At the core of Philip Kaufman’s 2000 movie Quills is a metaphor for the unquenchable drive to write. Based on the 1995 play by Doug Wright (who also wrote the screenplay), most of the movie is set at the Charenton insane asylum during the last months of the Marquis de Sade’s life. We see the marquis managing to publish his work by sneaking manuscripts to a laundress. The publication of his scandalous books leads to censorship and Sade is progressively deprived of writing materials. In the end, and despite all attempts to silence him, which culminate in cutting his tongue, all that’s left to him to write with are his feces, with which he covers the walls of his cell. As repugnant as the image may be, it is a potent metaphor: the marquis writes with his guts and his texts explore the deepest recesses of the human psyche, exposing instinctual drives best kept under wraps (let’s not forget the role that scatology and coprophagy play among the many sexual practices that Sade details in his novels).

Although most of the events and characters featured in Quills are fictional, the film captures in a compelling manner one fundamental aspect of the Sadean oeuvre, which is often overlooked as readers focus on the content, which, to this day, remains profoundly disturbing. Despite repeated incarcerations in more than a dozen places and for more than a third of his life, Sade could not stop writing, his drive to produce language could not be extinguished. In his books, we can see this unwavering need enabled by one of the main protagonists, naïve and virtuous Justine, whose foil is her debauched libertine sister Juliette. Justine’s stubborn insistence on arguing with the characters who abuse her, forces them to proffer lengthy exposés to justify the motives for their perverse behavior. Justine’s protestations become the impetus for learned and lengthy philosophical digressions, which are as important as the narrative that runs through the books.1

2 Plesch Graffiti Vincennes copy

Castle of Vincennes (photo: Selbymay, Wikimedia).

3 Plesch Graffiti Sade s cell Vincennes copy

Ceiling of Sade’s cell in Vincennes (photo: Véronique Plesch).









Today, one can visit Sade’s cell in Vincennes castle. In 2018, the fortress was one of the focal points in a series of exhibitions and events that explored the need for expression as embodied in the act of writing on walls. Organized by the Centre des monuments nationaux (National Monuments Center), a French governmental agency that cares for close to 100 historic sites, Sur les murs: histoire(s) de graffiti (On the Walls: History/Stories of Graffiti) was born from the realization that graffiti grace a sizable number of the sites the Center administers (more than 30 of them), that they should be recognized as patrimony and deserve to be protected and studied. Nine of the sites holding graffiti housed exhibitions exploring a range of themes and periods, along with the work of contemporary artists. A book was also published, to which I was invited to contribute, along with scholars from a wide range of backgrounds. I focused on the ways in which individual and community play out in the practice of early modern graffiti. In particular, I had the occasion to reflect on graffiti executed in places of passage and of confinement, in other words, in places of freedom and of captivity.

4 Plesch Graffiti Holy Sepulchre copy

Graffiti on the wall of the stairs leading to the Chapel of Saint Helena, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (photo: Guillaume Paumier, CC-BY, Wikimedia).

By leaving a mark in a place where one transits and/or stops for a short stay, one joins a community whose members might not be present at the time of the visit but that is manifested by the accumulation of graffiti in that very spot. This is the case for graffiti left by pilgrims, tourists, and other travelers. A powerful example can be seen in the thousands of identical crosses that appear on the walls of the staircase that descends to St. Helena’s Chapel in the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Long thought to have been left by crusaders, recent scientific investigation revealed that they were carved by only a few different hands and that they might have been commissioned by Armenian pilgrims in the 15th century.2 Whatever the exact circumstances for the creation of the Holy Sepulcher crosses, the fact remains that each one stands for an individual, while their consistent shape testifies to these individuals’ belonging to a homogeneous group. While the uniformity observed here is chosen and desired, in situations in which one is deprived of liberty graffiti can become a tool to reassert individuality and agency. After all, what is freedom if not to be, to act, and to express oneself in whatever way one desires?

Although both types of graffiti involve the simultaneous expression of the individual and of the group, the movement that links the two operates in opposite directions. In a place of transit, when passers-by (pilgrims, shepherds, soldiers, tourists, etc.) add their own mark, they insert themselves into a community. In this case, the movement goes from the individual to the community. In a place of confinement, on the contrary, as graffiti aim at restoring an individuality that is denied, we go in the opposite direction, from the group to the individual.

