Word Up, Part 1.

Cunt. It’s sprayed in round childish letters about 4 feet in height on the wall in Wellwood Street, just off Sandy Row. The black paint has been applied with some skill: the lines are consistently of the same thickness, and there are no breaks or runs, which suggests that the can was held in a steady hand that moved fluently and rapidly without hesitation. Despite this, the script is not cursive; the four letters stand individually. The final ‘t’ is straight, the artist choosing not to use a curved upstroke to finish off the stem; it also overlaps the preceding letter slightly. These two elements are out of keeping with the rest of the work, suggesting that the final letter was executed more rapidly than the preceding ones, and that the artist abandoned the script and spacing in order to get the work finished more quickly. Given the nature of the work, and its location near a busy street it is probable that they were either disturbed in the act of creation and had to run, or that they anticipated being caught, and finished the job in haste.

Although the script is naive, it is not the work of a child: the fluidity of the writing and its position on the wall puts it physically and practicably out of the reach of small people. There are no joins or breaks to suggest the work was performed with the help of shoulders or a piggyback. This is the work of a reasonably tall and experienced person.

It’s been there for several years.

No attempt has been made to remove it. Further along the wall you can see where other spray-painted messages, maybe naming touts and housebreakers from Sandy Row, have been removed. Even during Belfast City Council’s war on the fly-posters, whose blocks and rows of A3 day-glo gig adverts were censored with black paint, the graffito endured.

But what is the message?

Was it aimed pejoratively at one of the office workers whose windows look out directly at the wall? If so, it was well placed. However, since it doesn’t name anyone the message could be easily overlooked by its intended recipient. It is, of course, possible that the relationship between the artist and the recipient was explicit enough for the message to be understood without the need for further elaboration. For example, a disgruntled worker who had been sacked the day before could have left it as a parting riposte to their manager, who would in all likelihood understand that they were the target.

Perhaps it was intended for all the workers in the office as a general, again pejorative, reference to all office workers in the building, left by someone with a hatred of the company, the job, or the socio-cultural milieu(x) within the building. If the last letter was somewhat rushed, this may mean that the statement is unfinished, and that a final ‘s’ was intended, but never written.

The most probable reason for the appearance of this word on a wall is that it was done by a person in their early teens, either for a bet, or just for the thrill of writing a ‘rude word.’ This would explain the childlike-quality of the hand and the mise en page. However, the expert use of the spray can suggests that this was not such a straightforward case. Let us imagine a scene where the artist (let’s assume he’s male and called Jonty) has had the can thrust into his hand and been urged to go and spray something offensive on the wall. If he does so, he will gain respect from his peers. He has probably taken Buckfast tonic wine, super-strength cider, or sniffed from the glue bag. As Jonty approaches the wall a surge of adrenaline rushes through him, negating the effect of the alcohol or glue, and replacing it with a frisson he has never known before. As a result, he does not feel comfortable or relaxed, and his hand is shaking. He is inexperienced in the art of spraying paint on walls. As his hand wavers, he hesitates; blue flashing lights reflect off the shop windows on Great Victoria Street and he finishes up quickly. The letters are ill-formed, inconsistent in width and height. There are joins, and the paint blotches and runs in rivulets where he has paused, uncertain of his work. In short, it is amateurish. While we cannot rule out  factors such as luck and innate natural talent, this does not seem to be the work of a first-timer, even if on the surface of it this is the most logical theory.

So far, all the possible motivations for the graffito have been negative, which is of course in keeping with the word’s negative associations in modern society.

But what if we choose to read this graffito in a positive way? What if it is not intended to be abusive or offensive, but is instead a Sheela-na-gig for our times, an encouragement to reflect upon the gateway to life, the place from which all humanity comes? Perhaps it is no less than an attempt to reclaim the word itself from the abusive and offensive usage it commonly has today. Painted as it is, without other contextual information, it invites us to meditate and interpret, to consider the word in different ways, to inscribe our own meaning. I prefer this reading; maybe the City Council agrees.

Wellwood St

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