I have graffitied. Is that a word? What do you call the act of creating graffiti? Technically, the act must include either painting, or drawing, or in my case, carving. I have scratched my initials all over. Every desk I ever sat in during high school has the letters JAS carved in some inconspicuous place. Inconspicuous is relative, of course. On a desk marred by previous occupiers, sometimes it was a struggle just to find room for my mark.
Wikipedia tells me that the word comes from the Italian word for ‘scratch’ and a Greek word for ‘write.’ Probably could have guessed that. As long as there have been the tools for scratching, there has been graffiti. Graffiti is like laughter and smiles, it is universally human and needs no translation. The oldest graffiti I ever saw was in Rome – I don’t remember the particulars, but I remember a tour guide pointing out the marks made by bored soldiers on ancient walls. Those marks, more than anything else I saw in that place of over-preserved history, made me feel connected to the people who actually lived there all those thousands of years ago. They were just like me. Somewhere in that soldiers mind was the realization that he wouldn’t be alive forever. He needed to tell someone, anyone, even a silly tourist two thousand years in the future, that he was there.
A train ride leaving any city will afford the best view of graffiti for the casual admirer. Philadelphia, my current city, has an excellent permanent display upon leaving 3oth street station for points north. Permanent in that there is always graffiti to see, the art itself changes every day.
I think that is what makes it so beautiful. Nothing defines the term ephemeral better than a true work of art sprayed on the back of an abandoned building, with imminent whitewashing as its only sure future.
Philadelphia is special when it comes to graffiti. “Philadelphia has more public art than any other American city, according to a recent survey of outdoor sculpture sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.” (visitphilly.com) Part of that public art is the “Mural Arts Program” in which the city hires graffiti artists to create ‘legitimate’ art in the form of huge murals on the sides of building all over the city. Honestly, it is a wonderful thing to walk along a city street, turn a corner and see a huge work of art – just out there, exposed to the world, no glass or membership fees. A free feast for the eyes.
Amazing and unexpected, like graffiti, but don’t call it that. It is missing the risk, the danger, the spontaneity, and yes, that ephemeralness that is at the core of true graffiti.
Graffiti is more than grand art or simple destruction of property. It is an individual putting his mark on a place outside of himself. It is a cry into the infinite void of time.
With my protractor in my fist, I carved the J, the A, the S. But what I meant to say was, Please remember me. I was here. I was born, I lived, and I will die someday. Do not forget me when I’m gone.