Nov, 8, 2015
By Lauren Gutierrez
Semiotics is the study of signs and their meaning. Graffiti art, being a highly visual medium, displays many semiotic images that are interpreted by viewers individually but have an overarching cultural and ideological perspective. Theories about the process by which these signs are understood have developed over time and are briefly broken down below. I will relate the terms back to this mural that I took a picture of near The Pie Hole pizzeria in downtown Salt Lake City, UT (about 350 S. State St.).
One of the first semiotics theorists was Ferdinand de Saussure who studied the relationship between signs and language which he called linguistic structuralism. He proposed that there was a signifier which was the word or depiction used to communicate the signified which is a mental image of what is being referred to. This signification between these two is relative to the context it’s in because the words we use only have the meaning we attach to them.
An example of a signifier in the mural above is the drawing of the bee in the far left side of the wall and the yellow honeycomb patterns. The signified is the idea of an actual bee and honeycomb. The signification in the context of it being in Salt Lake City could be a reference to our state insect, honey bees, and our state emblem, a beehive.
Another theorist was Roland Barthes who analyzed the interplay between social sciences and semiotics. Denotations are the first way signs are given meaning through literal description. Connotations are the societal meaning associated with the sign. A myth is a connotation that is widely held in society because of the dominant ideologies it represents.
For example the denotation of the mushrooms would be that they have red tops with white spots. The connotation is that they are a hallucinogenic psychoactive fungus. This is evident in the mythological depiction of them in the book Alice in Wonderland. In the story Alice meets a hookah smoking caterpillar who has her eat magic mushrooms which distort her reality by making her smaller and larger.
There was also philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce who identified three different ways we interpret signs. Iconic signs represent the object, indexical signs are directly linked to the object, and symbolic signs are randomly linked to the object.
On the left side of the mural there is an iconic sign of a butterfly with yellow wings. The purple scorpion could be an indexical sing of poison because it is directly associated. In the far right there is a symbolic sign for the Utah Utes which is a red U with a white and red feather. The meaning is not inherent but those who are familiar with the University of Utah know what it stands for.
I was trying to understand the meaning behind all the signs as a whole and could only come to the conclusion that it was about LSD or psychedelic mushrooms. The reason being that I couldn’t see the relationship between some of the elements like the rhino head, the rat eating cheese, and the fairy ladies. That specific type of mushroom however is know to be hallucinogenic, the saturated colors, creatures and geometric shapes also play to this idea of psychoactive images.
That’s why I believe the mural could be challenging dominant ideology that drugs are taboo since Utah tends to lean conservative. The counter culture in Utah is more ready and willing to discuss these topics and some are even open to experimentation. I don’t think there is a strong political or societal statement in this graffiti art but it is very surreal and attention grabbing.