Prague has an incredibly elusive spirit. Not only is it hard to understand for newcomers and foreigners, but I would dare say that even its citizens don’t fully understand its identity yet. For a nation that has suffered through, been divided by, and most importantly, survived countless historical traumas, I wouldn’t expect anything else.
The city’s spirit permeates everywhere, from the subway tunnels to the cobblestoned paths of Old Town. It is often misunderstood and criticized, especially by those who do not understand the context of the city’s culture. But nevertheless, it is acknowledged and seen by everyone and anyone who has stepped foot in Prague.
Some call it vandalism, others call it art. But in the end, graffiti, I believe, is a surprisingly fitting “genius loci”, or “spirit of place” for the city of Prague. Why? Because, in all its beauty, ugliness, freedom, or concealment, it somehow parallels what Prague is made up of.
So how exactly does graffiti, whether as an elaborate piece of art, or a name scrawled on a traffic post represent the spirit of Prague?
1. It is misunderstood. One of my first, and perhaps very false, impressions of Prague was that its citizens are incredibly cold, if not rude. Service in cafes and restaurants is blunt, with no frills. People don’t often smile when you meet them. People stare, especially if you’re not Caucasian. To some people, this comes off as rude, but after you spend time in the city, you come to realize that, the culture is just simply different. Prague is much more reserved and doesn’t care for unnecessary or extra flattery. But that doesn’t discount peoples’ kindness in the city. Observe a little further than the surface, and you’ll see incredible generosity and benevolence. People always give up their seat to the elderly, they help each other squeeze into the metro, and, if you’re lucky, they’ll even advise you on a better exchange rate in town when you’re standing at an exchange booth that will 100% rip you off. Similarly, graffiti can be misunderstood. Although it is a vandalism of public spaces, its purpose, in some cases, is misconstrued. Much of street art exists to convey to the public a certain message, one that either is one, cannot be conveyed personally through the individual; two, has greater power through physical existence rather than verbal words; or three, must stay anonymous. But many people don’t look further than the surface or even read the message.
2. It is constantly changing. From the Austro-Hungarian empire to Nazi Germany to the Soviet regime, Prague has been through incredible changes in people, culture, and law. Oppression and conformity have sculpted the nation into incredibly and radically different molds, leading much of the nation to question what exactly its identity is. In a way, graffiti is the same as well. It is constantly changing, from its original form to being covered up by restoration paint, or even with more graffiti, bigger, larger, bolder than what it had started as. What exactly it means can never be truly pinpointed, except by the creator. Perhaps it’s a cry for help, a radical message, or even simply a drunk night in the city. In the end, its identity is blurry, just like that of Prague.
3. It is freedom. Prague, after all its politically fueled oppression, is free. Citizens no longer need to fit into a predetermined image of perfection. They no longer need to live in fear. Instead, they can walk freely, speak freely, act freely. But at the same time, they don’t necessarily want to. People confide in those who they trust; speak in the spaces they are comfortable with. Thus, graffiti, again, is the same. In all its illegality, it is free. You can say whatever you want, write however you like, with the protection of anonymity. The world is your canvas. But by being a graffiti artist or creator, you are choosing to stay nameless, and like the people of Prague, stay behind an initial screen of protection.
Graffiti, like Prague, is an elaborate canvas of culture. And in that way, it is art. Whether appreciated or criticized, both live freely and most notably, have survived to this day.
About the featured image: I’m actually in Croatia right now for fall break, and don’t have a picture of me in Prague. So to contribute to the post, I’d like to frame my white outlines on my picture as “graffiti” of my own; an expression of myself through art, and supposed destruction of the original image.