The relationship to time is also diametrically opposed. In a place of passage, leaving a mark (and in particular writing one’s name), maintains a presence for all eternity. In a way, it arrests time. On the other hand, in places where one is confined for long periods and subjected to an inflexible and monotonous routine, time stands still or even seems abolished. Marking a wall can help grasp time that slips away, and that is why we frequently see inmates attempting to define this amorphous time by keeping track of the passing days. The practice of graffiti is also a pastime—the word says it all! We occupy time by occupying the space of the wall. As a matter of fact, boredom is an important motivation that should not be discounted. I am thinking here of the many elaborate and deeply carved graffiti that World War I soldiers left in trenches.3

5 Plesch graffiti calendar copy

Molding of marks counting days, 16th century, from one of the towers of the Château de Selles, Cambrai, France. Musée de la Mémoire des Murs – Serge Ramond, Verneuil-en-Halatte.

Whether in places of passage or of confinement, graffiti constitute a projection into the future, even beyond death. Historian and religious anthropologist Alphonse Dupront wrote beautifully about how the graffiti (and also the ex-votos) that are left at shrines ensure the pilgrims’ presence beyond the completion of the journey. The same is true for graffiti left by inmates: they stand as proof of an existence negated by the very incarceration. Of course, this is even more the case in situations where prisoners await death.

The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., possesses and reproduces on its website a set of photos and other documents from the Breendonck concentration camp in Belgium. In this one, for instance, we see days being counted and read the patriotic declaration: “Vive la libre Belgique” (long live free Belgium) and next to it, perhaps in a different hand, “mais neutre” (but neutral). Also legible in the photo is an inscription in remembrance of one Marcel Bury who was “condamné à mort” and “fusillé” (condemned to death and executed) on 19 September 1944 (if I read it correctly).

6 Plesch Graffiti Walpole graffito copy

Inscriptions in a cell in the Salt Tower (Tower of London): Jesuit Henry Walpole’s name and names of saints Peter and Paul and the “Fathers of the Church” saints Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great (photo: Richard Nevell, Wikimedia).

Dupront noted that graffiti are sensible marks that act as a confirmation of a site’s sacred character. As it turns out, graffiti can sanctify a place. This is how John Gerard, an English Jesuit imprisoned in the Salt Tower (one of the 21 towers that form the Tower of London), felt upon seeing inscriptions left by another Jesuit, Henry Walpole. After having been transferred to a different cell, Gerard requested to be allowed to occasionally visit his former cell, in mini-pilgrimages of sorts to “a place sanctified by this great and holy martyr” (Walpole had been executed in 1595).

7 Plesch Graffiti Chillon copy

Graffiti, Chillon castle, Switzerland. Framed at the bottom is the supposed one left by Lord Byron (photo: Véronique Plesch).

Not only do graffiti keep the memory of those who transited through or resided in a particular place (regardless of whether this was by choice or not), but they also bear witness to the different uses of that place. The graffiti in the dungeon of Chillon Castle on the shore of Lake Geneva belong to different moments in its history and thus reflect its changing functions: we see graffiti left by tourists, including the supposed one of Lord Byron,4 superimposed on those of prisoners, among whom was François Bonivard, the figure who inspired Byron’s poem “The Prisoner of Chillon.” Likewise, when the Tour de la Lanterne in La Rochelle (originally a lighthouse and defensive structure) became a prison, detainees left inscriptions that correspond to specific conflicts. In the 17th century, we find English, Scottish, and Irish sailors who were captured in 1666–67, followed by Spanish and Dutch seamen incarcerated in the years between 1668 and 1678 . Later in the century, we read French names and religious inscriptions left by Protestants locked up in 1681. In the following century, the prisoners were English corsairs and, in the 19th, French names recall the last penitentiary function of the tower as a military prison.

One of the fundamental features of graffiti is community building. The inclusion of a date in a prison cell fulfills different functions, some already touched upon, but we can also consider that a date records the inmate’s entry into the prison community. The presence of a code in the inscriptions contributes to strengthening these bonds. At La Rochelle, languages correspond to the nationalities of the people incarcerated in the Tour de la Lanterne: English, Dutch, Spanish and French. Despite their linguistic diversity, the inscriptions display a remarkable standardization as most of them include the name of the writer, his city of origin, social status, as well as details about his capture. The same consistency appears in the pictorial graffiti, with a high frequency of ships. Of course, given the penitentiary context, this particular image expresses a desire for escape, but, most importantly, these vessels, rendered with accuracy, were made by and for seafarers, and they affirm their belonging to a community, not only that of a particular crew, but that of seamen in general. Right here in Maine we can see an example of such maritime graffiti in the Old Lincoln County Jail in Wiscasset. Built in 1811, the building housed prisoners until 1913. Along with a remarkably detailed ship, we also find an elaborate navigational map of the world.

