The OED defines graffiti as writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place. When I think of graffiti, though, the connotations conjured are of spray-painted masterpieces on dilapidated windmills, unused warehouses, and on rusty trains. But the definition includes examples such as scribbles under library desks, in carrels, and the epitome: the bathroom stall. All of it is equally corralled under the term ‘graffiti’. But isn’t there a difference between crude scribbles above the toilet paper and flashy tags on the sides of buildings?
I think the work of Quinn Dombrowski shows that there is. Quinn is a University of Chicago grad who recently published a book about graffiti she found all over the U of C campus. While working at the campus library she started noticing the scribbles, and eventually she started taking pictures and compiling information on what exactly they were all about. Being in college myself, in a school comparable (intellectually) to the U of C, I’ve seen doodles, notes, and other scribbles in classrooms, on desks, all over the library, and even on a tree. Most I found, like many Quinn found, were topical, and usually responses to the academic stressors of the day: “fuck chemistry”; “be happy”; “I just wanted to say I LOVE Ugly Betty!”; and others of the sort. But what makes them do it? Does enacting their thoughts on a public medium make it art?
I don’t think so. A lot of the scribbles I’ve seen (and some that I’ve done) have been with little intended thought; they’ve been accessories to other activities, such as a class lecture. I like to think that they can also be forms of escape, a little break in between the hours of study most students do in the library. What do you do with that fleeting thought of smores when you’re supposed to be studying the Byzantine Empire? Write it down, get it out, translate it, and move on. The act of scratching it onto a surface has a transferring effect; it shifts the focus from an internal feeling or sensation to an external symbol. It retains its personal meaning while also clearing the head of the person who did it. They can look at it later, and get a laugh, because when they’re looking at it they’re thinking exactly the same thing as they were when they did first scribble it down. The intention is automatic, fleeting, cathartic, and though art can emerge from those moments, in this case it doesn’t for the artist, making me hesitant to call it art.
Where I think the art comes in, then, is the response.
Working on a paper is a private, searching, strenuous activity, and when I look up for a moment and see some scribbles in someone else’s hand, and see the words they wrote, it strikes me a little. This graffiti is so private, often containing messages like “I’m the only one, alone” or depressive quotes by great thinkers (Nietzsche gets so many fist-bumps here it must look like he just finished a Bloody Knuckles tournament). Yet the public access to it all sheds it in a more humorous light, and this is where the response comes in. Like a review, a critique, the response calls one artist to reflect on the work of another. By responding to the first piece, it is no longer escaping; it has intent. Whether that intent is to be a smart-ass, or to expand upon the ideas, or to debunk them, it internalizes an external force, and then shoves it out again. The world is not only looked at, but responded to, and in a little way, understood.
This type of response, I believe, is characteristic of someone who constantly searching for knowledge, for understanding. The influential critic and essayist Walter Pater said that, “To burn always with [a] hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life,” and these scribbles, this art of graffiti allows people to do that, both in a private and public way. The response is like an act: perfectly calculated to elicit a response. In the online forum/blog/vlog world, this is manifested perfectly in the “troll”, or those unscrupulous internet bottom-dwellers who formulate their posts to aggravate and enervate others. With graffiti, it can take that guise as well; more often, however, is its use as a form of showmanship. In one of the (mens) bathrooms in Olin at Whitman College (which I attend) there are a cluster of puns above one of the urinals. They all present different pop culture references tying in the word ‘grout’, which i applicable for obvious reasons. Some of my personal favorites are “Grout Fishing in America”, “The Great Groutsby”, and “Grout Scott!”. It’s impossible to tell which one originated it all, and the handwriting suggests multiple contributors. Each one toiled over a specific response, one that they believed could ‘one-up’ another persons, or provide a more-obscure reference (thus enhancing cred). Or they could have added their response simply to give themselves a laugh, and hope that others do too. Maybe they don’t even care about why they did it.
The important part, though, is that they all privately contributed to a public happening. Their participation has literally made the walls alive, turned a mundane, everyday activity into a brain-teasing venture. Every new stroke and line they make revives the art, makes it fluid again. It;s like that moment where you put on HD glasses for the first time and everything pops and you think you’re staring into the sun but it’s just too good to look away. It’s a public, cohesive collage that, amazingly enough, required no coercion, no suggestion, not even compliance; it instead is birthed of an organic force, evolving like a species, taking the good, strong, hilarious, insightful, heartfelt ideas and expanding and tempering them. At the same time, it abandons and eliminates the poor, malicious, and misguided ideas, or molds them into more pleasing shapes. It allows a connection between people to be established without any contact, without any prior knowledge. There’s just this meeting, this simple meeting, this beautiful symposium between multiple minds, framed physically by the size of the bathroom tiles, but framed mentally by the willingness for one person to connect with others.