The “I was here” impulse can be intense when you travel. Sometimes memories, photos or a journal entry aren’t enough. That was apparently so last week for a 17-year-old Canadian, who etched his name onto a pillar at 1,200-year-old Toshodaiji Kondo temple complex in Nara, Japan. The temple is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The teen was questioned and is now with his parents.

Weeks earlier, a British tourist had a similar urge. He used a key to carve his name and that of his girlfriend – “Ivan + Hayley 23” – into a wall in Rome. The wall just happened to be attached to the Colosseum. An onlooker filmed the incident and posted it on social media. That enabled Italian police to track down Ivan, a fitness teacher in Bristol, England.

Now, Ivan is under investigation for damaging a cultural heritage site. The possible penalty? A fine of up to 15,000 Euros (that’s almost $22,000 Canadian), and 2-5 years in jail. Hoping to avoid that, Ivan has now apologized to the mayor of Rome, and in his defence said he was unaware of the age of Colosseum. Ivan, that would be 80 AD.

Fittingly, it was the Italians who long ago came up with the name for what happened: graffiti, meaning “a scratch or a scribble”. The term derives from the Greek graphein: “to write”. A bunch of common words come from that root, like graphic, autograph, paragraph, biography, geography, bibliography, calligraphy, choreography, photograph, telegraph, etc.

In modern times, we consider graffiti to be vandalism, i.e. writing or drawing on a public surface without permission. In the ancient world, graffiti was widespread and acceptable, used to share poetry, prose, love notes, insults, records of transactions, and commentary (political and commercial). It was the original social media.

There was graffiti on boulders in ancient Syria. On the walls of ancient Roman and Greek cities. And on Egyptian temples (written in ancient Greek).

A team of researchers from Simon Fraser University in B.C. are currently discovering more about ancient graffiti by producing a 3D recording of the Temple of Isis in Philae, Egypt. Nick Hedley, a geography professor and co-investigator of the project, said “The iconic architecture of ancient Egypt was built by those in positions of power and wealth, but the graffiti records the voices and activities of everybody else. The building acts like a giant notepad for generations of people.”

In Pompei, archaeologist have found more than 11,000 samples of graffiti, preserved by volcanic ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Topics ranged from the birth of piglets to customer feedback, like one piece of graffiti on the wall of a tavern that complained the proprietor sold water to guests instead of wine.

A restoration of the Colosseum 10 years ago revealed layers of graffiti. There were names from the 19th and 20th centuries, mixed with a crown suspected to be doodled by a fan of the gladiators, mixed with phallic symbols (experts say it signified good luck), mixed with the Latin word vind (referring to victory or revenge – think vindicate).

No excuses for Ivan. Keep your autograph away from historic sites. But when it comes to learning what was on the minds of ancient societies, the writing was on the wall.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

July 12, 2023

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