Multiple emplaced inscriptions can be interpreted through a semiotics of surfaces

To make sense of hybrid aggregates of signs in their surface locations, specific types of semiotic interpretation come close to providing comprehensive results. Semiotics sees places and layers, functions and messages, shapes and materials – and provides the tools one needs for such descriptions. When it comes to working with non-human surface agents, the precision of semiotics is considerable, despite its oft cumbersome terminology.

A method that interprets surfaces and inscriptions concomitantly must do at least three things: recognise that discourse cannot be fully understood separately from place; see place as a function of several other discourses and semiotic relations; and account for development, change, similitude and reoccurrence between semiotic aggregates. An immediate corollary of this approach opens up the Piercean triad of icon-index-symbol, by turning all signs into indexes: each mark on the urban surface is but a pin in an ensemble, a signifier of its location, and a means of understanding what the surface-location does, and how it moulds its discursive proximity. There are precedents to this approach in the use of semiotic landscapes and geosemiotics to interpret urban form and communication, and my proposal was to adjust these strategies and apply them exclusively to surface environments. Responsive, emplaced, precise and networked, semiotics provided the inclusive solution to interpreting the fascinating ensembles of non-, post-, anti-, pre-, semi- and meta-graffiti – everyone welcome.

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