With and without signs: the daily maintenance of urban orders

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 2.

Jérôme Denis and David Pontille
Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation

Georg Simmel (1971) famously pointed this out, and it is at the very centre of scholarship in epigraphy : signs are a crucial feature of urban fabric. There are basically two kinds of graphic components in the city. One the one hand, official signs shape the urban institutional graphic landscape: from monumental writings (generally on pediments and façades) to the most functional ones (e.g. road markings, street nameplates, directional signs, traffic lights…), or commercial brands (e.g. shop signs and billboards). On the other hand, countless unsolicited, and more or less perennial, inscriptions proliferate in urban settings (e.g. posters, graffiti, stickers, banners…). As anecdotal as they may appear, all these graphic elements are a matter of social order. The governance of the city as a public place goes through an investment in the presence of some of these signs (Latour and Herman, 1998) and the absence of some others (Artières, 2017). This “graphic ordering” is organized through official rules, such as municipal laws, that define which inscriptions are acceptable, which are mandatory, and which are unwelcomed. Upholding these rules, requires though a specific work to make sure that this graphic order is maintained on the street on a day-to-day basis.

Let’s consider two quintessential cases we had the opportunity to investigate (Denis and Pontille, 2014, 2019): subway signs and graffiti in Paris. Keeping the former and eliminating the latter is crucial to how the city looks like and how it is experienced. Maintaining Paris as the City of Light is the fragile and provisory result of the ceaseless daily activity of teams of workers who take care of these signs on the streets and the subway stations. Without the work of subway workers, signboards would not remain in place very long as they would fall, fade, rust or be stolen… Similarly, graffiti would saturate the city in a few weeks if nobody looked after the walls of Paris and clean them every single day.

The material and symbolic urban order performed by the presence and absence of these signs needs to be endlessly enacted and reenacted by maintainers and maintenance work. But what exactly do these maintainers do? What characterizes this maintenance work?

A first important feature of these activities lies in their repetitiveness. Maintenance is indeed a matter of pace. And when it comes to the presence and absence of urban inscriptions, the pace is intense. The standards in the Paris transportation system specify that any missing, worn out or obsolete signboard has to be replaced within 3 weeks. The two maintenance teams dedicated to signage maintenance work every day from 6.30 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. Paris’s graffiti removal municipal policy is outsourced to companies whose workers have to operate “from Monday to Saturday, except on public holidays, in the time slot 7:00 a.m. / 10:00 p.m.”. Each ‘regular’ graffiti must be removed within ten working days after its detection, while those that are “offensive, pornographic or prejudicial to public order” have to be erased in three hours, 24/7.

Another key aspect of maintenance is site inspection. Every morning, before the opening of a subway station, its superintendent goes through the corridors, platforms and halls to check the general condition of the place, with a form in her hand. At the end of her round, she reports any problems to the maintenance departments. As for graffiti, detection and reporting workers patrol every day the neighborhoods for which they are responsible to spot graffiti that must be removed within the prescribed time frame. During these endlessly repeated activities, maintenance workers cultivate a close attention to their surroundings. The urban order they contribute to maintaining draws on an awareness to often microscopic, almost imperceptible disorders. In subway stations, each transformation that occurs on signs (traces of rust or mold, fading colors) is considered a problem that has to be identified and taken care of. So is, of course, the very disappearance of signs, which is particularly difficult to detect. In the case of graffiti, workers must be able to detect and remove as quickly as possible any unsolicited inscription, however small, that may be seen as potential threat to the social order. Maintenance thus relies on specific visual skills that the workers develop to spot tiny flaws and marks of an emerging disorder that is not publicly identified yet. Such attention to details and symptoms of what is considered “disorder” is one of the distinctive features of maintenance compared to repair: rather than “bringing things back” to order after a “breakdown” occurred, maintainers subtly work every day to prevent failure and collapse. To achieve this, maintenance workers foster a very particular relationship with the materiality of the urban environment.  They have to be attuned to the varying fragility of the different materials that make up order of the city, from plastic, wood, and marble, to concrete, plaster, bricks, water, or PVC. 

Taking this maintenance work into consideration invites to analyze a key, but often neglected array of practices through which the fabric of urban orders is accomplished. Whether it is a matter of organizing urban places by installing signs regulating the displacements of city dwellers, or eliminating those considered as threats, the ordering of the city is never done once and for all. It always draws on the thoughtful commitment of maintenance workers who care every day for the most mundane materials the city is made of.



Artières Ph., 2017, “Policing Writing in the City, 1852–1945: The Invention of Scriptural Delinquency”, in M. Lyons and R. Marquilhas (eds) Approaches to the History of Written Culture: A World Inscribed, Springer, p. 183–201.

Denis J. and Pontille D., 2014, “Maintenance Work and the Performativity of Urban Inscriptions: the Case of Paris Subway Signs”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 32(3), p. 404–416.

Denis J. and Pontille D., 2019, “The Multiple Walls of Graffiti Removal. Maintenance and Urban Assemblage in Paris”, in A.M. Brighenti, M. Kärrholm (eds.), Urban Walls. Political and Cultural Meanings of Vertical Structures and Surfaces, Routledge, p. 215–235.

Latour B. and Hermant É., 1998, Paris ville invisible, Paris: Les empêcheurs de penser en rond / La Découverte. 

Simmel G., 1971 [1903], “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, in D. Levine (ed.), Simmel: On Individuality and Social Forms, Chicago: Chicago University Press, p. 324–339.