Protest Art and the Art of Protest

By: Reyshimar Arguelles

If we were to trace the etymology of the word “vandalism,” we would be led to one of many barbaric tribes that resisted the Roman Empire. The Vandals were thought to be a warlike people whose only motivations were to plunder and pillage and lay waste to an Empire that became the epitome of high culture.

Hence, the destructive and uncivilized exploits of the Vandals is forever ingrained in modern lexicon. It has become the root word for the lowbrow act of defacing public and private property. Spray painting public walls has come to mean the very same thing that the Vandals were supposed to be notorious for.

But what is lost from this view of the Vandals is the fact that, like other barbarian groups outside of Rome, they have controlled large swathes of territory as the Empire’s power declined, even to the point of controlling the Empire’s food supply in the conquest of North Africa and Southern Italy. In 455 AD, the engagement between a Roman princess and a Vandal noble broke, prompting the Vandal King Genseric to march into Rome in retaliation.

What ensued, however, was nothing like the events depicted in encyclopedias and history books for elementary school students. The Vandals did sack Rome, but they did so without shedding the blood of its citizens and putting its buildings to the torch.

However, much of the buildings they ransacked belonged to the Catholic Church. The Vandals believed in a paganistic form of Christianity and focused much of their rampage against the members of the clergy. Churches were looted of their treasures and many of its members were persecuted, causing a grudge that had led the Church’s adherents people to relate any form of desecration to what the Vandals had done.

But all the same, the damage that the Vandals caused was less than anything other barbarian groups had done.

Nonetheless, the indignity that the Romans faced at the hands of an “uncivilized” people was met with disgust. From then on, Vandals have become the face of everything that opposes civilized culture. The modern vandal, stripped of its sword and shield and now wields a spray paint, is no different from the hordes that plundered Rome.

Taking all this into account, we should all be furious in the same vein as Manila Mayor Isko Moreno when protesters spray painted the walls of the Lagusnilad underpass with revolutionary messages. Ever since he got elected, Moreno was keen on cleaning up Manila, starting with decongesting its passages of vendors and scrubbing off graffiti that permeated the city.

The recent demonstration of protest art angered Moreno so much that he, and the rest of the yorme bandwagoners, would like to see the perpetrators clean their masterpiece off using their own tongues.

Eventually, a youth group that came clean to the act apologized for what they have done, but insisted on the intended effect of the graffiti they have made. The art of protest, after all, is about expressing discontent with the use of methods that aim to shock those who are comfortable with the way things are.

Vandalism, for all its purposes, strayed from downright pillaging to using spray paint to express a political thought. But again, there is no distinction among actions that are forced into the same category as those of the Vandals. Hence, should we not describe how our politicians conduct themselves as similar to how the Vandals acted in as they marched into Rome? Should we not be irked by the form of vandalism that local politicians demonstrate as they plunder public coffers for their own advantage? Should we also not be irked by the disgrace that Chinese incursions into Philippine waters has wrought, and with the blessing of the Duterte administration to boot?


At the very least, the Vandals and those who did the protest art conducted themselves honorably by limiting the amount of damage they cause and apologizing for their actions. And not once did convicted thieves in power have not owned up to the desecration they have caused.

We’re better off spray painting their thick faces instead.