8 Plesch Graffiti Wiscasset cell copy

Cell in the Old Lincoln County Jail, Wiscasset, Maine (photo: Véronique Plesch).

9 Plesch Graffiti Wiscasset ship copy

Graffito of a sailing ship in one of the cells in the Old Lincoln County Jail, Wiscasset, Maine (photo: Véronique Plesch).









For sociologist Joseph Gusfield, a sense of community develops through two dimensions, territorial (that is, spatial) and relational. Within the space of the wall, a dialogue takes place—graffiti possess a fundamental dialogic nature. The question of the relationship of one’s mark to previous ones is essential. Whether it’s finding a spot to add one’s mark to a set of existing ones (graffiti attract graffiti!), of responding to a specific inscription, or even simply deciding where to write in the space of a (blank) wall, the act of inscribing represents an answer of sorts. Even in isolation, marking a wall is a form of communication. It is directed to the future inmates who will occupy the space and also—and perhaps first and foremost—to oneself. As an immediate outlet for expression, it is a way of communicating with oneself—to our future self, not unlike a personal diary.

The diaristic dimension of graffiti writing is in fact central to a contemporary of Sade: Nicolas Edme Restif, known as Restif de La Bretonne. Writer and typographer, often described as a graphomaniac, Restif roamed Paris at night, leaving scores of inscriptions. A carving he made in 1764 under the arches of the Place des Vosges is supposed to be the oldest surviving graffito in the city. Restif kept track of his nocturnal graffitological expeditions in what was at once a private diary and a travelogue of sorts. He starts his account with the inscription he made on 5 November 1779 while suffering from chest pain, carefully recording its exact location on the Île Saint-Louis (“the tenth stone, on the left of the Pont-Rouge”). Restif explains the motivation for his act: will he be alive to see it in a year?

10 Plesch Graffiti Restif copy

Supposed carving by Nicolas Restif de la Bretonne, 11, Place des Vosges, Paris.

11a Plesch Graffiti Brassaï in Minotaure copy

Brassaï, “Du mur des cavernes au mur d’usine,” Minotaure 3–4 (1933): 6 (photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France).

11b Plesch Graffiti Brassaï in Minotaure copy

Brassaï, “Du mur des cavernes au mur d’usine,” Minotaure 3–4 (1933): 7 (photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France).













Fast forward to the 20th century and to young Hungarian-born Gyula Halász, who will become known as Brassaï.5 After settling in Paris in 1924, he too started roaming Paris during the night. In 1932, he published a book of the photos taken during his nocturnal outings (Paris la nuit). The next year, he started photographing the walls of Paris and continued doing so for decades. His photos of graffiti were first published in the Surrealist magazine Minotaure in 1933 and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1956. Eventually, a book came out in 1961 with a selection of the extensive body of images he had accumulated, accompanied by his own texts. If I mention Brassaï here, it is not just because he is Restif’s true heir, documenting graffiti with as much care as his 18th-century predecessor (as a matter of fact, the Centre des monuments nationaux project included an interactive map of historical graffiti, which took as its starting point the one that Brassaï had created). What interests me are the photos that Brassaï took during the German Occupation, at a time when the city and its citizens were held captive by the Nazi invaders. Read in this context, the walls’ distressed surfaces and in particular the frequent presence of bullet holes, express the trauma experienced by the photographer’s adoptive city, but also speak to its resiliency. In a rather brazen one, we see the double-barred cross of Lorraine, the symbol adopted by the forces of “Free France” fighting the Nazis. About this photo, Brassaï wrote: “The political struggle on the wall. General de Gaulle’s Cross of Lorraine, covered over with black paint, begins to reemerge.” This is an image of hope. Brassaï’s choice of words is revealing. The heavy black paint does not succeed at obliterating the cross of Lorraine, which “begins to reemerge.” We see the light at the end of the tunnel.

12 Plesch Graffiti brassaï croix de L copy

Brassaï, Croix de Lorraine, 1944-45, silver print, 22.7 x 17.4 cm.

