Vandalistic behaviour is a feature of malfunctioning, inegalitarian communication channels. It constitutes the speech of the dumb, the powerless and of minorities. There can be no doubt that it is a striking form of interrogation — and that it calls for an appropriate response.
- J. Sélosse, Vandalism: Speech Acts
An egregious act of vandalism was recently committed against one of Bucharest’s most recognisable monuments. Not by a disgruntled teenager, a political protestor, or a subversive artist; but by the State. Locals now pass through Piața Revoluției aghast, disbelieving their eyes as they come across a scene forever changed. Yes, they are shocked to find that City Hall has cleaned and refurbished Memorialul Renaşterii; removing all the graffiti and making it look as good as new.
But wait… how could that be vandalism?
With monuments around the world being criticised, clobbered, coloured and culled for their heritage, questions of “vandalism” are especially pertinent. It is important to understand what we should prize and what should meet its demise. Is vandalism ever legitimate as art or protest? Is it possible for the State to act as vandals? And can vandalism, itself, be vandalised?
The story of Bucharest’s Memorialul Renaşterii (The Memorial of Rebirth) provides a vivid example of just how multi-faceted these questions can become.
Unveiled in 2005, Memorialul Renaşterii commemorates those who died during the 1989 overthrow of Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. Standing 25 metres tall on Piața Revoluției (Revolution Square), its main feature is a narrow, white, marble “Pyramid of Success” (Piramida Izbânzii); piercing through a large, embellished, bronze ellipsoid. At its base, a group of abstract figures face Zidul Amintirii (The Wall of Remembrance), which memorialises 1,058 names in brass. The wall is split into two parts by Calea Biruinței (The Road to Victory) — a path of oak logs leading towards the monument. Notably, the entire piece is positioned directly in front of the imposing former headquarters of the Romanian Communist Party.
Monuments of this sort have a controversial predisposition — cost, design, placement, politics and corruption are all potential pitfalls. Memorialul Renaşterii was no different, tripping into all of them.
The public cost of 56 billion old lei (equivalent to around €2.1 million today) was considered expensive, particularly while Romania was facing economic upheaval (in 2005, Romania’s currency underwent a massive revaluation exercise, with 10,000 lei becoming 1 leu). The design was widely derided: too abstract; overly complicated; out of place; failing to do justice to those it was supposed to represent; or simply, ugly. Placed alongside numerous existing statues of various styles, it added to a space already overpopulated with incongruous structures, opening another area of grievance.
Furthermore, Romanians were instinctively concerned about the likelihood for pernicious politicisation of the monument, particularly given their tumultuous history, with 11 heads of government over the previous 16, post-Communist years. As for corruption, Romanian politics have been rife with it, so it is unsurprising that many sceptical eyebrows were raised when Alexandru Ghilduş, a man known primarily for product design, was selected to lead the lucrative project. How else could an applied artist — known primarily for designing optical equipment — get the job ahead of 14 other artists, sculptors and architects…? In spite of the apparently open competition for the project, speculation subsists that the selection committee was overruled, with Ghilduş unilaterally chosen by the outgoing, third-term president, Ion Iliescu, who allegedly determined: “This monument is mine and I am the one who chooses it!”
Iliescu himself is the complex, cumbersome hinge of this creaky tale — hero or villain, depending on your preferred version of history. Either way, it is undoubtedly his monument. A former member of the Communist regime who became Romania’s first democratically elected head of state, he was the political face of the ’89 Revolution. Now aged 90, he is currently facing a drawn-out, Covid-delayed trial for crimes against humanity allegedly committed during his initial rise to power. Rather than leading a popular revolt, he stands accused of instigating a conspiratorial coup d’etat through a disruptive campaign of disinformation and media manipulation. His actions are said to have spread confusion and fear between the police, military, and general population in the days after Ceaușescu’s removal, with over 800 people killed amidst the chaos.
Their names now adorn Memorialul Renaşterii.
Regardless of whether objections to the monument were untrue, subjective, unjustified, or purely speculative, the public mood around the project was troubled from the outset. It immediately gained notoriety through an extensive list of inventively derogatory nicknames, many of which are still used to this day. Among them: The Speared Potato, The Failed Circumcision, The Penetration Monument, Brain on a Stick, Olive on a Toothpick, Walnut on a Spike, Skewered Meatloaf, Potato of the Revolution, The Tube and the Testicle, Shit on a Stick, The 56 billion Thorn, and Kitsch with a Diploma.
Naturally, by 2006 it the monument had its first taste of vandalism, embellished with the stencilled face of anarchist character “V” from V for Vendetta. However, after being swiftly cleaned, it enjoyed a period of untouched tranquillity, left alone to prod aimlessly at the sky…
Blood from a Stone
…Until March 2012, when an anonymous act of adventurous vandalism emphatically changed its appearance for the best part of a decade. Under cover of darkness, a modest amount of red paint somehow found its way onto the underside of the bronze globule, causing the monument to “bleed”. Positioned with remarkable accuracy around 20 metres high, how it got there is anyone’s guess, but that it remained there for over 8 years raises just as many questions.
