I took a walk down by a train overpass near my apartment the other day which was - predictably enough - covered with graffitti, and it occurred to me how terribly annoying all of it was. Not its mere existence, no - I'm not particularly fond of graffitti, but I've come to accept it as an unavoidable part of the urban landscape. Rather, I was irritated by the low quality of the graffitti. I mean, who really cares "BILLY + LISA" intend to maintain their "LUV 4EVA" or that "TOMMY" presumably was there? And "TRUST JESUS" - come on, people!

I think the same standards we use here should apply to graffitti. After all, isn't something painted on that overpass that'll still be legible in a decade or two as close to "for the ages" as we get these days? Granted, some graffitti is intended as an affront to someone else's territory - as a play in some sort of dominance game. That's okay; it's like a day log, nobody really cares what's in it. But as for the rest: put some effort into it! People are going to be reading it - make it useful, or at least interesting! Sure, there are length constraints, but a few words can mean a lot to someone. For example, instead of,


why not write something helpful like


If I have no idea who Tonja is when your graffitti is brand new, what meaning is it likely to have to someone else, in 10 years? And chances are, your average reader isn't going to care about Tonja's sexual proclivities. He or she probably will, however, be overdue in calling mom, and probably isn't eating as well as he or she should. Likewise:


only makes me think about what a loser you are. Why not try


instead? Sure, I've seen it before, but it's cute and worth a little thought, especially because it's up on an overpass! Take advantage of your medium! Finally, if you just have to make some reference to mass culture, don't bother with dogs like


Bah. It's trite, overdone, and uninteresting to just about everyone. Dig deeper, go with something like


Many people won't get it, it'll make some angry, and others will think it's the coolest thing they've ever seen. Isn't that what writing is all about?

If all else fails, take your cue from the ancient masters. For example, look at the walls in Pompeii:

Admiror, paries, te non cedidisse ruina,
qui tot scriptorum taedia sustineas

I'm amazed, wall, that you haven't fallen down in ruin
since you hold up the wearisome scratches of so many writers!

It's relatively clever, and it's an elegiac couplet (dactylic hexameter in the first line, pentameter in the second.) I doubt BILLY + LISA have even heard of an elegiac couplet.1 Or, if you aren't into rhyme or meter, how about haiku?


Obviously, I'm not asking for Shakespeare. All I'm saying is this: that overpass is not a BBS. It needs more actual content - get to work!

1 Of course, there were also plenty of examples like Stronnius nil scit ("Stronnius knows nothing") so perhaps it's just human nature to do a half-assed job when defacing public property.

Since I've been going to school in the city, I've seen a lot of graffiti. After a couple months, I really started noticing it. A lot of it was dumb, pointless, insulting. And some of it was good, really good. Here I'm writing about some of the good and some of the bad, in the hopes that some aspiring vandals and public artists will see, at least in one passer-by's eyes, what kind of response things get.


One of the first ones that really made me think is on the north side of west 21st Street, between 6th and 7th avenues. When the cement in the sidewalk was wet, someone scratched into it "ETHEL + JULIUS", with a Star of David where the + or & or would go. It took seeing it several times for it to hit me; Ethel & Julius Rosenberg? I still haven't guessed what it might mean. It's not as if it's in front of a judicial building or some other symbol of the authority that condemned them; it's in front of a residence between a hardware store and an art school.

Black Hawk Down posters

These are certainly not "tagging for the ages", as any advertisement has a necessarily limited life, but in the spirit of encouraging thought-provoking graffiti, I'd like to share two examples of how to do it wrong and one of how to do it right.

In the pedestrian tunnel between the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the Times Square subway station, there's a ton of posters (and one poem...). When Black Hawk Down was in theatres, there were several identical posters there, with a soldier leaning out of the door of one of the titular helicopters, holding his rifle. Three in the tunnel were defaced; all in different ways.

