Graffiti, other additions leave modern mark on historical sites

“Wow! The Sistine Chapel is so tall. Can you imagine painting the ceiling up so high and almost upside down?”

“I wish I could create figures like that with just spray paint!”

“Look, the Trevi Fountain! Let’s go make a wish!”

“I can’t believe that people would just want to write their name on random walls.”

“The Spanish Steps! Such incredible architecture!”

“Look…it’s a…McDonald’s?”

These are some of the comments made when traveling throughout historic Europe. The architecture is pretty incredible. Roman engineering seems to defy gravity. Renaissance paintings are mind-blowing. The feats of architecture and the styles and cultures that influenced them and were influenced by them were each unique in their own ways.

It was different, though, seeing historic buildings being used to house fast food chains. As an art and architecture geek, it hurt my heart to see graffiti on the walls of buildings that are just not made that way anymore.

While I can go on a tirade about the destruction of classical forms, some of the graffiti I saw was amazing. It was art on a whole new level. From the time we landed in Berlin to the time we left the last city, Ghent, in Belgium, I was a witness to all sorts of art forms.

Coming out of the airport, the bus drove through a tunnel that was covered in graffiti figures. Prague had interesting political statements. Vienna did not have as much in the way of graffiti art, but was definitely covered in seemingly random black signatures. Florence was refreshingly neutral.

But Rome definitely surprised me. Being the center of the Roman Empire a millennium ago, I should think, would demand some sort of respect. But short of the Forum and around the center of the city, almost every city block had some sort of signature, symbol or general disrupting of the otherwise intact facades.

Parisian graffiti was also incredible. Each subway tunnel was covered in it. It amazed me that there were people so dedicated to their art and leaving something behind that they would trek through tunnels in the dead of night after the stations were closed.

Belgium surprised me the most, but definitely in the good way. We were given the opportunity to go to the beach after finals. There was a tunnel to get across the highway. From the outside, it is a nondescript, white tunnel. But the inside was an explosion of color and figures. There were different versions of the crazy squirrel from Ice Age, a take on the Coca-Cola polar bears and so many other creatures. The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is all too true right now.

I was told that there are groups of art enthusiasts that come to Europe specifically to do graffiti. That sounds like an incredible way to spend your time. See the sights and leave your mark, too.

It was interesting to also notice that fast food chains were built right alongside historical monuments if they were not already a part of them. The highest-grossing McDonald’s in the world is right next to the Spanish Steps in Rome and just a few minutes from the Trevi Fountain. There is a Burger King in the heart of Vienna’s historic district, only a minute away from where Hitler declared his takeover of the city during World War II. Subway is right across from one of the first opera houses ever built.

It was jarring to me as someone who has grown up in America where most buildings of historic importance are generally protected by societies, museums or private patrons. I guess it is different in Europe where just about everything has some sort of historical importance—with, for example, a general that walked along a certain street, or a rebellion happened in a certain square.

Either way, the art and architecture along the trip was just as incredible and thought-provoking as the art and architecture we saw in the museums. I think I could have spent the whole time in each city just looking at the graffiti and still not have seen it all.