A spike in graffiti around us could mean we are in a downturn. Or it could mean something completely different.

It is hard to predict a recession. It is sometimes even hard to know if we are already in the middle of one. Just ask any economist who has struggled with reading the tea leaves of market indicators and indices. Given how complex it all is, economists tend to be overly cautious in calling a recession.

They could get past this opinion paralysis by looking up from their economic models and around them. One way to detect a downturn – at least in many parts of the globe – might be to study the literal writing on the wall. Graffiti has a close association with economic distress and social unrest even if many forms are now accepted as street art. Along with broken windows and litter, spray painted messages on walls and buildings have long served as stark symbols of urban decline.

It has other more menacing variants. For example, organized street gangs have been known to use special codes and symbols to mark their turf and keep out other gangs. For anyone walking or driving through an American inner city, the perceived degree of personal safety has an inverse relationship with the quantity of graffiti in the area.

In Athens, a city always known for its street art, graffiti skyrocketed in the wake of Greece’s economic crisis. As unemployment rose, disgruntled groups vented their ire against the government by planting less than flattering commentary on the city’s buildings.

More clandestine work popped up in Egypt following the Arab Spring of 2011 when Cairo’s political activists hit the streets, spray cans in hand, to ‘speak out’ against current developments. Where traditional media is restricted, graffiti can be a hard-hitting visual medium for dissent.

This may be why the street artist is often viewed as a rebel and underground activist – someone who works under the cover of darkness (as many of them do) to avoid being caught and penalized.

Although it is largely associated with contemporary cityscapes, graffiti is not a modern phenomenon. The earliest forms of such public expression can be traced to ancient Rome when political or social messages were scrawled wherever the space presented itself. If unauthorized etching on the walls of Pompeii – even if in Latin – seems sacrilegious now, we have to remember that these walls were less hallowed then and worked perfectly well as a medium for crude expression.

From those ancient origins, graffiti has had a mixed record leading up to modern times. It is sometimes dismissed as vandalism while, at other times, it is upheld as an important form of free speech.

City governments around the world cannot decide if it should be viewed as a problem, let alone find ways to tackle it. Sociologists who study urban patterns believe that a piece of graffiti on a wall can lead to an explosion of similar graphic messages in the vicinity. This is based on the premise that when a given space is already defaced, it lures others to add to the clutter. So, cities may be justified in stepping in to curb this trend. And where graffiti is directed at private spaces, it’s clearly a no-no. As someone is said to have rightly observed: “Your self-expression ends where my property begins.”

Still, it can be an effective way to revitalize cityscapes, clear historical baggage, or edge out other unattractive public notices and advertisements.

For example, the city of Philadelphia has commissioned large-scale murals to signal its economic and cultural resurgence. In Berlin, vibrant art on what’s still standing of the Berlin wall provides a colorful and symbolic counter-punch to cold war era animosity. And in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore, intricately painted Indian motifs on bridges and flyovers deter even die-hard bill posters and advertisers.

Beyond these sanctioned works, graffiti in India does not have the storied past or sociological implications that it has in other parts of the world. There are the usual bathroom variety messages on walls but the more evolved ones tend to be commercials for political parties, or city-sponsored appeals for civic responsibility. Scattered in between are bad likenesses of popular Bollywood figures. But with so much else – huge billboards, business signs, and posters – competing for our attention, graffiti tends to fade into the background in the Indian city. We are more likely to notice if the kabab joint down the road puts up a brand new sign with all the old typos fixed. Now that’s a sign of economic vitality.

Sangita Srinivasa is a writer and the editor of Viewpoint.