  • First, some wag had taken his Sharpie and scribbled out the middle word in the title, writing another word below it, with results as follows:
    Crude, juvenile, unamusing and pointless. Next!
  • Another amateur commentator had tried to influence the spectator with their comments. Here the defacing went like this:
    (peace NOT WAR
    Despite the clever juxtaposition of horizontal and vertical phrases, our writer here does not tell us anything new or interesting. "So, you don't like wars, eh?" I would like to say to him or her, "What do you want, a medal? Of course not. However, no other acclaim will be forthcoming."
  • And then I came upon something that really hit me hard. Someone had simply taken about eight inches or a foot of half-inch black electrical tape and placed it across the pictured soldier's face, completely covering his eyes. "Who," I thought to myself, "Is normally shown in such a way, with a black stripe over their eyes?"
    People whose identities need to be concealed. People such as:
    • Criminals
    • Victims
    • Witnesses
    Which of the above would you say our American soldier in Mogadishu was? What did the placer of the tape think he was? This may be a hard thing to determine, but it's surely a more interesting and meaningful question than I or most other people (I assume) usually ask ourselves on our morning commute.

Walls in West Chelsea

A few times in Chelsea on the west side, visiting galleries, I've seen some interesting graffiti - the area being a mix of art galleries and warehouses, only a short walk from residences and busier establishments but with a narrow range of interest for visitors, the people who walk through the westmost blocks of the teens and twenties of streets must be a rather particular crowd. Here's one day's set of observations, again a pair of misses and one hit.

  • "YOUR ARE NOT REAL" - I can't help but wonder about this one. Clearly trying to say something more than "I was here", but confusing, mis-written, and undirected...
  • "I GRAFFITIED OVER THE BAD GRAFFITI -Memphis" - The real humor in this one is that it was on a wall with almost no other graffiti on it, and nothing crossed out or painted over. The problem with it is that if anyone else paints other stuff around it, that's clearly not done over something else, Memphis will look a bit foolish. Based on a /msg from jasonm, I'm coming to think that Memphis' point may be that any decoration on the outside of a building, even the base color of the walls, is as valid or invalid as graffiti is, and that people have a right to alter or improve it.
  • "PRETTY GIRL CEASE TO EXIST" - Ever felt this way? That you can't bear to be around someone anymore because your feelings towards them are too positive, and they won't have it, and it just destroys the possibility of interaction between you? I imagine the guy who felt that if he and the object of his affection could not be together he'd rather be without her presence completely, who felt that and had no one to tell it to except anonymous strangers, and I feel sad that such circumstances must befall people. This is the type of tag that I hope stays there forever.
    This is kind of like Teen Bride Im Sorry.

Billboards in West Chelsea

Yeah, so advertising is in one sense the opposite of graffiti. But both are publicly visible, and seek to communicate something and to implant themself in the viewer's memory. And if you just print a message on a billboard, and don't put a name or copyright or anything on it, what more is that than licensed, paid-for graffiti?

In the same area as the last three messages there's a few billboards, owned by the Vista Media company, that just have black text on a white background, and nothing else. No company name, no copyright, nada. They're clearly out to say some particular thing, and have no effect beyond getting themself into the mind of the viewer. The once I've seen so far are as follows: (They're changed every so often)

I had no idea what to think or say about any of these. I have no idea what they're trying to say with these. All it communicated to me is that someone thinks their ideas are better than mine, and are trying to tell me what to think or how to act in the least subtle manner possible. These are not the sort of public communication that leaves a lasting impression on people of the intended message, I think.

In Conclusion

If you're writing graffiti and you want people to think after they look at it, just put out a simple idea, or an observation you think most of your audience can relate to. And make it articulate and modest - it will surprise people. Once your mark is guaranteed to be big and obvious, as spray paint and such always will be, simplicity and unpretentiousness are not what people will expect from it, and will lend the graffiti a type credibility that a 4-foot-high day-glo wildstyle name will never really have. Paint will always come off walls whether or not people decide to get rid of it, but all the rain and sandblasting in the world won't eradicate a thought from the mind of one who adopts it.

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