There are layers of writing throughout the city: i leave the train to the sight of formal, informational guidance, clean cut voices telling me where the stairs are, where the exit is, where the toilets are and what to do in case of fire. I exit the building to civic signs: helpful guides for lost tourists, pointing steel fingers to the cathedral, a famous bridge, the central square. Helpful and contextual pointers, formal and clear, painted on steel and nailed to the wall.
Surrounding and confusing them, other signs: street signs, sometimes intuitive, sometimes ancient and strange. North, South, East and West streets are easy to conceive, as is Market lane or High Street, but others reflect names of old estates, civic dignitaries, notable citizens whose names may have been lost to time. Yet others relate to acts or deeds best left unsaid: there are many seedy origins to street names, speaking of dastardly acts or spectacular lust.
Shops invade the civic space: they have painted signs, stuck on signs, A frame signs that have escaped from the walls and now roam vagrant in the streets. Coffee shops in particular are breeding these: competing for ever funnier or more compelling themes on beans.
Posters adorn flat surfaces: the circus is in town, ZZ Top are touring, a new exhibition at the gallery or a protest march outside parliament. These posters often accrete over time, stratifying into deep layers of past events, torn and fading in the rain.
Finally, the subversive voices emerge: penetrate deeper into the city and you see these voices, the graffiti voices that crawl and creep and inch their way onto walls and hoardings and brick and glass. Scrawls of desperation or artistic expression, they are unclaimed and often unwanted, except in those rare times when society chooses to make it safe by calling it ‘art’ and selling it in modern white galleries. For many though, graffiti is simply one loud shout in a life bereft of opportunity and equality.
Which city am i describing? I’m in Haarlem, but i could be anywhere: every city has voices, layers of meaning from formal to social, layers of formality and decay.
It’s no different from organisations: we have formal spaces with formal writing, the rules that are literally inscribed on the walls, the aspirational statements of intent that often bely a graffiti truth.
But the scrawled subversive voices are likely to be online, adrift, in claimed spaces, out of earshot.
If we are lucky, we have the chance to walk down those alleys and read the writing on the wall. Because only by listening to every voice, only by reading every word, do we learn the true story of the city. Only by listening to the voices within, even those with no permission to speak, can we learn, can we change.