In 1946, shortly after Brassaï was capturing this Parisian wall, twenty-year old Elizabeth Kübler-Ross visited the Polish concentration camp of Majdanek. In the children’s barracks, she saw myriad butterflies scratched on the walls. This moving symbol of life, transformation, and freedom left a lasting mark on the young woman as it later informed her work on death and dying. In this issue of MAJ, we see the photographs that Judy Glickman Lauder took in the concentration camps of Dachau, Auschwitz, and Theresienstadt. Lauder has been photographing Holocaust sites throughout Europe since the late 1980s. With these photographs, she contributes to what the French call the “devoir de mémoire,” the duty to remember. One of her photos included in this issue was taken in a cell in Auschwitz, and shows walls covered in marks scratched on their darkened surface. I would venture to guess that these graffiti were left by contemporary visitors and not by inmates. Because of their recent nature, one is tempted to discount them as appalling acts of thoughtless and gratuitous vandalism. Although I can make out some names and therefore would want to think about them as akin to the pilgrim graffiti I have mentioned in this essay, others are puzzling: for instance, the word “tribal” written in large capital letters at the very top of the wall. Below it and to the right, one can also decipher the word “bisounours.” Made of the joining of “bisou” (kiss) and nounours (Teddy bear), it is the French name for The Care Bears. Perhaps this is a verbal equivalent to the stuffed animals one sees at spontaneous memorials. In a 1999 Washington Post article on the phenomenon, a professor of psychology explains that such makeshift shrines “are expressions not only of sorrow but also of a sense of powerlessness,” a feeling one cannot avoid experiencing in front of the Shoah’s unspeakable horror. At any rate, although at first the graffiti in Lauder’s photo may appear to desecrate a hallowed place, when we pause to think about them, our first impression might shift. For one, the sheer quantity of the marks bears witness to the large number of visitors who have paid their respects to the victims’ memory. But also, through the chaotic and densely tangled accumulation of marks, the wall seems teeming with life, as if life was brought back to this mortiferous place and voices given back to those who have been silenced. Brassaï insisted that we shouldn’t think of graffiti as acts of vandalism manifesting a desire for destruction. On the contrary, they are the product of the survival instinct. Norman Mailer, another early apologist of graffiti, wrote a book on the subject whose title says it all: The Faith of Graffiti. We should indeed have faith in graffiti for, as Brassaï put it, “a wall exorcises. It is a safe haven for all that is forbidden, repressed, suppressed, from all that oppresses. It also provides a catharsis.”


  1. Justine appears in several of Sade’s books. While incarcerated at the Bastille in 1787, the marquis wrote the novella Les Infortunes de la vertu (The Misfortunes of Virtue; referred to in English as Justine), which remained unpublished during his lifetime. The story was later expanded into a novel published in 1791 titled Justine, ou les Malheurs de la Vertu (Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue). Once more, it was expanded and greatly revised into La Nouvelle Justine, ou Les Malheurs de la vertu, published in 1797 along with companion novel L’Histoire de Juliette, ou les Prospérités du vice (in English referred to as Juliette, the original title translates as The History of Juliette, or the Prosperities of Vice).
  2. See this interview of one of the scientists. He refuses to use the term “graffiti” because the marks were done by a few carvers instead of the pilgrims themselves, which I find rather baffling.
  3. See the book by Hervé Vatel et Michel Boittiaux, Le Graffiti des tranchées : graffitis, sculptures et autres traces de la Grande Guerre. Nouvron-Vingré: Soissonnais, 2008.
  4. Its authenticity has been seriously questioned.
  5. The pseudonym is based on his hometown, Brassó in Transylvania; Brassaï means “from Brassó.”


References (whenever possible, I am giving here the English editions)

Brassaï, Graffiti, Transl. David Radzinowicz. Paris: Flammarion, 2002.

Brassaï, Paris by Night. Paris: Flammarion, 2012.

Dupront, Alphonse, ‘Pèlerinages et lieux sacrés’, in Du Sacré. Croisades et pèlerinages. Images et langages. Paris: Gallimard, 1987.

Gerard, John. The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012.

Gusfield, Joseph R. Community: A Critical Response, New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975

Mailer, Norman. The Faith of Graffiti. New York: Praeger, 1974.

Pressac, Laure, ed. Sur les murs: Histoire(s) de Graffitis. Paris: Éditions du Patrimoine/Centre des monuments nationaux, 2018.

Restif de la Bretonne, Mes inscripcions, journal intime (17801787), Paris: Plon, 1889.


Image at top: Sade in prison, 19th-century print (in the public domain).