In surviving until this year’s refurbishment, the bloody injury to the marble spire became an essential part of the monument, imbuing it with profundity and animation that was previously lacking. More than a superficial protest against the monument itself, it revealed the invisible subtexts of Romanian society: state inaction at rectifying ills; decades of oppression before democracy; and the tragic violence and corruption after it was obtained. Of course, vigilante remodelling of state monuments isn’t new — in Bulgaria, the short-lived transformation of a Soviet war memorial into a American pastiche provides an amusing illustration. But the simplicity, specificity, solemnity and longevity of that dash of red paint made Bucharest’s effort exceptional.
On my first visit to Bucharest in 2017, I was stunned by the monument, purely because of the fascinating red accent dripping from its side. It never crossed my mind that it was anything but part of the design — an extremely bold, powerful symbol of lives lost to violence. Upon later discovering it was an act of vandalism, I was even more taken by it — a subtle but meaningful act of illicit interaction with a public artwork, elevating the original piece. Despite not knowing the intentions of the vandal, its effect — deliberate or otherwise — was profound.
And now, it’s gone. Coagulated by the state, only a barely perceptible outline remains, a faded scar of dissent. The unstoppable bleeding not only gave a dose of humanity to a cold, angular structure, it emphasised that all was not what it seemed; that something was amiss; that there was more to the story than the official version — a truth so acute it drew blood from metal and stone. This gratifying graffiti, this pained paint, for so long a mark of exclamation, has finally been deleted.
In truth, the monument had fallen into such disrepair that by 2020, an entire renovation was long overdue. It would have required a brave and limber justification to leave the most prominent mark of graffiti while removing the “unartistic” scribbles from the Wall of Remembrance, clearing overgrown grass from the Road to Victory and repairing marble tiles damaged by skateboarders. Cleaning the whole thing made perfect, logical sense.
It just seems that by then, the “whole thing” had come to include that audacious, elegant, dramatic dribble of paint. Just as with Glasgow’s famous Duke of Wellington statue, which would be naked without the perpetual, vandalistic traffic cone on its head, Memorialul Renaşterii has been unthinkably unclothed. Vandalism or not, by wiping away the paint, the monument lost more than it gained.
In lamenting its disappearance, I wonder what my feelings imply. Am I romanticising a wanton criminal act, which desecrated the site and demeaned the work of a celebrated designer? Or did the paint’s erasure undo a legitimate piece of public art and unravel an important, open-air conversation between a state and its people? Where lay the vandalism — in the monument, the paint or the act of cleaning?
Vandalism Wasn’t Built in a Day
Humans have been vandalising since time immemorial, but the term stems back to the unruly Germanic Vandal tribe, who successfully captured Rome for a fortnight in 455 CE. While pillaging the city they destroyed works of art, monuments, statues, and other relics. The Romans, in their cultural enlightenment, were so appalled, the Vandals’ barbaric reputation stuck. Even so, the term Vandalisme wasn’t coined until 1794, when Bishop Grégoire wrote of his upset at the damage to ancient inscriptions after the French Revolution. The Parisien later stated in his memoirs that, “Je créai le mot pour tuer la chose” (I created the word to kill the thing). Evidently, he failed on the latter count — both the word and “the thing” have stubbornly survived.
These days, while vandalism has broadly come to mean anti-social destruction of someone else’s property, its definition remains nebulous; varying between countries, legal systems, cultures, and class structures. No matter where you are, it is almost always considered to be deviant, problematic behaviour. Understandably so — there are obvious costs and consequences to damaging things, particularly in such a visible, public manner. Minor destructive acts can make a place less pleasant to live, amenities less functional, and potentially cause a strain on mental health. Besides that, particularly when done at scale, the economic implications can be huge. It leads some to suggest that vandalism is always detrimental and should never be tolerated, arguably creating an environment for more serious crimes to occur.
Nevertheless, in the mid-20th century, Stanley Cohen and other sociologists began to develop a more nuanced understanding of vandalism. Beside identifying numerous forms of vandalism (including acquisitive, vindictive, tactical, playful, malicious, and ideological), Cohen saw beyond the common conception that it was purely childish, nihilistic behaviour. He acknowledged that a vandal’s motivations were complex and varied, and in certain circumstances, not necessarily deviant:
…in the case of vandalism, the construction of a ‘pure’ or ‘objective’ behavioural definition is only the beginning of the story. It is quite evident that: (i) not all such forms of rule breaking are regarded as deviant, problematic, criminal or even are called vandalism; (ii) not all the rules which forbid illegal property destruction are enforced; (iii) not all the rule breakers find themselves labelled and processed as deviant.
