol

Plan of Middle Floor West Wing Kilmainham Gaol

Recording of graffiti in this project was systematic, covering the three floors (‘Top’, ‘Middle’ and ‘Bottom’), corridors (‘Co1’, ‘Co2’ and ‘Co3’), stairwells and basements. The Middle and Bottom Floor have the same plan of three corridors as show above with the Top Floor following the same plan for Corridor 1 and a long Corridor 2 (with no Corridor 3).

Recording starting from the first cell on the top floor and concluding in the basement. Within each space the walls were recorded starting Wall 1 (W1) being the wall located to the left of the wall with the door (this became W4 when recording in a cell) moving left to right across each wall moving from W1 through to W4. The walls were recorded from the ground to a height of c.2metres and all examples of graffiti that were known or suspecting of being over 50 years old were recorded with some later additions taken as representative examples. Graffiti was located through naked eye and artificial light sources that enable both engraved and inscribed types of graffiti to be located and recorded. Once located the graffiti was photographically recorded individually and contextually, so that important examples are recorded alone but if interacting with other pieces of graffiti they are set within a wider setting. They were given a unique reference number and represented on a grid to plot spatial relationships within individual cells and connective corridors. Potential graffiti ‘signatures’ were identified through recording consistencies of form and style – this included pictorial and textual examples. Factual and interpretation information was transcribed and embedded within the image as well as uploaded to the database. More information on the recording process can be found here. The examples of graffiti recorded during the project varied greatly in their size, scale, degree of skill and extent of survival. Indeed, some of the ‘graffiti’ photographed may not have been made intentionally, it is often difficult to estimate the age of some examples and others only hint at their previous forms as examples include small segments of text peeping through holes in the whitewash. In total over 6000 examples were photographed over the course of six months fieldwork.


McCormick, J & N Jarman. 2005. Death of A Mural. Journal of Material Culture Studies. 10: 49-71.

Oliver, J. & T. Neal. 2010. Wild Signs: Graffiti in Archaeology and History. Oxford: BARS International Series 2074.

O’Sullivan, N. 2009. Written in Stone: the Graffiti in Kilmainham Jail. Dublin: Liberties Press.

Robinson, D.W. & H.A. Orengo. 2008. Contemporary Engagements Within Corridors of the Past. Temporal Elasticity, Graffiti and the Materiality of St Rock Street, Barcelona. Journal of Material Culture Studies. 13: 3, 267-286.




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