Sunday, May 22, 2011


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.


  1. Nomina stultorum parietibus haerent. (The names of foolish persons adhere to walls.)


  2. Does the quality of graffiti improve when it infiltrates Academe?
    No, I guess not.

  3. Speaking of that "yarn-bombing" trend and the art (or lessness thereof) of graffiti: Christo and his wife get paid obscene sums to litter public spaces with their grandiose paraphernalia resembling monstrously grotesque, flamboyantly promiscuous origami. What they do could be called respectably chic vandalism.

    In fact, I have a bright idea for Christo's next project: He and his wife could spend weeks wrapping over a thousand of the victim of famine and genocide in Sudan in long winding wreaths of pastel lavender and lemon-yellow tissue -- and get paid ten million francs by their patrons.

  4. Mr. Simon observed, about the appearance of graffiti:

    Those large, loping, motley letters, usually in wavy lines, have a conceivable claim to be abstract art, or, at the very least, conceptual art...

    I have noticed this too, and at times I have been reminded of Arabic calligraphy (which, by the way, is integrated in Islamic architecture along with all its other dizzyingly -- and perhaps mesmerizingly -- plateresque geometrics of abstract art that is commanded by their religious laws to supplant all representational art). Speaking of that, it's a wonder Muslims haven't seen the offense of their word for "Allah" (or "Muhammad") on a wall, as for example, some of them did in the swirl of ice cream of a Burger King in London in 2005 ( or in the Nike shoe logo (, or in the word "Coca-Cola" on cans:

    From the Guardian in 2005:

    Abu Ream, a shop owner in Baghdad, repeated a widespread conspiracy theory: "If you hold up a Coke can to the mirror, the writing says 'No Allah'," Mr Ream said. "Or maybe 'No Mohammad'. I can't remember which."...

    Or perhaps some of the graffiti we are seeing increasingly are in fact spray-painted ayat from the Koran. Someone should hire an Arabist to ride commuter trains in various cities (not only in the U.S. but also in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Rome, etc.) to see whether there may not be random messages of peace, love and harmony from members of the great Religion of Peace, practicing the form of Jihad-al-Kalam ("Jihad of the Pen" -- or in this case, of the can) that in that culture at least is not deemed mightier than the Jihad-al-Saif ("Jihad of the Sword") (unless, perhaps, as practiced by the character played by Joe Pesci in Casino).

  5. Another thought on "[t]hose large, loping, motley letters, usually in wavy lines..." as Mr. Simon aptly characterizes graffiti:

    Those characteristics, in part, may be due to the following:

    1) the necessity of hasty application, lest the graffitists get caught

    2) the influence of cartoons and animation on the youths who do most of the graffiti

    3) the apparatus of the medium -- the very act of aiming a spray-can of paint (I doubt many graffitists stand there paint-brush in hand) in order to delineate some logo or other would seem to force, at least somewhat, a "loping" curvature effect on the result

    and, perhaps,

    4) the personality of the graffitists themselves, which may be sallow, callow, gauntly nihilistic, parasitically anarchistic, with an unhealthy dose of apolitical anomie thrown in -- all somehow conducive to expressing one's self in cartoonishly cryptic gibberish meant to be simultaneously portentous and flippant.

    There is a way, I think, for a graffitist to produce something at least more aesthetically pleasing, and perhaps even artistic: he or she would take a giant sheet of paper and cut various shapes into it, quickly tape the paper to a wall (requiring perhaps a ladder for the upper corners), then spray paint the surface of the paper (either with one spray can or more, if several colors here and there are desired). The sprayed paint will only go through the cut holes and -- if the graffitist is also a talented scissorist -- could produce a much more precise and possibly pleasing result.

  6. "...the personality of the graffitists themselves, which may be sallow, callow, gauntly nihilistic, parasitically anarchistic, with an unhealthy dose of apolitical anomie thrown in...."

    Come, come Hesperado: don't those words also describe some of the major artists of the last century? Novelists? Painters? Musicians?

  7. You have a point there, Joe. I need to add some more adjectives and adverbs to distinguish the graffitists -- if they are so distinguished.

  8. As an indirectly related aside, I wonder what John Simon thinks of Robert Hughes. Any thought, even if characteristically as terse as a crumb or drop that barely sustains a hungry or thirsty reader, would be welcome.

  9. Mies van der Rohe (as his original surname was Mies, it should be included).


    And Hesperado, as Christo's wife Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, it's highly unlikely she'll be wrapping anything further in the future.