I have often wondered about graffiti, the spray-painted writs on walls I perceive from the windows of my commuter train. What person or persons can be responsible for them? How do their perpetrators remain unseen and unknown? Why do they all look so alike? What are these inscriptions saying? Is there a possible argument on behalf of them?
Norman Mailer published an article in the New York Times Magazine praising their beauty and defending them as art. He may not be their only champion, though I myself know nobody who endorses them. I consider them eyesores.
To be sure, they appear on the drab walls of dreary, often uninhabited, buildings. I don’t know that any reputable architect ever built an edifice along these train routes and begging for such bedizening. And if there were a Gropius or Le Corbusier, a Van der Rohe or Alto by the tracks, the scribbler’s hand, awe-struck, might spare it. The question is whether even dilapidation is improved by graffiti.
The train goes by too fast for me to decipher these inscriptions. The proud names of the scribes may be displayed. As my father used to say about names cut into the bark of trees, “Nomina stultorum . . .” (the names of fools), but he always ended in aposiopesis, and I was never able to track down the rest of that Latin adage. However, injuring a living thing like a tree is far worse than spraying a wall. Still, these amoral muralists probably prefer anonymity to avoid apprehension.
But are graffiti truly eyesores? Those large, loping, motley letters, usually in wavy lines, have a conceivable claim to be abstract art, or, at the very least, conceptual art, where whatever the perpetrator proclaims to be art, ipso facto becomes it. To me, saying so doesn’t make it so; indeed, I have trouble even with some established abstract artists, whose work is arbitrary, pleasing some, but boring others. Yet few people have the gumption to call a daub a daub. Obsolete or philistine, I prefer representation, however academic or unoriginal.
The curious thing, though, is the mysterious invisibility of the graffitists. Why is the script always more or less the same, and not just in size, which, granted, the spray gun could not make smaller. Why such uniformity? Is there a school that turns out regimented graffitists, or is this the evenhanded hand of God, which, you’ll recall, did write out a warning on the wall of an Assyrian king. Neither seems likely. Then how do the graffitists remain unobserved, even if they work in the wee hours? It is clearly a mystery, but it shouldn’t become a mystique.
To be sure, there is a human yearning for testimony: I lived, I was there, I deserve my bit of immortality. But is every bequest to posterity of equal, indeed any, value? Especially when it can readily be erased or painted over. Still, it may no be a plea for afterlife; it may be there simply for the delectation of the living culprit, who may keep anonymously revisiting the site of his crime and relishing his achievement.
It is not as if writing on walls were ipso fact unsightly. Egyptian hieroglyphs are very easy on the eye even if meaningless to those who can’t read them. They are decorative in their delicacy, something that the modern graffitist cannot claim for his sprawling, heavy, gross and monotonous doodling. To be sure, repetitiousness is earning millions for Warhol, or his heirs; but then, I wouldn’t want a Warhol on my wall either.
Perhaps one of these days my train will break down (it is known to happen) alongside one of these graffiti-bedecked walls, and I’ll be able to decipher its message. Could it be as momentous as the texts in Chinese fortune cookies, which, by the way, have become less pertinent than they used to be.
By a curious coincidence, the day after I wrote this the Times came out (5/19/11) with an article about another kind of “cozy, feminine” graffiti known as yarn bombing, and popping up internationally. We read: “It takes that most matronly craft (knitting) and that most maternal of gestures (wrapping something cold in a warm blanket) and transfers it to the concrete and steel wilds of the urban streetscape. Hydrants, lampposts, mailboxes, bicycles, cars—even objects as big as buses and bridges—have all been bombed in recent years, ever so softly and usually at night.” A yarn bomber, Jessie Hemmons, age 24, is quoted as saying, “Street art and graffiti are usually so male dominated. Yarn bombing is more feminine. It’s like graffiti with grandma sweaters.”
There are evidently no lengths to which would-be artists won’t go to invent arts that can be practiced by the talentless. But you have to hand it to these women that their undertakings are more difficult and gutsy than the spray-painted male version. To see the Hemmons fuchsia-colored, hooded, woolly vest on the bronze Rocky statue near the Philadelphia Museum of Art is at the very least amusing. Which is more than you can say for those charmless male graffiti that are no laughing matter.