The martyr is a universal archetype. Someone who dies for a cause, someone who is victimized for their beliefs. Every society has one. Blame it on religion. Blame it on backward concepts of national identity, of personal sacrifice. It would be a relief if we could somehow rid ourselves of the notion that we might give our lives for a greater good, when that ‘good’ is usually questionable. For example, how reasonable is it to justify a suicide bombing? Of what benefit is it to give one’s life serving in Afghanistan? It might be of benefit to one’s military comrades. But the big picture is often different.
Martyrdom has its uses, though. Aesthetically, it can be repurposed to highlight social injustice. Take, for example, this Torino street sign. Three blocks away from my apartment, it is striking how it reconciles a Christ-like figure, with allusions to the famous image of the hooded figure in Abu Ghraib. The hint is faint, but it is also inescapable. Attached to a directional sign, towards a dead end, the meaning is somewhat clear. It conveys an anti-religious message. The red, white and blue colors are not lost on the viewer, either.
A little cynicism, however, goes a long way. Such is the case with this no entry sign, a common dÃ©tournement in central Torino. Chalk it up to an enterprising art student, or proto-Situationists interested in messing with traffic, this version is a lot more fun to consider when seen next to this particular street name. “Martyrs of Freedom,” the anti-fascist reference, is given a different meaning in light of the refashioning of the street sign. Uncritical of the struggle against fascism, one can still surmise a bit of weariness with the “Martyrs” title. Whether it’s against fascism, or whatever, we all have our crosses to bear.