Sidewalk Philosophers: Global Graffiti and its Manifold Messages



“When people today talk about graffiti it is most frequently
thought of with some negative connotation.
Some consider it to be synonymous with vandalism or even property destruction.

But for all intents and purposes graffiti has existed since prehistoric times
and has also given us great insight into more recent cultures and
civilizations as well.” –Museum of the;


Regardless, of which camp you fall into, there’s no denying that graffiti can be thought provoking, funny, and enlightening about opinions on issues of the day. In our travels, we’re always on the lookout for good graffiti. A few well-chosen words and a graphic, are a one-way conversation about the country’s current affairs.


This simplistic yet emphatic equation on a wall in Novi Sad, Serbia, succinctly juxtaposes the world of math with political commentary. And guess what –  there are two ways to read it. Is capitalism big shit as in important, or big shit as in … well big shit?

Savannah Graffiti

A sidewalk philosopher in Savannah, Georgia presented a clear choice on how to live one’s life. At first the message seems straightforward, then on closer inspection, a deliberate choice between black and white adds a depth of meaning. In graffiti, clever and simple always works best.

Greek Finance Minister

We spent a month in Athens, which was then, and remains today, in the midst of a long-term economic crisis, that’s forcing very difficult and unpopular decisions on the country and its people. This caricature of the Greek Minister of Finance was part of a large, multi-panel mural. The technique is deliberately rudimentary, and it speaks volumes about the government’s handling of affairs.

Athens Wall

This mural of President Obama, former French President Sarkozy, and Chancellor of Germany Merkel was painted in an alley in the Exarcheia neighborhood of Athens. This area is a known hotbed and haven for the anarchists who are blamed for initiating the violent and destructive riots that have rocked Athens in the past. In addition to other world leaders, it’s interesting to note that Chancellor Merkel is sporting a Hitleresque mustache.

Nicosia Graffiti

As we discussed in our post from Cyprus, Nicosia is a divided capital. There’s a buffer zone on the border between Greek and Turkish Cyprus, and the Occupy Movement holds weekly protests to heighten awareness of negotiators that are taking far too long to reach an agreement.

Florence Graffiti

This strange “Erasmus” graffiti was part of a previous post from Florence. Since then, we’ve discovered that the Erasmus Program is a student exchange program sponsored by the European Union, and from the sign, an unpopular one at that.

Iceland graffiti

And finally, there’s just some fun. This colorful painting of a cheeky, 10-foot giraffe adorns a wall in Reykjavik, Iceland. The approach for dealing with graffiti in the Icelandic capital is different than many cities. Local government encourages artists to post public art and provides space for it, such as long expanses of plain, ugly walls. From what we saw, this produces more art and less vandalism: win-win all the way.

And if you’re wondering about the origin of the wacky quote, you’ve got filmmaker John Carpenter to thank. In his 1988 cult classic They Live he penned the words that grace the side of a building in downtown Reykjavik – of all places! Check out the film clip and the explanation. The full quote is:

“I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass … and I’m all out of bubblegum!”

For us, we’ve come here to chew bubblegum and finish this post … and we’re all out of bubblegum!

Happy Trails,
James & Terri


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

24 thoughts

    1. Yvonne, I think that everyone, me included, universally agrees that taggers are vandals who should be prosecuted. There are many places in Europe where it’s totally out of control, and it’s depressing to see. ~James

  1. Lots of fun if you happen to live in a community that isn’t affected by graffiti, so you can just enjoy it as local colour. I had graffiti scrawled all over the entrance to my apartment building this week and I didn’t spend any time taking photos of it.

    1. Fair enough Alastair, and I’d feel the same way if it were my property. I think that, whether its street art or graffiti, your freedom of speech ends where my property rights begin, and if permission isn’t given by the property owner, then it’s illegal. Unfortunately, this is an age-old problem which isn’t going away. Apparently, graffiti was a big problem during Roman times, but I’m sure that the government didn’t worry about civil rights when they dealt with taggers. ~James

  2. I think there is a huge difference between street art and graffiti. Your post shows examples of street art. When I think of graffiti, I think of vandals spray painting their names or tags on highway underpasses or marking their “turf”.

