There’s an old saying that goes “the handwriting is on the wall.” In terms of graffiti — a “street” art form that has been around for a very long time (at least as far back as Ancient Rome…) — this proverb is a literal truth. The writing is on the wall. And in the alley. And carved into stone.
In terms of a useful working definition, graffiti can refer to writing, scrawlings, carvings, or paintings left anywhere in what is commonly considered the public square or arena. In daily life today, graffiti might simply be considered a nuisance — a willful defacing of community property — but in some cases, it may also function as highly-individualistic artistic expression.
Recently, I’ve watched a number of cult TV programs and noted — to my surprise –that graffiti is frequently marshaled by storytellers to make their imaginative narratives about the future or other worlds seem even more exciting, terrifying or mysterious. Perhaps graffiti is so often depicted in genre television because of the informality I mentioned above; it often appears spontaneous or unplanned.
Additionally, graffiti functions as an (often ironic) addition to or overwriting of the “established culture.” Therefore, when graffiti appears in science-fiction and horror, it is often about disorder: about the expected order being subverted or otherwise overturned.
Given this recent epiphany, I thought today it might be illuminating to survey a few of the most memorable instances of graffiti appearances in cult-TV history.
One of the earliest examples comes from Star Trek (1966-1969), and an early first season entry entitled “The Naked Time.”
You might recall this story as the one in which the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is infected by a virus that mimics the effects of alcohol intoxication. Under the influence, Kirk admits his deep loneliness; Mr. Spock weeps; and Sulu practices his fencing…on unwitting crew members.
But late in the episode, a random, cackling crewman carrying a can of crimson red paint defaces the corridors and immaculate turbo-lift of this 23rd century Federation starship with graffiti that reads: “Sinner Repent.”
As an inebriated Kirk makes his way to the bridge during an orbital crisis, he spots this graffiti and grimaces…it’s a moment of tension and portentous doom as the clock ticks down to destruction.
Here, the impromptu scrawling clearly represents out-of-control human nature slathered across sterile, impersonal technology. Raw emotions have been freed by this strange disease, and the buttoned-down Starfleet crew lets loose, literally painting the starship red with such emotional, colorful outbursts. The entire crisis has occurred because — uninhibited — the crew of the Enterprise has failed to act responsibly. Kevin Riley has locked engineering and de-activated the engines. Sulu has left his post. Nurse Chapel can’t stop mooning over Mr. Spock. Duty has been replaced by self-indulgence.
It’s a splendid study in contrasts: high technology (or technology unchained, as Gene Roddenberry later termed it in the Next Gen) against uncontrolled, basic human passions and fears.
The words “sinner repent” in red suggest that man has somehow lost touch with who he really is by exploring the final frontier. This is a persistent subtext of the episode as well, involving Joe Tormolen, an infected crewman who also wonders what business Earthman has in the stars. We must learn to control ourselves, says “The Naked Time” or we have no business in space at all…we’ll kill our ourselves. As Spock might remind us at this juncture, we must learn to “govern our passions”. The graffiti in the turbo list seems to ask the audience: are we on an upward trajectory, or going straight down? Or we going to break out of this crazy orbit, or succumb to gravity?
Graffiti also serves other thematic purposes in cult television history. In some instances, it’s actually a blazing warning. (I suppose “Sinner Repent” is also a blazing warning, but not a very useful or practical one.)
In terms of serviceable warnings, both the Canadian-made The Starlost (1973) and the Krofft Saturday morning series Land of the Lost (1974) provide mysterious markers in dangerous, frontier zones…written in graffiti. These mysterious warnings standing “the forward edge” of knowledge are like the equivalent of that famous warning to ship navigators painted on old-fashioned maps: Here Be Dragons.
Enter (or leave…) at your own risk.
In The Starlost, a young man named Devon (Keir Dullea) dwells in the small, self-contained world of Cypress Corners, a kind of agrarian, Quaker community. In truth, the farmers and citizens of this community are living inside a huge dome…aboard a vast spaceship, the Ark. Their entire existence is a lie.
Except for a few men in power, most of the people have long ago forgotten this critical information. But at the door to the corridor connecting one dome to another — at the juncture of the outside world and new knowledge— stands a fearsome graffiti warning (again colored in red paint; and in this case, garish red lighting). “Beyond is Death!”
In this case, we are left to consider the notion that the repressive, religious regime in charge of Cypress Corners painted the warning itself (and made it appear so dire…) in order to hold back the citizenry from learning the truth about their origins. Here, the warning in graffiti is not actually about what lies beyond; it is about controlling the people from seeking new knowledge. In other words, this informal art is not so informal, and it is not anti-establishment as it appears. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
In Land of the Lost’s “The Sleestak God,” a Revolutionary War private named Peter Koenig carves the warning “Beware of Sleestak” into a rock monolith near the Lost City of Altrusia. This warning is pretty darn unambiguous, and serves no secret agenda whatsoever. It is meant to be helpful to explorer, and it is indeed helpful to the Marshalls when they arrive in the pocket universe. Will, Holly and Rick don’t know what Sleestaks are, but they are essentially put on alert by the warning. Another identical message is seen inside the Lost City in the episode “Follow that Dinosaur,” and the cue to the audience is simple: forge ahead lightly.Wonders and terrors ahead.
