Just as in Ancient Greek and Roman times, the more straightforward forms of graffiti persist, from bawdy sex jokes to political rants, in what was has been described as the ultimate democratic form of expression.
These days, of course, we have the internet for people to make political and personal accusations at one another, but graffiti, stencils and stickers are a persistent presence on our streets, as a year spent in lockdown almost entirely in the Liverpool City Region has demonstrated to me.
A lot of the graffiti is exactly as you might expect, from declarations of romantic love and support for Black Lives Matter, to accusations of someone or other being a ‘grass’, and exhortations for Boris Johnson to do anatomically improbable things to himself.
But there is a different sort of graffiti that seems particularly prevalent at the moment, and a lot of it comes back to conspiracy theories, magical thinking and pseudoscience. Some of it is straightforward, like the concerns about 5G expressed here:
Conspiracies about 5G are as commonplace as they are ridiculous, but they do have serious negative real-world effects, including many dozens of arson attacks on telecoms infrastructure and masts.
Another common sight in parts of Liverpool is the repeated graffiti encouraging people to be a “lightworker” – which apparently refers to people “who vibrate on a naturally high frequency, are able to read others with ease, and have a life’s purpose that goes beyond mere personal growth.”
Harmless nonsense, perhaps, but searching for the term on the internet quickly brings you to sites relating to the Law of Attraction and The Secret – the idea that you are magically responsible for everything that happens to you, be it good or bad – a pernicious idea that leads to victim blaming and even cancer sufferers thinking themselves responsible for their illness.
Although all of the pictures in this article are from around the Liverpool City Region, the people of Merseyside are not unusually credulous, despite the rise of the Cosmic Scouser and Cosmic Scally stereotype. Given Liverpool’s football fans were a victim of an actual conspiracy involving both the media and the authorities, if any city had a right to be suspicious, it would be Liverpool – but a healthy dose of scepticism in the city remains, and this can also be found in local graffiti:
As it turns out, one home of online scepticism towards the city’s most famous graffiti artist, Sine Missione, can be found on the LFC forum itself.
Sine Missione, for the uninitiated reader, creates stencils or vinyls that can be found on the telephone boxes and fibre green telecoms cabinets across the city.
His work consists of generally uplifting and progressive messages, often quotes from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Che Guevara, Mohammed Ali and Mahatma Gandhi about teaching peace, being the change you want to see in the world, opposing racism, and so forth. His intentions certainly seem to be positive; aside from the graffiti (and associated t-shirts) he is well-known for his community involvement and litter-picking.
The problem, as the forum members at The Kop have identified, is that Sine Missione’s 18k-follower Instagram account has featured a lot of much nastier stuff, from antisemitic conspiracy theories about George Soros and BLM, to vaccine skepticism, 5G and even QAnon.
While I don’t believe that brightening up Liverpool’s drab communications infrastructure is necessarily a terrible thing to do, it does seem to be the artist’s intention for people to go online and find out more about the ideas he espouses; indeed some of his stencils encourage people to do their own research:
In a city that was ravaged during the Thatcher era, has seen unrivalled levels of cuts to central government funding in the last ten years, and where parts of local City Council functions have now been taken over by central government following an ongoing corruption enquiry, there is a real danger caused by the spread of such conspiracy theories during times as difficult as these for Liverpool. Now is not the time for people to ignore public health messages, or to start believing in conspiracy theories that scapegoat certain groups for the very real and complicated problems that exist today.
Beyond the dangers of spreading anti-science ideas and making people doubt the need to follow government and NHS advice during a global pandemic, there is a real danger that people could be sucked into the far-right politics that are also involved in some of the causes and conspiracy theories that Sine Missione has shared online.
A concerned local resident, who did not wish to be named for this article, said:
“One of my main beefs with [Sine Missione] is that he went to do this litter clear-up thing and he got a mouthpiece from the Liverpool Echo and the Council, giving him a platform. And he’s publicising marches where you have Q[Anon] supporters, actual fascists, Trump fans, homophobes and people claiming Hollywood stars are drinking dead kids’ blood under a false Save The Children banner.
“It’s the crossover with the Plandemic crew, 15 months ago before this all kicked off it was about the 5G and now – there are actual fascists involved in that scene, and people attending – hippies and clean eating people and fascists all on the same marches, it opens up that database of people to them. Fascists use opportunities, and I think he’s being used.
“He has 18,000 followers, I don’t think all of them will take it seriously and act, but 180 of them…?”
Just as this has all come to a head, however, Sine Missione has suggested in a recent interview in The Face that he may be considering toning it down online and even moving – shockingly – to Manchester:
I’m going to try and sort out the way I am online… this is all people know me for now.
Even if he does stop the online conspiracist rantings and moves out of the city, it seems unlikely that Liverpool – or perhaps your own hometown, reader – will see an end to the use of graffiti, stickers and stencils to encourage people to seek out dangerous conspiracy theories online.
To take one example that looks to graffiti found beyond the region: the average person probably hasn’t heard of The Kalergi Plan, but antisemitic graffiti about it in Ireland might encourage someone to seek out this conspiracist fantasy-world on the internet.
This is fast becoming an intentional and planned way to spread these ideas, with the White Rose – an anti-vaccine group who don’t believe in the pandemic, but do believe in the Great Reset conspiracy theory – creating online hubs where you too can download a sticker, print it out and play your own part in spreading dangerous, nasty ideas, thereby continuing the cycle. These are now found all over Liverpool and beyond, from local GP practices to fast food outlets.
Would you want a side-order of dangerous conspiracy theories with your chicken burger box meal?