From the Vandals’ Sack of Rome to Modern Graffiti
From the Vandals’ Sack of Rome to Modern Graffiti
  • Reporter Kim Jin-Seong
  • 승인 2024.03.21 14:58
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▲The Mona Lisa splattered with pumpkin soup / Agence France-Presse TV footage
▲The Mona Lisa splattered with pumpkin soup / Agence France-Presse TV footage

  You can often hear the term “vandalism” these days, frequently associated with immoral criminals or radical environmentalists. How old is vandalism? The etymology of the word vandalism is quite interesting, as the story goes back to 455 AD. The Vandals were a Germanic tribe, a branch of the East Germanic, people who initially settled north of the Danube in present-day Poland. They first appeared in history during the migration period of the Germanic tribes, when various groups moved across Europe. In the 5th century, the Vandals settled in Spain but soon migrated to North Africa, where they established the Vandal Kingdom.

  At one point, the Vandals were considered a significant power in the Mediterranean. They took advantage of the political and social turmoil within the Roman Empire and in 455 AD, invaded and looted Rome, contributing to the ongoing chaos in the region. Many misconceive the Vandals indiscriminately and extensively destroyed Rome. The Vandal sack of Rome was indeed a significant shock to the Romans, and the term vandalism originated from this event. However, there was no large-scale massacre or destructive behavior. The Vandals systematically plundered Rome, transporting the wealth they acquired by ship to North Africa. At present, vandalism describes action involving deliberate destruction of public or private property.

  Graffiti may be one good example of vandalism, where vandalism highlighted by graffiti is not uncommon. Graffiti is from the Italian word graffito, which means scratch. The terminology initially denoted inscriptions, figure drawings, and similar markings discovered in ancient crypts. In historical contexts, these inscriptions were not classified as vandalism. 

  Some artists secretly roam cities, leaving social messages in their unique language. Although the line between art and the destruction of property is in a grey area, the artist’s message is regarded as a positive case where graffiti has turned into art. The art is said to express the power of resistance and socially relevant messages in a free and inspirational voice. 

  Frequently, graffiti is seen as an act of protest or terror. A few significant works of art have been vandalized, and now, Korea can add one of its most iconic palaces, the Gyeongbokgung Palace, to the list. In December 2023, two teenagers vandalized sections of the palace walls, creating 44-meter-long spray paint graffiti. The graffiti included phrases such as “free movie” and the names of illegal video-sharing platforms. The public’s reaction to the vandalism incident against a piece of cultural heritage was mixed with sadness and anger.

  Vandalism by radical environmentalists is an emerging concern as well. They often spark debates about the appropriate means of expressing environmental advocacy and the line between activism and the destruction of property. According to the National Post, on January 28, two women associated with the environmental group Riposte Alimentaire entered the Louvre in Paris, headed to the Mona Lisa, and threw pumpkin soup onto it. Following that, they expressed anger over agricultural policies and food systems, yelling out, “What is more important? Art or the right to healthy and sustainable food?” Rachida Dati, the French Minister of Culture, criticized the protest. “The Mona Lisa, like our heritage, belongs to future generations,” she wrote. “No cause can justify it being targeted!” Preserving something precious in a respected manner involves conserving valuable resources and heritage others value, rather than disrupting them.