The problem, then, is to explain the conditions under which a society transforms the raw material of rule breaking into fully identified deviance.
- S. Cohen, Sociological Approaches to Vandalism
Motivations aside, as an act of vandalism, graffiti — the category into which Bucharest’s splash of red paint would fall — is probably the most prevalent. Practiced since cavemen marked walls with rudimentary shapes, the invention of aerosol spray paint in 1949 made drawing on urban spaces a modern pastime. With such a convenient tool to hand, from the 1960s onwards, graffiti caught the creative imagination. Alongside the burgeoning, anti-establishment musical movements of punk and hip-hop, ripe blank walls — seen as symbols of tyrannous social control — were colourfully reclaimed by gutsy, young, guerrilla painters.
As the techniques and designs of graffiti evolved from simple slogans and “tags” of artists’ names into imaginative murals and illustrations, the practice soon reached mainstream celebration: vandalism suddenly became art. In this context, beside Basquiat, Keith Haring and Blek Le Rat no one is more renowned than Banksy — a man whose very career is a microcosmic example of the art/vandalism conundrum.
Banksy started out as a vandal like any other, illegally spray-painting witty designs onto other people’s property. But such is his escalation in notoriety, great consternation now follows any damage to his unsolicited works. His recent Valentine’s Day piece (stencilled on the side of a Bristolian house) was swiftly defaced, causing the BBC to carry the headline Banksy Mural Vandalised, without irony. Other of his works have frequently been “destroyed” by local councils, sometimes through policy, sometimes accidentally, sometimes by a confused combination of the two — most recently on the London Underground. Sometimes, Banksy’s work has even been destroyed by Banksy himself — most spectacularly when he remotely shredded a print of “Girl with Balloon” moments after it sold at auction for over £1 million. Immediately, art dealers claimed the act had doubled the value of the semi-lacerated piece — some incredibly valuable vandalism.
On the other hand, measures taken to secure Banksy’s work — either by private parties who own the property, or local authorities attempting to preserve these scattered pieces of art history — are themselves considered socially deviant, both towards the artwork itself, and the viewing public who can no longer freely access it. Amid all this multi-directional agitation, it is difficult to establish who exactly is doing the vandalising. Perhaps even more notable than his concepts or painting, Banksy’s great skill is to turn the tables on the powers-that-be, who suddenly seem like vandals themselves by attempting to profit from or disappear his work.
He proves that attractive, clever, or pertinent vandalism can be highly valued; no longer considered deviant if performed by the right hand. Far from offending the social fabric, it transcends social norms and typical comprehension of what is “vandalism” or “art”. It simply becomes a cherished representation of what a society wants to stand for.
Nowhere is this better manifested than by the crayon, charcoal and chalk writings on the walls of Berlin’s Reichstag. Scrawled by Soviet soldiers in 1945 after beating the Nazis in battle, it would have been reasonable to remove the words and seek a “fresh” start. Instead, they were purposefully preserved in place. Persistently visible at the heart of German government, the graffiti serves as a profound reminder of the country’s present freedoms and painful history; a society demonstrably willing to confront itself.
Back to Bucharest, where the questions surrounding Memorialul Renaşterii and its evaporated haemorrhage remain: where did the most concerning act of vandalism occur? Across its chequered history, which public act was the most socially deviant? Conceptual vandalism, given the monument was commissioned by the very man who allegedly caused the deaths it seeks to mourn? Fiscal vandalism, by the amount spent on such a controversial project? Aesthetic vandalism, in its divisive design and placement? Ideological vandalism, by the person who tossed the paint? Civic vandalism, in the City’s failure to remove the paint for close to a decade? Or cultural vandalism, by finally cleaning it off after it had become an iconic element of Bucharest’s visual landscape and collective consciousness?
Where vandalism is concerned, the answers lie in the eye of the beholder. In trying to cleanly define something as “vandalism” or “art” we immediately risk losing sight of what “the thing” really is. The paint on Memorialul Renaşterii could have been neither, as much as it could have been both.
Crucially, such a deviant public act is never committed with the expectation it will survive for long. In that sense, this splash of paint achieved far more than the vandal could ever have anticipated. Astoundingly, I first saw the paint during its fifth year. It caused me — a random Scottish-Ghanaian — to look deeper into the monument and Romanian history than I might have otherwise. It stirred in me a multitude of thoughts and feelings, ultimately leading to this article, memorialising its demise. Even in its disappearance, its effects continue to reverberate. By reading this far, you too have become an active participant in the discourse it inspired, along with the millions who saw it and are unlikely to forget it.
With such an expansive impact, “art or vandalism?” no longer matters.