One of cult-TV’s most interesting and unconventional uses of graffiti arises in the 1974 horror venture Kolchak: The Night Stalker, starring Darren McGavin.
In the classic episode, “Horror in the Heights,” the fearsome swastika is painted all over the exterior walls and alleys of a Jewish community in Chicago. Naturally, the investigative reporter Kolchak and the residents fear an old anti-Semitic evil, and associate the swastikas with Nazis, or in America, the rise of neo-Nazis. This graffiti seems entirely hate-based, in other words.
The truth turns out to be something far different. The swastika is actually a Hindu symbol meant to ward off a shape-shifting illusionist, a flesh-eating monster called a Rakshasa. A local Indian man has actually painted these swastikas to protect the elderly Jewish residents in the area, whom the Rakshasa is preying upon.
Here, one can detect graffiti as an expression of good; of protection, but misunderstood as the workings of a “bad” or “villainous” agent. This may be simply because the graffiti arises from a culture/belief system outside the American mainstream. Thus the American mainstream misperceives its nature and purpose.
In the 1980s updating of Sinclair Lewis’s, It Can’t Happen Here (1935) — Kenneth Johnson’s original V (1984-1986) — spray-painted graffiti (again colored in shades of scarlet red…) serves another purpose all together.
In this story, graffiti serves ably as a symbol of resistance against oppressive authority (rather than, perhaps, the tool of a secretive authority, as in the case of Starlost’s “Voyage of Discovery”).
Here, human citizens living under the thumb of the fascist, technologically-superior Visitors take every opportunity possible to deface Visitor propaganda; particularly posters which speak falsely of “universal friendship.”
The truth is far darker, of course, and the spray-painted graffiti reading “V” is a symbol of resistance, and a promise (or hope) of “V for Victory.” The spray-painted graffiti — the ubiquitous “V” — is so important to this franchise that it is even featured as the title image of the original program (and is also seen frequently in art for the remake as well.)
Interestingly, the 2009-2010 remake comes at the same material not from the leftist stance of the original, but from a right-wing mode instead. The remake re-purposes the “V” symbol as something other than resistance. Here, the “V” graffiti is a symbol of a dangerous cult, of those who support and believe in the enigmatic, but mysterious alien visitors. In not too subtle terms, the “V” here is a metaphor for the ubiquitous “O” (for Obama) that we saw in the 2008 election. Remember, both the Visitors and Obama promised hope, change and better health care for all…
I’ve written thus far about graffiti rendered in paint. But there is another “red” medium that is also utilized to hastily adorn crime-scenes and other locales in programs such as The X-Files, Millennium and American Gothic (“Someone’s at the Door.“)
As you can perhaps guess…I’m writing here about blood…and usually human blood.
In The X-Files seventh season episode, “Theef,” for instance, the graffiti — so fearsomely rendered on the wall of a modern mcmansion — becomes a critical clue in the solving of a weird mystery.
Scully and Mulder wonder, at first, about the message penned in human blood. Is it a misspelling of the word “thief” (the specter of Dan Quayle and potato is raised by Mulder…)? Or is it some kind of meaningful, secret anagram?
The answer is neither: the word is being used ritualistically, by a witch…by someone imposing a curse or hex. In this case, the task at hand is to understand the purpose and meaning of the bloody graffiti, and hopefully come to some kind of answer. Here, the story is the opposite of what we saw in “Horror in the Heights.” The graffiti is the expression of an evil power; not a form of protection.
Although not so pleasant in day-to-day life, graffiti always looks terrific in future-based series, like Star Trek and the Starlost because it stands in such stark contrast to the crisp, cool, technological lines of those series settings (technologically-advanced spaceships primarily). The art-form also works well in horror, as in the case of The X-Files or Kolchak, leading us down a rabbit hole of mysterious twists and turns in the search for meaning, and in some cases…for the artist himself (or herself).
In Land of the Lost, the graffiti is a challenge to explore uncharted territory (but safely), and the graffiti of V undeniably makes a political statement (left and right, depending on incarnation). It’s either: resist or perish; V for Victory, or watch out for false gods making big promises.
In all cases, however, the graffiti of cult TV is particularly memorable (and these are just a few of the most notable examples). On a very basic level, these TV scrawlings reflect human nature; our need to put an individual stamp, and imprint, on our surroundings.
I was here. I exist. And I have something to say, something to tell history.