Roger Perry’s ‘The Writing on the Wall’

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‘The graffiti that Perry highlights are a generation away from the three-dimensional, self-referential designs that we have now become accustomed to: instead, they are urgent messages from another, hidden world, designed to be read and forcibly understood by a general public that would have preferred to walk on by.’ – Jon Savage

The Horse Hospital are hosting an exhibition of Roger Perry’s seminal photograph series ‘The Writing on the Wall’ on 70s graffiti in London in celebration of the 40th anniversary and republication of the 1976 book. More than 120 of the original framed prints are on display alongside ephemera including letters, press cuttings and cameras that document a profound aspect of London’s street, political and youth cultures.

Roger Perry (who died in 1991) photographed the political and poetical verbal graffiti of the decaying and pre gentrified London of the mid 70s. His stark black and white photographs feature messages from the radical (‘the tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction’) to the witty (‘cats like plain crisps’), almost always on a wall – at eye level so one cannot ignore- and occasionally featuring a lone passerby, or a dog.

This isn’t the graffiti that we, for the most part, consume, abhor or adore today; there are no territorial tags, no artist commissions, nothing like the sort that features on the ‘guerilla’ gallery of Curtain road for a Shoreditch street art tour. There’s no stylistic purpose in the work that Perry photographs, slogans such as ‘strike a body blow to capitalism’ and ‘I FOUGHT THE LAW’ are scrawled in the anger and resentment of the moment, decoration and exaggeration cast aside in its obvious frivolity. The written word speaks for itself entirely on permanent protest placards parading London’s streets.

The London that plays stage to this political poetry is the dilapidated London between slum clearance and new build – a decaying backdrop on the cusp of gentrification and Thatcher, home to a disenfranchised and disillusioned post war generation. The majority of the work was photographed around a pre-gentrified Notting Hill, far from the location that we currently know it as; Pearce Marchbank, the designer of the original 1976 book, said of Notting Hill today,  ‘it’s shops that sell scented candles’ and ‘David Cameron’. The publication of photographs featuring statements such as ‘prunes prunes eat your prunes’ and ‘eat the rich’ once painted on Cameron’s walls are perhaps a quiet revolution for our political turmoil today.

As expected, the poets behind these profound statements remain largely anonymous, the words themselves an unknown declaration of personal or mass opinion. However, there are some exceptions: Madness’ founding saxophonist Lee Thompson’s teenage tag ‘Kix’ features on an abandoned car and there’s the words of polemical poet and playwright Heathcote Williams and those of the situationist group the King Mob, who had punk aficionados Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid as their associates. On the advent of punk, there’s a slogan scrawled in a squat by the 101ers, the Clash’s Joe Strummer’s original band: ‘bureaucracy is an old invention of the stars of rock’n’roll’. Like punk itself, politics, poetics and anarchy with a purpose collide.

One work in particular is quietly profound in its words and its placement; a tirade (produced by Perry in film like stills) of ‘same thing day after day- tube- work- dinner- work- tube- armchair- T.V- sleep- tube- work- how much more can you take? One in go mad. One in five cracks up’ bannered between Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park, shouting out the banality of modern life in a place where the slaves to it would be accosted every day. Another is shorter but no less stronger, ‘RANT REVOLT’.

‘Words do not mean anything today’ is framed in one instant, a voice stating voices unheard. Words feature, and words only. In the way that contemporary culture can disseminate a frustration and ideal universally through social media, the jaunty scrawled slogans featured in ‘Writing on the Wall’ act as a status of our past opinions and culture as a whole. However, their existence feels more physically manifested than a tweet, less ephemeral. But in a world where the internet acts largely as the streets where we parade our selves and our culture, maybe Twitter’s ‘what’s happening’ and Facebook’s ‘what’s on your mind’ prompts us to lay bare our true dissatisfaction or wit, quite literally, on our walls.

Tonight at the Horse Hospital there will be a free screening of some rare and fascinating footage of situationist and graffiti film at their ‘Writing on the Wall’ film night. More information and booking can be found here. 

The Writing on the Wall is on at the Horse Hospital, London until the 1st August
More information can be found here. 

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