Marks and markings

While we may find graffiti a social irritant, there is part of all of us that understands the desire to mark out one’s passage, or passing, in such a way. Its existence has been around for as long as human society and there is a fine line between art and graffiti, the difference perhaps being intent. Intent is the same thing that makes a mob out of a crowd. The distinction between art and graffiti has underpinned the entire career of Banksy, the elusive English graffiti artist and political activist, who has done more than any other individual to change the parameters and definition of his medium.

One of the most popular forms of graffiti is carving initials onto items. My local cathedral in Carlisle near my hometown has wooden pews marked with the initials and dates of naughty sixteenth-century choristers, bored with the long hours spent inside the sandstone building.

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All rights reserved by Langley Monkey, Flickr

This type of graffiti has a high-end manifestation in the curious phenomenon of adding monograms to things. I use the word curious because, on reflection, it is a very odd practice to add monograms onto a shirt or a handkerchief. It serves no identifiable pragmatic purpose other than either to indicate that the owner was willing to spend money on their monogram and, perhaps, as a more subconscious factor, that they want to leave their imprint of who they are.

Bookplates are another type of such personalized marking. Yet, how futile! I always find it amusing when looking at a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century book containing an ex-libris plate of some early modern owner, to think that they possessed the work for perhaps two or three decades, or more or less, in other words, a small fraction of the book’s life. They have been and gone but the book has survived them. And perhaps this is the key. A modest monogram or bookplate does affirm our existence; not to others but perhaps to ourselves.

The most famous use of monograms must be with the royal cypher, with E II R denoting Elizabeth II Regina. Only monarchs and popes use Latin in their signatures as a matter of course, a relic of their survival from times past. As a very small boy -I must have been 7 or so as I taught myself Roman numerals when I was 9 years old- I remember being astonished that my country had seen eleven monarchs called Elizabeth, thinking that the II meant 11.

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The royal cypher is a symbol of authority, of government, and ultimately of control. I remember being struck, as a 21 year old fresh from seminary, when I noticed that the soap in the civil-service building in which I was being interviewed for a civil-service managerial position bore the royal cypher. On one level, utterly pointless not to mention absurd, but on another level a frequent reminder to the staff washing their hands that they were only minor cogs in the wider wheel of government.

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It should be clear to us that the origins of the royal cypher as a symbol of authority also reveal the same insecurities and futility as those shared by more humble folk having their pens, lighters, or cufflinks marked with their monogrammed initials. In essence, any monogram ultimately is a memento mori to the person who commissions it.

Today’s cufflinks are made out of 813 grade silver by the Finnish designer Kultaseppa Salovaara, bearing her icebear maker’s mark. Silversmiths also feel the necessity to mark their imprint on the work they produce. This pair is dated to 1960 and I like the geometric lines of them, common to all Salovaara work. Before I bought them, I thought that there was etching on one side of the face, but closer inspection reveals this to be a monogram, namely BL. The etching is well executed and fits in well with the cufflink’s design. I have no idea who BL was, but I know that he had good taste and have said a prayer for his soul. I am sure BL never imagined that in 2012 in Canada, a Briton would be wearing his cufflinks and showing others an image of them. An unintended consequence indeed.

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