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No rock art here!

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Humans have been expressing themselves on stone for over 30,000 years [1], but while Palaeolithic rock art is held in awe, and 'historic' graffiti subjected to extensive academic study [2], contemporary 'writing on walls' is of more ambiguous cultural status. Despite the high prices reached by a handful of cross-over 'star' urban artists like Banksy [3] the niche in which graffiti art is accommodated in the UK is a narrow one, as ably demonstrated by the following turf war over territorial claim to the expansive jagged grey rock faces of a former North Wales slate quarry.

In October 2012 a passage in a short on-line profile of Jack Murray, "one of the key figures in the UK graffiti scene over the last decade," was spotted by members of the rock climbing community. The profile, featured in a street art culture blog site Better Never Than Late [4], lauded Murray's reputation for "consistently pushing his distinct style of work both on and off the streets into innovative new spaces" and reported his recent trip to the former Dinorwig slate quarry at Llanberis thus:

"Day 1. I went on a trip with a couple of other chaps to Snowdonia in North Wales to seek out an abandoned, mountain slate quarry, that was closed over 50 years ago. We found it, and it was definitely worth the 6 hour drive. A vast network of old tunnels, metal structures, workers huts, gravel pits and waterfalls looping through the side of a mountain is the best way to describe it. I brought some paint with me and dropped a little something at the highest point we got to. In the future I want to go back and paint site specific, 20ft plus, murals on some of the rock faces in the old quarry pits. Some people will cry and say I've spoiled the place and others will say it's amazing but that's just life."

The climbers [5] took exception to Murray's declared plan and, via Internet climbing forums quickly rallied opposition [6]. The discussion threads make for fascinating reading. Initial reaction exhibited an outright rejection of graffiti as art, underscored by indignation and a certain anti-metropolitan air. This was even most pronounced on the Mines Exploration forum [7], to which the flaming spread. Initial anger driven response conjured an image (or threat) of inverting Murray's plan, of taking climbing apparatus and/or shards of slate to London and inflicting this alien material upon his own urban home-scape and its art. But progressively other more sober voices emerged, in part fearing that this indignation might provoke an all out war with the street art tribe, and partly in fear of the reputational damage that the climbing community might attract by such a stance.

From this development, a polite entreaty to Murray was formulated, sent and an answer received which confirmed that Murray would not implement his plan, but not because he accepted the views put to him, for he regarded the climbers' representations as rather odd. To him the former quarry site was a derelict work site, an un- or underused decaying place which would benefit from the attention that placing some art on the rocks would bring.

Murray's attributed response [8] satisfied some, but appeared to spur further ire from others. One fault line was around the question of whether the laying down of some art upon this site would dishonour the thousands of slate miners who had worked here in the past. Murray felt not, rhetorically wondering why those workers would want their workplace to be preserved and memorialised as-is? Murray acknowledged the industrial history of the site, but situated it in a wide sweep of history – from ancient rock art through to contemplation of how the art of his peers might be perceived by future generations. The climber-commentators however, tended to focus upon the more recent industrial history of the site, and to see this place as a monument to their labours, with a number of posters specifically referencing the importance of preserving the site for the memory of the 362 workers killed at the site during its working life (and of the 17,000 who had worked there at the heyday of the quarry in the 1890s).

Lurking under the surface of many of the climbers' posts seemed to be resentment that Murray regarded this place as undiscovered, as abandoned. It was clear that the climbers regard themselves as honorary custodians of his place, as having discovered it first and thereby having some use-claim over it. The irony of this position was not lost on many of the climbers though – for they readily admitted that this territorialism was contradictory as the climbers do not actually own this place, and climbing there is officially prohibited (although given the site's size this prohibition is difficult to enforce).

The 'hawks' and the 'doves' were united however in anxiety that the attraction of graffiti artists and their associates to this place could upset the delicate balance between the discreet climbers and the anxious owners, First Hydro (the quarry-mountain has a hydroelectric power station within it).

Front gate of Dinorwig Slate Quarry. Photo by Luke Bennett.
Front gate of Dinorwig Slate Quarry. Photo by Luke Bennett.

There was also acknowledgement of the irony of entrenching around a 'conservationist' position – for the place itself (as quarry) was man-made and, more particularly, that climbing itself entails both artistic and physical manipulation of this 'found' environment. The pioneering of new routes can entail the clearance of loose rock, and the rise of 'sport' climbing (based around the use of fixed metal bolts permanently fixed into faces) entails further adjustment of the rock-scape. Such manipulations have been the stuff of fierce and factional debate amongst climbers in recent decades, expressed in sites having particular local 'ethics,' around what degree of manipulation is acceptable to the local user community.

There here was also wry acknowledgement that prospecting for and trialling of routes has an aesthetic dimension. The rock faces are read, first by eye, and then by hand and foot, and once proven by ascent these lines of climb are named by the first climber. Whilst – unlike graffiti – not visible to the passer by these surfaces are riddled with routes demarked and named in guidebooks and exchanged local networks. These routes have been symbolically staked and claimed.

And finally, there was acknowledgement that climbing at this location had in its own day, its own counter-cultural roots, something striking an unsettling parallel for some if the climber-commentators as they reflected on the tone, course and concerns emergent in the forum discussion threads. For it had been a group of young, hedonistic unemployed so-called 'slateheads' of the 1980s, who had adventurously pioneered many of the early climbing roots on these blank slate walls.

It was clear that the climbers regard themselves as honorary custodians of his place, as having discovered it first and thereby having some use-claim over it.

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Graffiti Art at Dinorwig Slate Quarry by Jack Murray <rappersdelight532@yahoo.co.uk> (Used with kind permission)
Graffiti Art at Dinorwig Slate Quarry by Jack Murray <rappersdelight532@yahoo.co.uk> (Used with kind permission)