“No Nazis!”: Life, Politics, and Graffiti in a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Curator's Note

In 2006, the Altstadt (English: “Old City”) of Regensburg, Germany, became a World Heritage Site for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO evaluates potential sites based on a list of criteria, and once selected, responsible political authorities agree to manage a site according to a set of guidelines that generally aim to preserve characteristics of the site that qualified it for selection. In the Altstadt’s case, UNESCO determined it represented an excellent specimen of medieval merchant towns from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, among other architectural qualities. As with many heritage sites, however, the Altstadt is a vibrant, active community of inhabitants whose daily lives of growth and change can stand at odds against the ideas of conservation and stasis. Political street graffiti serves as a prime example of this contradiction, whereby medieval walls function – as they likely always have – as canvases for political expression, extending the range of history that inscription as a heritage site seeks to frame.

Throughout the Altstadt, though particularly in its narrow alleyways, one finds signs of an ongoing dialogue about modern social and political ideals presented through graffiti and street art. National political entities nominate sites to UNESCO for consideration, therefore prioritizing one aspect of a site’s identity, translating the particularistic into the universalistic in service to a claim of a greater cultural heritage. More than mere vandalism, graffiti-as-discourse undermines the monopoly of this single narrative. It invigorates debates about social norms and historical meaning, calling into question the idea that the accumulation of heritage stops at one period in time.

This project attempts to represent the most salient examples of this conversation. It emphasizes hand-drawn or stenciled graffiti over stickers and posters, and graffiti placed on structures under UNESCO’s heritage site status, as opposed to more modern electrical boxes or exterior piping. Special attention has been given to instances where one mark of graffiti challenges another in dialogue that sometimes seems vulgar, other times clever. Red stars in the accompanying map show the location of graffiti curated for this project. Clicking on a star will load an image of the graffiti along with a brief description, which may include interpretations informed by local residents of the city as well as sources for additional information.

[Note: Special thanks to K. Reinhardt and M. Feilner for their assistance with this project.]

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