    1. Laura, as I said to Yvonne: I think that everyone, me included, universally agrees that taggers are vandals who should be prosecuted, unless of course they have the property owner’s permission. My idea for this post was just to point out how graffiti is used as a form of protest, and in some cases, political commentary. And as I said in the post, graffiti always provides a glimpse into the local political scene. ~James

    1. Well said Peggy. There are a number of cities in Europe where taggers seem to be out of control. I appreciate the difficulties that government officials have trying to rein them in, but it must be an uphill battle. In the meantime, it’s depressing to see. ~James

    1. Susan, as you know, every country has different issues and priorities. And frequently, peoples’ opinions show up on walls. It all started as cave paintings in places like Lascaux and continues today. ~James

  3. I feel the same way about street art as I do about tattoos. While I can appreciate the beauty in the art, they don’t necessary enhance the surface on which they are on. When we went to Greece, I was stunned at the amount of graffiti. Beautiful ancient buildings covered in graffiti. My preference would have been to see them as they are were meant to be.

    1. Lynn, as I said, we spent a month in Athens, and like you, were amazed at the amount of graffiti on buildings. That was a few years ago, and admittedly, Greece was at the rock bottom in its crisis, but still, the graffiti was really depressing. I’d like to say that it goes back to being the birthplace of democracy and dissent, but truly, I think it was pretty much hooligans (they would call themselves disaffected youth). Hopefully, some of it has been cleaned up by now. ~James

  4. Always fascinating to find graffiti around the world. I appreciate the research into the deeper meaning of these images. Dave and I were wondering the other day if there is a freight train car in Canada that does not have some graffiti on it. Mobile art galleries zipping across the country.

    1. We don’t see much of this in our part of the world Sue, but it’s certainly more prevalent on the east coast of the US, and WAY more prevalent in Europe. I’m convinced that European train yards must be buzzing with taggers every night and it must be hard to breathe with all the spray paint fumes in the air (maybe that’s what the taggers are hoping for). ~James

  5. Nice collection! Some of the best graffiti I’ve seen was in Argentina and Chile, where it was legal. Apparently it started in Buenos Aires as a way to cheer people up during one of the economic crises.

    1. Kathy, I’ve heard of the street art in S America, and seen a couple of posts by other folks, and it looks fabulous. Years or decades from now, who’s to know what the famous artistic medium will be, but it could just be walls. ~James

    1. Thanks for the links Fi. This is an outstanding collection of street art, and what better purpose could there be than brightening up earthquake damage. I saw a bit of excellent art when I was in Wellington. There was a wonderfully painted building just across the street from our hotel near Cuba Street. I had lots of time to study the art, because I spent two straight weeks in that room recovering from dengue fever. The colorful scene always helped my mood. ~James

      1. What I meant to mention (which would have been more relevant to your article) was the graffiti in Christchurch when I first moved here. Not so much now, mainly because the tagged buildings are now gone. But I definitely got a good sense of the level of dissatisfaction amongst the people with the council & government over their handling of the post earthquake city. It never entered my head to photograph them but there was a very angry message just a few doors down from where I used to live.

  6. I love good graffiti. So far Bristol has been the most interesting place I’ve found it on my travels. This is probably thanks to Banksy but his was not at all the best.

    1. Marie, it’s interesting that some of the best graffiti and street art shows up in what I would consider unlikely places. Bristol and Plovdiv, Bulgaria are two examples. I’ve read that Banksy is supposedly English, but is he from Bristol? And if not, why would it be a center for the graffiti culture? Of course, I think that this community prides itself on secrecy and anonymity, so it’s hard to know. ~James

      1. Banksy is from Bristol. A work colleague actually met him but was sworn to secrecy. All he would say was he wasn’t what you’d expect. Perhaps he wears a suit?

  7. I love your article and I appreciate street art. I have often thought cities should have a “graffiti district” for open use. Knoxville, TN, USA has an alley where street art is allowed or encouraged. One or two of the buildings prohibit painting but they seem to be respected. The ally is between Market Square and Gay Street.

    1. Thanks for the comment Dan and Lisa and for dropping by the blog. We too are fans of street art (as opposed to tagging), and I didn’t know that about Knoxville. We go through there from time to time and we’ll have to check out the graffiti alley. BTW, I don’t know if you saw it, but some of the best street art we’ve seen was in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Check it out, and let me know how you like it.

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